Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Manchester Sound: The Massacre


Site specific, immersive new theatre by the usually excellent Library Theatre Company. Happening at a secret location in the Northern Quarter.  Unifying two diverse but interesting moments in Manchester’s history: The Peterloo Massacre and the heyday of Acid House. Manchester Sound: The Massacre was intriguing on many levels, and I sincerely wanted to love it. I trooped off to said secret location full of hope and goodwill. But the play just didn’t work for me.  

First, the good stuff. The staging was bold and effective, with the audience becoming active participants in the gathering, whether it was a rave or a public demonstration. It was alarming the way actors charged around the space, sometimes barrelling right through us, which lent proceedings the right kind of unsettled nervous energy. And the space itself is a real find. It’s full of atmosphere, and it has been used resourcefully. 

But these positives, along with a game cast who gave it their all, weren’t enough to salvage a play with a flawed central analogy. Comparing citizens massacred while peacefully protesting for the right to fully participate in society with raver kids half-assedly agitating for “the right to party” won’t wash, and it just can’t be cemented together with broad platitudes about standing up for what you believe in. It reminds me of the time they closed the smoking lounge at my high school and some kids took to wearing Stars of David cut from packs of Camels. The best thing you can call it is na├»ve. But you can’t build a strong production on such a shaky foundation.

I say this with affection, but for those of us out in the rest of the world (and even lots of us who were right here in 1989) the Hacienda just wasn’t that big of a deal. Yes, the music and the clothes were new, but anyone who believed Madchester was going to usher in a new era of peace, love and brotherhood was either too young to know better or pilled to the gills. The trouble is, most of 2013’s cultural gatekeepers came of age then, and their nostalgia for the time seems limitless. It’s like they’re all personally invested in the delusion that their cultural 15 minutes "changed the world forever" and seem determined to foist it on the rest of us.

Compounding the trouble was a confused script, full of flat dialogue and predictable laughs. (“Women can be politicians now?” “The Prime Minister’s a woman. She’s a bitch.”) The action happens in parallel to start, switching between 1989 and 1819, which worked fine. But the moment three Peterloo women inexplicably turned up in the loos at the rave and started exclaiming over the condom machine, I lost the narrative thread. It transpired that they were dead and had come back to haunt the apathetic ravers into giving a toss about current events. By the end of the play, I think I worked out that if they failed, the ghosts were doomed to repeat the events of Peterloo for eternity, but this is mostly speculation on my part. And to be honest, I had disengaged from the play by then.

During its theatre-less few years, The Library Theatre has gotten really good at putting on site specific theatre. But in Manchester Sound, a provocative analogy didn’t develop into anything truly meaningful. Kind of like those totally amazing conversations you have in a warehouse at 5am. Yes, I  know, it all seemed very deep at the time.

Image: Stephen Fewell (DJ Liberty) in Manchester Sound: The Massacre by Polly Wiseman, directed by Paul Jepson, presented by the Library Theatre Company (Saturday 8 June - Saturday 6 July 2013). Photo by Kevin Cummins.