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53Two Theatre top off fantastic year with unique Christmas show

53two has capped off a remarkable year with diverse and acclaimed productions, and their latest venture, "Bear Left," is a Christmas story set in a service station, proming to be a unique and heartwarming addition to the holiday festivities.

53two has had quite a year in 2022.

They have had a string of productions which have earned great reviews, including Simon Stephens’ Pornography, the return of JB Shorts, Bricks and John O’Neil’s Coke Machines, Stars and Kisses.

Add the fact that they have received some funding to make the venue fully accessible and they were chosen to host the premiere of the new season of Brassic.

Looking back, it makes you realise that small is beautiful and there is room for everyone in the Manchester arts and culture scene.

Their next production is Bear Left, a Christmas story set in a service station. We caught up with Simon Naylor to find out more.

Where did the idea for Bear Left come from?

Bear Left was born after watching Bricks at 53two. It was actually Ollie Mills’ partner, Lorna, who was convinced that all 6 shorts would somehow all ‘meet’ at the end. Although they didn’t, this got Ollie’s brain working and from there, it was a hundred discussions over a hundred and one coffees. We knew we liked the idea of interweaving short stories but the next question was ‘where?’.

Initially, we thought train – a place where lives meet that might not normally do so, but, a train is a very difficult thing to stage. My parents (and it seems many others!) used to meet at Service Stations to drop us off when we were swapping between who we stayed with, as youngsters. It made sense – halfway between houses and each shared the driving equally. I also spend a lot of time on the road presenting and actually, not so secretly, love Service Stations.

I can still really vividly remember some of the things I’ve seen at these motorway stops – some of which feature in Bear Left. These little tiny ideas and a desire to produce something wonderful and open to all, led us to the fictional Pinkerford Service Station – a place where worlds meet, people share moments in time, coffee warms us, sausage rolls fill us and perhaps memories are made. Wrap this up with it being the 24th of December and add a sprinkling of everybody driving home fro Christmas – whatever their beliefs – and we had what myself and Ollie called ‘a plan’.

What attracted you to the script/concept?

 Given that we have created this idea from scratch, there was, for the first time in 53two history, no script to be attracted to. There was, however, the brilliant Ollie and Imaginality Productions who gave us Realms Of Glory last year. Ollie is a genius musician (and I don’t use that word lightly!). His writing is incredible and so I knew with a good idea and Ollie’s talents, I could come along for the ride and maybe help create something magical. We invited a team of writers which, for us, is new. Each writer brings something different, a different life experience. The concept itself is attractive because it takes what we know – 6 short plays in one evening – and throws them in a mixing bowl.

The recognisable duologue, stand-alone scenes and patchwork of vignettes become far more. Lives interweave as you would never imagine and we take a framework that exists, develop it and, hopefully, bring something new and exciting to Manchester. It’s new, it’s accessible, it’s diverse and it has a great big, massive heart.

On paper, 53two has had a good year with productions Pornography, JB Shorts, and Dare to Know’s Young Love packing them in, successful podcasts, recent ILoveMcr award nominations and renovations underway at the moment. Does it feel like you are being ‘seen?’

 ‘Being seen’ is a tricky one. It feels like we’re travelling. We’ve always been ‘seen’, I believe, by the people we hold closest to the arches. It’s these people that have always seen us, believed in us and, essentially, carried us, that have allowed us to fly this year. It’s been a staggering year for us. We rarely take stock but I feel like at the end of 2023, all of us can hold our heads high and be proud of what we’ve achieved. I use the word ‘we’ because that’s entirely what we are. A ‘we’. Every single team member whether they work here, drink here, share here or party here – we have all played a part in keeping us going through what were crappy times (and let’s be honest, there will be more!).

It’s lovely that we’re now getting bigger press coverage, it’s brilliant that we’re getting support to develop things like the Freedom Suite (Changing Places toilet) and we’re delighted that we’re growing in the work we deliver, but, it’s the people that were here at the start that ‘saw us’ and it’s probably thanks to them, their beating of the drum, that we’re growing.

What can you offer a passerby this Christmas?

Christmas is my favourite time of year. If I had it my way the decks would be up from mid-November! But, thankfully Will, our Bar Manager, keeps me under control. Will has, however, developed a stunning Christmas menu. We’ll be offering the usual Mulled Wine and Festive Hot Chocolate with marshmallows and cream. Our cakes from Nibble will be taking a Christmas turn and HM Pasties will be offering a festive pie. For those that love a Christmas cocktail, we’ll be offering Spiced Rum Punch and Hot Apple Gin-gle from The Cocktail Co. and if you’re looking to really warm your cockles we’ve got The Kings Ginger back in stock which goes great on its own or in a coffee, to give you the kick you need to get you through the markets!

You turned 40 recently. And you had a party in the arches, with a poetry reading by Tony Walsh. How was that?

 My 40th was just brilliant. Paris, my partner, had gone all out and whilst I was kept out of the arches, the team turned the theatre into a mini Glastonbury and we celebrated ‘Si-Fest’! So many wonderful people – some I hadn’t seen for as many as 14 years! The only negative was that I didn’t spend enough time with each and every guest. So great and, of course, an excellent venue for it. Tony read ’These Bricks, They Speak’, a poem written by Tony for the arches. It has, obviously, a really special place in my heart but to hear it read out (just fort he second time ever!) in front of an audience of my dear friends and family was something I’ll never forget. I think I wasn’t alone in shedding a tear!

With so much on stages across Manchester this Christmas, why would you recommend audiences come along to see Bear Left?

Bear Left is unique – no question. Have a look through those many, many fliers, brochures and websites out there – you won’t find a Christmas show like this one. A brilliant, diverse cast, community members, brand new writing, brand new music, BSL shows, captioned shows, some tickets for just £2 and all of it set in the rather unconventional backdrop of a service station on the M62.

Most shows you’ll see are re-boots, re-writes, pantos and our Christmas favourites – these are great. But this quite literally bears left and heads in a completely different direction. You’ll leave feeling with the same festive fuzziness but will have witnessed what we hope will be the birth of a new Manc tradition. We’re inviting people to think slightly differently and take a look at a piece of theatre that celebrates the world we live in now, its differences, its joys, its sadness and its ability to pull together in the strangest of scenarios.

Bear Left is written by Manchester, for Manchester.

Bear Left is at 53two from 13th – 23rd December and can be booked here.

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