Cotton Panic!

Upper Campfield Market

Created by Jane Horrocks Nick Vivian and Wrangler

The old Victorian market space works perfectly as a space for a gig or for an immersive theatre piece. Giant screens either side of the stage project ephemeral images interspersed with close ups of actress and activist Glenda Jackson and other storytellers. On stage is the tiny and feisty Jane Horrocks fizzing with passion and energy. Behind her is a translucent screen projecting  more images and seemingly super-imposed behind that is the band Wrangler  and their analogue synthesizers.

A mix of folk music and clog dancing blend into tracks such as Billie Holidays “Strange Fruit” and Grace Jones “Slave to the Rhythm” with synth music and story telling of the poverty and political struggle weave together to celebrate our working class heritage in the North West.

Walking through the space feels exciting and quite special. The sense of urgency and energy is intoxicating and moving sporadically from the back of the space I soon find myself front of stage. Watching Horrocks’s character descend into wretched poverty and dependency on the kindness of others is a sharp reminder of the problems inherent in misinformed aid assistance. How often do we make assumptions about the needs of others? When we buy a homeless stranger a sandwich do we check first if they are vegetarian or gluten-intolerant or do we simply expect their gratitude? If we give money for aid do we want to meet a specific need or one which we feel is appropriate? 

This is the story of the cotton industry in Lancashire from riches to rags in the industrial carnage that arose from the American Civil War (1861-1865). It is a timely reminder of how any growing economy is intensely vulnerable to over dependency on a single commodity. The lack of cotton arriving in the 1870s crippled Lancashire and created mass unemployment and poverty. It would be good to think we have learned valuable lessons from our social and economic history yet sadly we continue to waste valuable resources and make poor electoral decisions such as Brexit.

Emerging from this performance into the evening sunshine on Deansgate many of the crowd dispersed to nearby bars and restaurants. A lovely way to end a sociable evening. Perhaps the sobering thought being in a coffee or wine shortage how quickly would we be inconvenienced or potentially economically ruined?

Lancashire Cotton Failure

Manchester austerity and homelessness 

Ethics and Aid
Potential impact on Manchester of Brexit

Party Skills for the End of the World

Centenary Building, Salford

Written and Directed by Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari with Abigail Conway 

An apocalyptic party with dodgy cocktails  but thankfully no rabbit vol au vents. This is party planning overkill with labryinths of classrooms teaching childish or frivolous arts and crafts or more sinister survival skills. This feels like being trapped in a Butlins holiday camp at the end of days, or a Freshers Week gone horribly wrong. 

Sirens and explosions are the soundscape as people stroll or lurch around the corridors and stairwells. There is a sense of confusion and nervous curiosity that is I suspect only partly what the creators intended. Later as we are herded into the dimly lit basement a more authentic sense of urgency is evoked.

The band are playing in the disused storeroom where plastic wrapped corpses are stored and tiny bottles of water cost £2. Our leader takes to the stage to give a speech as we sit obediently on the grubby floor. He talks of many of our worst fears and nightmares. It was utterly depressing and bleak; as a psychotherapist I was seriously concerned for anyone emotionally vulnerable who was present. 

Party Skills raises the question what skills might we need to survive? Would we man up and make that trap then kill and skin a rabbit? Would we revert to child and make balloon animals, or turn up the volume and party? 

Party Skills for the End of the World is cause for reflecting on  what we skills or knowledge we might actually need.   Wandering round it was interesting to think what survival skills Life has already given me.

Vegetarian for over 30 years yet I suddenly recall  how to catch fish and wring a chickens neck from growing up in the country. Coming from Northern Ireland I know to open the windows wide in a bomb scare, and clean up a village shop if that bomb explodes. I know how to make tea and sandwiches if a platoon of soldiers land a helicopter at the bottom of the garden. As a parent I can always entertain bored children or mend cut knees with the contents of my handbag. As a Psychotherapist I know the things to say to lessen suicidal thoughts.

Party  Skills felt unfocused and disjointed as though it had been rapidly altered as a response to the Manchester Arena bombing. Perhaps the best testament we can give to those affected is to embrace our strengths and learn from all our past experiences. A celebration of our resilience in adversity is truly a cause for a party.

 Running til 16 July

Links

Survival Skills. Making a trap.

How to skin a rabbit

End of World anxiety

The Northern Irish Border

Operation Black Antler

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HOME MCR

Devised and Produced by

Blast Theory and Hydrocracker

It is 1983 and I’m sitting my A Levels and dating a British soldier who turns out to be doing undercover surveillance around the Border in Northern Ireland. Fast forward to 2017 and my son is studying for his A Levels and I’m about to go undercover as part of a state surveillance operation in Manchester.

Friday afternoon and my Handler texts me a meeting point to rendezvous with the rest of my undercover team. At 7.45pm we gather and wait uncertainly for our instructions. Paranoia is already setting in as I assess the group and zero in on two individuals who might be participants like me but who might just be actors planted in the group.

The lines are blurring as another text sends us to a dingy location and our Handler suggests we make tea as an ice-breaker. People are moving around. A van door opens and I catch a glimpse of a hunched figure before it slams shut. We head upstairs to the briefing room and a very convincing Richard Hahlo rattles through the details of the covert operation. Images of POIs (Persons of interest) are shown and we are bombarded with intelligence on them. My Handler is matter of fact as he calmly reminds us that we do whatever we feel necessary to extract intelligence. The underlying inference is WHATEVER it takes.  I start to feel like I know what is expected of me and adrenaline kicks in.

Divided into small groups we develop our cover stories. Deciding who we are going to be starts to uncover lots of details about who we actually are and what we are comfortable  sharing with strangers. The groups head off separately to infiltrate a social event full  of right wing extremists. Drinks ordered at the bar and we enter the crowded venue and start to mix. It is hot and loud and difficult to tell who are actors, audience or just normal Friday night punters.

After a while chatting with guests we finally get into conversation with our POI  who is hard as nails yet warm and funny too. The disarming part of the performance is mixing with people who hold views that I find abhorrent yet finding myself warming to some of them. At one point my team mate and I hold an animated conversation with “Lisa” about how great it is to have the D.U.P have sway in parliament. We enthuse about their anti-gay views and pro-life stance. The striking point to this is that we both appear at ease with this perspective. We have never met before tonight yet we both come from Northern Ireland and are a similar age but whereas I grew up Protestant on the Border, she was a Catholic from Derry. The sense of blending in to survive in a hostile environment was unnervingly familiar and we both felt like kindred spirits through the whole experience.

The night passed quickly and people ebb and flow building the sense of confusion over who is “safe”. I get caught in a tussle and “Lisa” and I get soaked with a G &T, a bloke gets threatened with a pool cue and we get offered napkins and fairy cakes. Intelligence gathered we are told to exit to safety. Outside the bloke who spilt my drink insists on an overly long, apologetic hug and whispers he will see me at the next Meet. I feel dirty and triumphant. Meeting another undercover operative we have to make decisions that may change lives forever. It is the power and subtlety of Operation Black Antler that ensures we really do become deep swimmers in a very murky world.

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Speaking to Director Matt Adams from Blast Theory afterwards it is clear how much thought, effort and nuance has been put into developing this production. As with any immersive theatre you only get out what you put in to the performance. I found it very powerful and as I chatted to Matt Adams about growing up in the blurred boundaries of sectarian life on the Northern Irish border and the implications of Brexit and GE17, it was crystal clear how valuable this experience was. It is a sobering reminder of how easy it is to shift our moral compass to accommodate our environment, but at what cost?

At HOME until 17 June