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Mr Monkey sees 5 @ 50 at the Royal Exchange Theatre, 18th April

Mr Monkey looking at the poster for 5 @ 50 Mr Monkey looking at a set design displayed in the Education Lounge coffee table Mr Monkey scampered into Manchester for the press night of Brad Fraser's 5 @ 50 at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Outside the theatre Mr Monkey looked at the posters to check that the right play was on, and began to wonder what sort of thing he was going to see. He'd arrived early enough to look at the Forecast for Sunny Skies exhibition in the Mezzanine, and to examine the coffee table in the Education Lounge to get an idea of what the set would look like. Then he picked up his humans' tickets and sat down to wait for the start.

The Royal Exchange commissioned Canadian playwright Brad Fraser to write 5 @ 50 which is the seventh of his plays to be produced at the Theatre since 1995. 5 @ 50 tells the story of a group of five women, who have known - and remained friends with - each other since high school, and are all now approaching 50. Each of the women has pursued a different path in life. The play shows changes in the relationships between the women, and dynamics within the group, over a series of birthday celebrations and more intimate meetings and monologues.

Despite the fact that Mr Monkey knew the play had been written by a Canadian person he was still surprised at the start of the play when all the actors spoke with a Canadian accent.
Jan Ravens as Olivia in a good mood early in the play (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo) Jan Ravens as Olivia in a bad mood later in the play (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo) At the beginning, when each of the five women was telling the others how happy they were, there was a feeling of pretence; it took Mr Monkey a short while to realise that the audience the 'act' was being put on for was the group on stage, not him. It requires great skill to get this at the right level and not leave the audience thinking the acting was stilted. In the second act, when various more-or-less awful truths have been revealed, the acting is more naturalistic. The pace and intensity of the play increases in the second act and takes the audience through to a very moving climax.

The play covers issues that many people face (or have friends who are facing) in their early fifties, such as addiction, debilitating illnesses, break-up of relationships and bereavement. However, for a play dealing with grim issues, it is remarkably light and funny (though Mr Monkey suspects that much of the humour will be wasted on young folk).

There are only five in the cast - Teresa Banham, Barbara Barnes, Candida Gubbins, Ingrid Lacey and Jan Ravens - and they are all excellent in their roles.

5 @ 50 is an engaging play which draws the viewer into the lives of the women; many moments are laugh out loud, others moved Mr Monkey almost to tears.

Despite the posters, there is no nudity onstage but there is a fair amount of swearing. Mr Monkey was pleased to find that the cast did not resemble the women portrayed in the poster.

5 @ 50 runs until May 14th 2011.

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