I’m in a city 215 miles away from Manchester but, during the duration of an hour and 10 minutes, I feel the familiarity of home.
Four school children stride onto stage in untucked white shirts. Lit by a single spotlight while singing Tumbalalaika, a Jewish folk song, their voices send chills up my spine. I’m not a religious person but I remember learning about Jewish traditions and festivals in school. This play puts the audience member in the heart of that experience.
Tucked in a crevice of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, a large blue laminated arrow inscribed with ‘Venue 45’ pokes its head into the top corner of an alleyway that escorts you to the entrance of theSpace @ Venue 45.
At the entrance, writer Amy Lever and co-producer Rishi Sharma hold flyers in their fingertips, passing them to people who have seen the previous production. “Come see our show Life Before The Line, you won’t regret it,” Lever says. Many of them stop in their tracks and smile, saying they have already seen and loved it.
Life Before The Line shadows the coming of age of Jewish teens Esty (Emma Kentridge), Sara (Arabella Alhaddad), Allister (Jacob Benhayoun) and Danny (Abraham Alsawaf) as they navigate growing up against the backdrop of the rise in anti-semitism in Manchester in 2016.
Set in a religious class, the characters’ lives hang in the balance when the terrorist alarm sounds abruptly – this time its not a drill. Trapped in their final GCSE revision class, they reflect on the challenges they have faced and the lines they are willing to cross to make it to the other side. As the students hide under their desks, the stage morphs into their memories and, with it, the audience travels into a storm of emotion.
The dynamic of Esty and Sara’s friendship is the most compelling. Their clever and comedic wit beautifully matches the stubbornness and naïvety of being a teenager. My favourite dialogue is when Sara backhands a comment to Esty: “…says the girl that stabbed me with my vibrator because she thought it was my EpiPen…”. This had the audience in stitches.
The elements of comedy that Lever has embedded throughout the play act as facades of dark serious matters that we see in much more depth in the character of Allister. At first glance, the troublemaker doesn’t take life seriously, but under the surface he hides his trauma and struggles while prioritising making others laugh. His resilient attitude means that he’s the embodiment of the Mancunian ‘worker bee’ that is so symbolic of the city.
A cliffhanger at the end of the play leaves the voyeur in suspense – and I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling any future stagings.
Life Before The Line has been created by a production team and cast members in their late teens and early 20s who have come together to create one of the strongest performances I have ever seen. I hope to see it make its mark in Manchester theatres in the months and years to come.
Life Before The Line, Venue 45, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 15 to August 27, 2022
Images: Megan Bond
Read how Amy Lever’s Mancunian upbringing inspired her play: www.northernsoul.me.uk/theatre-edinburgh-festival-fringe-life-before-the-line/