Thursday, June 18, 2015

Send in the clowns: Carnivals, funfairs and Coney Island

The Lost Carnival rolled into town amid much fanfare, teasing us with tales of golden feathers and phoenixes and mythical circuses cursed to roam the earth – but we could save them! As you’d expect from Wild Rumpus, which runs the excellent Just So Festival every summer, it was a fantastic event perfectly pitched at its target audience of adventurous families and wide-eyed primary age kids. Mine were terrified by the stage shows but transfixed by the dancers and strolling clowns, while enough installations that might be described as “weird arty shit” (a tree full of writhing nymphs, etc) were scattered about to keep them interested. And they spent so long in the mermaids’ hut playing with sand and listening to sea stories that they practically grew fins. Good and reasonably-priced food and drink meant the adults didn’t mind so much about spending hours in a damp field in Bury. We hear it might be back next year. We'll be there.

Every funfair has its dark side, the shadow that throws all that bright levity into sharper relief. Just think about clowns: all jokey one minute, creepy as shit the next.  And that dark side was thoroughly explored in The Funfair, HOME’s much anticipated first production in its new… oh, don’t mind if I do!… home. I’m no sucker for happy endings and escapism, but this was so unremittingly black that it could be used as a medical-grade depressant. It was like being coshed.

The plot lost its way before the end of the first act, and then chaos reigned. True, it was cleverly staged, but no matter how cool the thing looks or what a twisted Brecht-meets-Hairspray vibe it evokes, you don’t want to spend time in the company of this company if the story isn't good. This was, I think, a failure of writing. Who knows what they were trying to do? Scriptwriter Simon Stephens (adapting an obscure German expressionist play from 1932) assembled a gang of clichéd character tropes – gold-digging glamour girl, unprincipled lowborn high roller, cruel aristocrat, ne’er do well crook. But then he never got around to subverting them. The only two characters with a bit of dimension to them - Cash and Esther - had a moving scene at the end, but what small bit of redemption that provided felt like it came at too dear a cost.

If you need cheering up, Coney Island is a good place to go. Set partly there, Lonesome is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Made in 1928 at precisely the moment when silent films were poised to give way to talkies, it’s mainly silent with a few sections of speech. I hadn’t been expecting these, at a special screening of the film at HOME, and they came as an unwelcome shock, so immersed do you get in the language of music, overemphasised facial expressions and a few elliptical stitches of text. The film is a sweetly naïve New York love story, very of its time. The specially commissioned live score, by Robin Richards of Dutch Uncles, was beautifully performed live by the composer and a small company of RNCM students who were also involved in composition. A rarely-seen classic film combined with a new artistic commission, made right here in Manchester; it's exactly what we’d hoped to find at our new multi-form arts venue, and an undertaking beyond the scope of our dearly departed Cornerhouse.

I do miss it, though. Okay, I said it. So sue me.

Photo credit Brett Harkness

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