THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

YOUR BEST GUESS

HOME

Written and Performed by Chris Thorpe

Directed and Performed by Jorge Andrade

Exam season is upon us and today is my daughter’s first exam. Asking her if she had a talisman, I got a quizzical look as if to say what difference would a pretty stone or a furry toy make? Last night I watched YOUR BEST GUESS, a collaboration between theatre maker and performer Chris Thorpe and Jorge Andrade Artistic Director of mala voadora. It is an exploration of the unpredictability of life, how we plan for the future with no guarantee that the anticipated event will actually happen. We are placing bets on the future and the variable outcomes are reflected in the tangible objects around us.

A concert ticket for a gig that is cancelled may be kept as a reminder of another world that never happened, rendering it possibly more precious than a replacement ticket for a rescheduled event. Andrade speaks of a whole town carefully replicated to rehouse a small community meant to be relocated to make way for a dam intended to provide water for 400,000 people. The dam was cancelled and the new town became a ghost town representing lives that may have been lived another way. Thorpe writes the goodbye letter that his wife would have written to their children if she hadn’t been in a coma from a freak aneurysm. He reflects on the speech written for President Nixon to give if the moon landing had failed. Andrade descibes the sports tops given to refugees each year that celebrate victories that never happened and so become redundant and discarded to refugee camps or sold on eBay to collectors.

Both performers have an easy familiarity with each other allowing them to challenge each other, ask difficult questions and occasionally raise a quizzical eyebrow at personal music choices. The vignettes flow and include some beautifully written descriptions that are powerfully evocative of possible life events. There is a real sense of questioning what is real and what is just a possibility in this piece which is interspersed with actual facts. Thorpe reflects on Otis Redding in a music studio whistling a verse on a song he was never destined to finish surrounded by coffee cups and everyday normality before a plane crash would claim his life. That track retains that final whistling which is now such an integral part of a much loved classic.

YOUR BEST GUESS will strike a chord deep in all of us as it perfectly encapsulate the human condition. Our curiosity and hope as we plan the future we dream off often battling with the things we do to ward off our dread and fear of the alternate future of our nightmares. Many years ago I had a ridiculously vivid nightmare of being home on holiday and my parents dying suddenly when I had nothing suitable to wear to their funerals. Looking back I think I never went home again with any “sensible” clothes as though I could ward off my worst fear. A few years later my father died in exactly those circumstances and all I had was a bright red P.V.C mac for a funeral on a rainy day. I remembered that coat last night as Chris Thorpe picked up his shiny red guitar to play an eerily beautiful rendition of Dock of the Day.

HOME 11-12 JUNE and on tour.