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It certainly has been a week of contrasts: yesterday I was at the opening night of The 39 Steps, a frantic frolic, and tonight I was at the opening night of Sex with a Stranger, a very intimate and pared-back performance. Interestingly they both had very small casts (just four and three) but the staging and style of theatre could not have been more different.

I had not been to Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester’s latest fringe venue, before and it was a real treat. A great atmosphere – very ‘Northern Quarter’ stripped-back industrial, with lovely vintage touches. Many of the audience seemed to have come in small groups and I imagine it would be a very convivial place to come for a coffee and a snack or a couple of drinks and a chat, before/after a show.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get chance to ask whether the theatre seating had been specifically placed for the performance, or whether it is a standard setup and, if I have a little personal criticism, it was of this. This was a very intimate space, with maybe just 60/70 seats, placed very much side by side. If this was a device to enhance the atmosphere of the piece, to raise issues of intimacy, then I would say it certainly made everyone very aware of their personal space and also I certainly felt that, at times, it was quite hard to know where to look, without making direct eye contact with the cast or fellow audience members, all of whom we only a matter of a few feet away. The front row seats were effectively within in the performing space and there were times when the experience was so immersive that I found it hard to stop myself from providing responses to the dialogue! On the plus side this is the beauty of this kind of venue, in the way that it can challenge the audience, both with content and the physical space.

The play’s title set us up for what was to come, I suppose, however it was not as cut and dried as the first third might have suggested. It started with the male character, Adam, on a night out with his friends, picking up a girl called Grace in a nightclub. Although it initially seemed that they were the main protagonists, it soon became clear that there was another woman (his long-term partner) in the mix. Grace came across as a vulnerable, slightly endearing (if annoying), character, whereas Adam was more of a player, and his intentions seemed more defined. With a very simple set and minimal props, the spotlight was very much on the acting, and the cast gave very assured and convincing performances.

I must confess to having researched the play briefly beforehand, and it was actually far more humorous, and less bleak, than I had been led to expect. There were a lot of awkward moments between Adam and Grace, which were shared by the audience, but which served to provide some light relief and balance the underlying tension that other scenes evoked. This is a very unsettling play and it left the audience with some unanswered questions.

This is interesting, intimate, uneasy theatre – the kind of thing that I must confess I don’t go to as often as I would like. The audience is totally immersed in the experience and it really makes you think. I love the fact that we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy an amazing range of theatre on our doorstep: musicals, Shakespeare, farce, drama, comedy, tragedy and so much more, in an incredibly exciting range of venues, and all at great prices.

I guess many people are like me and find that life takes over sometimes. It’s easier to be passive and throw a flyer in the bin, or think it’s too much trouble to go out, and settle down to watch a boxset. If I have some advice, however, then it’s to get out there and explore what’s on offer – it can be inspiring, exciting, thought-provoking and great fun, and there is really nothing to rival the live theatre experience.

Sex with a Stranger is on at Hope Mill Theatre until 24th June.

Reviewed by Carole Ogden for Bolton Live.

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