Up betimes and to the new 53two venue for its opening in-house production, Things That Divide Us.

In case you don’t know it, 53two was a venue opened by Manchester actor Simon Naylor in 2016, housed in railway arches which used to be a car showroom near the GMEX. He did a good job of making fairly crude surroundings into a couple of performance spaces and, crucially, a bar. I say crucially because it’s often the profits on alcohol sales that make a venue viable. 

It rapidly became an integral part of the growing Manchester fringe scene, home to the annual JB Shorts season, running classes and putting on new writing. Then Covid coincided with a redevelopment of the premises and it had to close. The new space, a railway arch just around the corner from the Hilton and three minutes’ walk from Deansgate station, is much better appointed in the public areas, exactly the sort of place you might pop in for a beer or coffee, while the auditorium retains the artisanal charm and sense of history of a found space.

It’s the perfect setting for Joshua Chandos’s new play, Things That Divide Us. The story takes place in a run-down warehouse near the Calais Jungle camp, where old hand Kitty is inducting newbie David into making up and distributing parcels of clothes and other essentials for new arrivals.

The context is clearly defined through projected news video and soundtrack, and for a while it feels like we’re on a sub-Brechtian journey through the politics of immigration. But soon you realise that it’s all just context, and that what we’re really watching is a love story.

Kitty is a young working-class woman working for an NGO and David is a public school-educated university drop out who’s been working as a teaching assistant and has come to Calais to find himself. They are played by Beth Lilly-Banks and Callum Sim with such grace and charm you would think they’d been these people and known each other for years. Considering they only had two weeks’ rehearsal, that’s a great credit to their skill and to Naylor’s direction.

Over 80 minutes (without an interval), we move between the present and the past, picking up their backstories as we go. The relationship starts fractiously, at least on Kitty’s part. Who is this privileged public schoolboy to come to Calais and do this work? It’s not going to interfere with his life, is it? While Kitty has given up everything, he’s just on a virtue-signalling frolic funded by Mummy and Daddy. But of course none of that is true, as Kitty finds out.

Gradually they evolve into colleagues, bound by mutual trust and a mission. But will it turn into anything else? There’s a particularly gorgeous section about an hour in where they are sitting together on the beach, and she teases him and then demonstrates her ability to judge character by telling him what toppings he has on a Subway sandwich. You’ll have to see it to find out what happens.

If I have a quibble, and as you know dear reader, I often have a quibble, it’s that the script lacks dramatic structure, except in the subtlest of ways. But the world of the Calais Jungle is vividly painted, there are some killer one-liners, and the acting is great to watch. I had a lovely time. You have until October 1.

Words and images by Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

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Things That Divide Us is at 53two, Manchester until October 1, 2022. For more information, click here.