Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Oliver Hurst
When Simon Stephens wrote Pornography, centred on the London Transportbombings of July 7th 2005, the terrorism attack was a relatively fresh memory, and the shockwaves had barely died away. This revival, by Manchester company Red Brick Theatre, claims to be the first professional performance since 2009, and is staged in the heart of a city 200 miles removed, and 18 years after the trauma of the attacks.
But such events have a special resonance for Manchester. Many people are still haunted by the bombing of the Arndale Shopping Centre by the Provisional IRA in 1996. A fresher scar for the city and its people is the bombing of the Manchester Arena after an Ariana Grande concert. The town centre became a shrine in the days that followed, and the city’s emblem – the worker bee – became a symbol of resilience and community cohesion.
So the subject matter of Simon Stephens’ play may seem especially relevant, and even especially raw, to this community. Although this is very much more than astory about suicide bombers. For a start, it deliberately highlights the immediate prelude to the bombings, with the celebratory Live 8 concert setting out to “Make Poverty History”, and the triumphant bid for the 2012 Olympics in London. While not everyone shares the euphoria, it provides the backdrop for the action as the bombers prepare for their mission, and others get on with their messy everyday lives.
London itself is almost a character in the drama. Landmarks feature across large screens, A-Z pages and tube maps provide the sense of place, and characters describe their routine bus and foot journeys crisscrossing the capital. The bombers meticulously plot their routes and timetables. We follow their journeys from ordinary homes in the north of England, train by train, ticket stub by Zone 1 travel card, to unleash havoc on the morning rush hour. But they are notdemonised or caricatured. They are ordinary human beings, driven to enact the unbelievable.
Meanwhile, ordinary people get on with their human stories. A neurotic mother (Kim Burnett) obsesses over her child, while her work and domestic life crumbles. A lonely widow (Isabel Ford) shirks human contact while yearning for it. Anestranged brother and sister (George Miller and Frankie Lipman) unite in a passion they cannot own but cannot resist. A middle-aged professor (John Joyce-O-Keeffe) clumsily reaches out for comfort from a younger ex-student (Imogen Khan). Most memorably Isaac Radmore, as a repressed right-wing schoolboy, twists his rage and lust into a destructive force, and yet never loses his vulnerability.
As Stephens weaves these poignant and violent stories together, their themes and counter-themes give the whole piece a brilliant musical form. Almost all theinteractions are two-handers, so there is painting in miniature here, even though the events are national and even global in significance. There is as much light and shade in the brilliant lighting effects as in the storytelling.
Red Brick add a further dimension to this sensory feast by setting two large screens at the back of the stage, broadcasting everything from newsreel footage to simulcast close-ups of the action on the stage. Instead of being a distraction, it creates new complexities to add to the foibles, failures, love, joy and pain that being human – in a Simon Stephens play – is all about. Fittingly, the play ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
At 53TWO until 30th September 2023.