Finally. HOME is open. In a HOMEwarming weekend full of celebrations, comes The Funfair. Interestingly, the first theatre production draws from history, as it’s an updated Manchester take on a German play set in the 1920s, courtesy of Manchester-born writer Simon Stephens.
Cash (Ben Batt) has lost his job and thinks his fiancée Caroline (Katie Moore) is about to leave him because of it. Fuelled by beer and adrenalin he’s ‘on one and leaves Caroline to face the funfair alone. (There’s no indication from Caroline that she’d behave in the way he thinks she will.) Caroline befriends outsider Johnny Chase (Rhodri Meilir) and leads him through the rollercoasters and candyfloss.
Batt impresses as the angry, crumbling, Cash, and you get the feeling that Moore’s flighty Caroline has a façade of confidence, as she yearns for more from life – she’s just not sure how to get it.
This being a funfair, there’s an old fashioned freak show. Literally, in the form of huge-headed individuals paraded for LOLs, but also in the hideous establishment figures businessman Billy Smoke (Ian Bartholomew) and lawyer David Spear (Christopher Wright). It does feel like they might just as easily both been ‘merchant bankers’ as the satire’s none too subtle on occasion. Though comically grotesque, a disproportionate amount of time is concentrated on these two pinstriped characters.
In essence, everyone is an outsider in some way. Cash casts out Caroline, Spear is a southerner (“He’s southern, you can tell by his hair”), etc. There’s little humanity, optimism or sense of a change to come – very little of substance happens to really endear the characters to the audience, so it’s not very easy to invest time in caring about many of them. Perhaps that’s the point: sometimes, for some people, life just is shit, and then you die.
In a play full of shade but lacking light, one of the few beacons of hope, is gangster’s girlfriend Esther (superbly understated Victoria Gee), a vulnerable and abused young woman with just enough fight left in her to seek out pricks of starlight to pin her hopes on.
Despite being on stage and in a traditional theatre setting, there’s a strong cinematic quality to The Funfair. Video designer Louis Price uses video and projection to create a wire fence, a dizzying carousel behind a red curtain. And then there’s the quirky stop start movements of the rag-tag company chorus, like so many wind-up toys on their backs, legs in the air among beer barrels (there are loads of lovely physical touches like that, from choreographer Imogen Knight). There’s a mix of industrial and carnival in Ti Green’s design: the backdrop reminds me of the concrete drabness in Piccadilly Gardens, and a ruched red velvet cylindrical curtain hangs like an enormous light shade from the ceiling and immediately Twin Peaks springs to mind (there’s more than a little David Lynch sprinkled here).
Music, like the design, adds more layers of interest to The Funfair. The band, led by guitarist Little Joseph (Max Runham), is sealed on show in their very own viewing gallery halfway up the stage wall. They play Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly songs, and freak-show Juanita’s (CiCi Howells) vocals on Love Letters are gorgeously rich – showstopping, really. The audience (on stage and off) recognises the beauty beyond her strange appearance. (Full of other fine musical selections from composer and arranger Dave Price, one of my personal favourites closes the play: Cat Power’s The Moon.)
Ödön von Horváth’s original 1929 play, Kasimir and Karoline is set in a Berlin beer hall right after the Wall Street Crash, whereas Stephens adapts the story to Manchester and now-ish. The Funfair’s place in history feels less certain. It could be right now, or the 1950s or 25 years ago. Ostensibly a fair is a place to escape, but there are only very rare moments of joy in The Funfair, and those tend to lead into grimness of some kind or another. It’s also a misogynistic world, with violence and threats towards women and a pervasive air of sexual misuse and degradation. The political commentary is very much on the theme of broken Britain and anti-bankers – no surprises there, really, the recent election result certainly prepares many audience members for the despair on stage.
This is a captivating production: a grubby wasteland of a world full of bleak futures, seedy characters and arresting images. There’s a definite wow factor – multiple wows – but of the whole shebang it’s the script and story which impress me the least. Yes, ok, they’re pretty important – but oddly my enjoyment isn’t wedded to them.
In many ways, The Funfair is breathtaking. It’s a visual flourish, setting the tone for a new, world-class arts centre. It’s an unusual play to open with, but the intent seems clear. I had hoped before it opened that Manchester’s new arts home wouldn’t simply be ‘more of the same’, and director Walter Meierjohann ensures that The Funfair boldly leads us firmly away from that.
Reviewed on 21 May 2015
The Funfair runs 14 May – 13 June 2015 at HOME