The second site-specific promenade performance from temporarily-homeless Library Theatre Company is Manchester Lines, specially written by adopted Mancunian, award-winning poet, playwright and novelist Jackie Kay.
Although, I don’t think it’s really site-specific, rather it’s in a ‘found’ location. And it’s not really a promenade performance either; the story is contained within makeshift stage walls. Anyone expecting Hard Times 2 from the Library Theatre Company will be in for a surprise, but I would hope they wouldn’t leave disappointed – this is as different a production as you could get.
As with Hard Times though, the attention to detail before you reach the performance space is important. Browse at a selection of lost items – postcards, a miniature train set, all neatly labelled. As you arrive you’ll be invited to scribble down an item you’ve lost; think carefully what you say, it might pop up later on…
Eugene (John Branwell), a 50-something manager of a lost property office, is one of life’s philosophers, someone who sees all manner of human life in his daily routine. His dark, underground office forms the setting for Manchester Lines, and the audience witnesses the various comings and goings – and losses – of a host of interesting characters. The stories sometimes overlap and the characters’ paths cross both in the office and outside – as well as on the periphery of the performance space. All performers appear to always be in the space but as the seating is in the round, you aren’t always aware of where characters are.
Kay writes terrifically well for all the different characters, each has a definite voice and vocabulary, rhythm and pace. Rhythm is particularly evident in Jessie (Anne Kidd) whose speech is touchingly repetitive. Her gentle smile and infectious laughter belie the fact that her memory is fading, the ghosts of her past sometimes haunting her present as she occasionally seems to realise things are not quite right. The focus on Jessie and her two daughters (Pauline, put up for adoption at birth, and Shanti who followed later, with a new partner) is an important part of Manchester Lines, the relationships between all three take interesting twists and turns, and seem very honest and true to life – with frustrations, bitterness and anger, as well as love and the desire to know each other and make up the years lost.
While Jessie, Shanti (Amelia Donkor), Pauline (Claire Brown) and her son Louis (Marcquelle Ward) form a substantial part of the play – echoing some themes from Kay’s 2010 novel Red Dust Road - the other characters are well-written and add different textures to the piece. Omar (Tachia Newall) is a burst of energy and colour; funny, warm but with a vulnerability which surprises. Newall’s performance is one to savour, as is Marcquelle Ward’s subtle and sweet portrayal of Louis. Aside from Eugene, whose loss is hinted at but never explored, one of the most intriguing characters is Anna (Bettrys Jones). Anna is aiming to disappear and become just one more lost object. She is almost ethereal, spiriting across Manchester, intending to leave loss, pain and guilt behind her.
Some aspects are less successful: the shifts in time periods are not as obvious as they could be – but they also don’t feel necessary; the past is well enough represented in memory form. Occasionally, a scene set in a location other than the lost property office becomes a little confusing – the set is so effective, it isn’t always easy to imagine a world beyond it; although, Anna’s wilderness ramble transports the audience miles away from the office.
Directing, Wils Wilson makes magical use of the space, characters and connecting lines and the outstanding design, courtesy of Amanda Stoodley. Characters enter and leave the space in often unusual ways; movement is important – whether it’s a musical number, Anna’s wild rambling or Omar and Eugene’s mini dance-off.
Errollyn Wallen’s music was tailored both to characters and actors, which must have presented an unusual challenge to the composer. The songs often sound like they are obviously poems set to music which, at times, means the words and music clash a little. But musically, the collection of songs is really interesting, with different styles, voices and accents. The community choir is excellent too.
Throughout Manchester Lines, the idea returns that it’s what you lose that defines you. Anna’s loss leads her to want to disappear, Omar’s absent father and Jessie, Pauline and Shanti’s (re-)connections change all their lives. It’s this exploration of different senses of loss which form the strongest ‘Line’ in the piece and which Kay and Wilson so successfully present in Manchester Lines.
The ending is stunning: singing, emotion and Manchester. It makes my heart swell. It’s a wonderful, uplifting end to the unique Manchester Lines experience.
Manchester Lines is at Number One First Street, until 7 July. More information and booking details.
Read more in the Cultural Shenanigans behind-the-scenes Manchester Lines preview
Look out for the Library Theatre Company’s next site-specific venture in June 2013. Manchester Sound – The Massacre is an immersive experience drawing together the story of the Peterloo Massacre in the city of August 1819 and the heyday of Rave – Madchester 1988-1991, written by Polly Wiseman and directed by Paul Jepson.