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Sherbet review at Octagon Theatre, Bolton – ‘an unflinching depiction of life in care’

Sarah McDonald-Hughes and Curtis Cole in Sherbet at Octagon Theatre, Bolton Sarah McDonald-Hughes and Curtis Cole in Sherbet at Octagon Theatre, Bolton

This pithy two-hander was one of the winners of the Octagon’s annual prize for new writing, which last year asked for submissions of duologues in celebration of Jim Cartwright’s Two, first produced at the theatre almost 30 years ago.

Like Cartwight’s classic slice of northern pub life Sherbert provides ample opportunity for its cast to shine. But Sarah McDonald-Hughes and Curtis Cole (who both write and star) paint a far less rosy picture of life in the north, depicting a cycle of deprivation that – unlike the endangered species of Cartwright’s text – sadly endures.

McDonald-Hughes and Cole play Moss Side siblings Jade and Nathan, who are taken from their drug addict mother and buffeted around the care system after the accidental death of their baby brother.

In short, sharp, painful vignettes – vividly orchestrated by Octagon artistic director Elizabeth Newman – we see snapshots of what happens over the next few decades, as they get drawn into smalltime gang culture and Nathan’s mental state is unravelled by the guilt he feels over their brother’s death.

It sounds bleak, and McDonald-Hughes and Cole are unflinching in the way they portray the sibling’s lives. But they also draw out the warmth as the pair realise all they have is each other. Because of the skittish nature of the structure, it feels a bit disjointed at times and – despite the positive ending – a little incomplete as a story. But the actors convince utterly as two people who crave normality but are left to deal with the after effects of an upbringing that was anything but.

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Bold, convincingly played, if a little incomplete, depiction of life in care