Director: Louise Lowe
Choreography: Emma O’Kane
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
There is eager anticipation in the badge for this season’s productions from the itinerant former occupants of Manchester’s Library Theatre: HOME. Now freshly married to the Cornerhouse, HOME is creating the artistic steps to see them safely to their own new residence in Spring 2015. Under the wing of new Artistic Director, the Dutch-born Walter Meierjohann, HOME continues the series of site-specific performances which has substituted for the Manchester Central Library basement since building works began. The silver lining to this enforced exile has been some memorable productions in unusual venues including a Victorian Mill, a Warehouse Rave, and an empty office block.
Angel Meadow continues this tradition. It also represents an exploration of the history which has produced the city itself. Specifically Manchester, but similar DNA runs through the inheritance of almost all post-industrial communities. Immigrants built and continue to build the bricks-and-mortar/concrete-and-glass city landscapes in which they have no real stake. At best tolerated, they form a sub-culture with little in common with their host community. Angel Meadow focuses on the world of the Irish workers whose brawn literally built the foundations for the great industrial cities of England. Dublin-based theatre group ANU are specialists in site-specific performance, and have clearly relished immersing themselves in the story of place which Ancoats still exudes. Swish 21st Century apartments rub shoulders with derelict Victorian mills – a visual touchstone for the drama itself.
If this is a promenade piece, the pavement runs through purgatory. We are taken from the street into a semi-derelict property in groups of 8, at half hour intervals. In the next hour we have encounters with the assorted misfits who live here in a succession of dysfunctional relationships with one another and the wider world. We are lured, tempted, and hustled from the cellars to the attic, from rancid kitchens to shabby living rooms, from bars to boxing rings.
The gang violence of the streets is a relentless backdrop to the domestic abuse which hallmarks their personal relationships. Some of these stories have a conventional narrative and dialogue, some are shown as tableaux, masques, mime, where surreal nightmares stalk the everyday interiors.
Throughout the performance, the actors interact in gritty intimacy with us; too close to the action to be audience, we became bit players and collateral testimony to the events. They ask to be hugged, kissed, punched. They threaten and flirt. They whisper secrets. They challenge us to get involved. To share their fear, their pain, their anger, hopes and helplessness. And of course, our reactions change the dynamics of an encounter. So no-one will see the same performance that this review describes. A bespoke experience every time.
The production is a masterpiece of organisation and co-ordination, with a continuous stream of audience groups being hustled through the labyrinth of shabby rooms without breaking the chain of their storyline. Occasionally an audience member is shanghaied for a one-to-one conversation with an intimidating recluse or a seductive siren. All survived these encounters intact, and ended up restored to their fraternity in the end.
The piece has enormous energy and attack. It is inventive and adventurous. The set design is brilliantly evocative of the low rent squalor of the old inner city flotsam and jetsam of the immigrant tide. Some of the performances are achingly good. This is very much an ensemble piece, but the women have the stronger storylines, and the performances by Caitriona Ennis, Una Kavanagh, and Laura Murray are memorable.
The production is not without its drawbacks. Such an immersive piece, drawing the audience into intimate contact with the action, will be too challenging for some tastes. People have very individual calibration of personal space, and Angel Meadow is invasive physically and emotionally at times. So an uncomfortable evening for the squeamish. Also for anyone with an aversion to pork. Pigs heads, piggy masks, and pig carcasses hanging in the cellar add to the visceral quality of the evening, but will not suit all tastes.
There is also only a vague sense of the narrative of the drama unfolding around us. There is a plot of sorts: a killing, a funeral, a wake, family secrets and betrayals provide the domestic spine for the story. But many of the scenes illustrating the broader environment are too tangential, and make the overall work seem episodic and disjointed. It works, but too often as a collection of parts than as a whole.
Angel Meadow runs at a secret location, in Ancoats, Manchester, until 29th June.