Writer: Sarah McDonald Hughes
Director: Alan Pattison
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
One of the routes to The Lowry involves traveling through the area in which, on 9th August 2011, shops were looted, vehicles burnt and the police forced to retreat during the riots that broke out countrywide. The local relevance of ‘The Queen is Dead’, based on verbatim reports of the incident, is acknowledged in its subtitle ‘A Very Salford Riot’. In one of many telling comments the distinction is made that nearby Manchester experienced looting whereas in Salford destructive rioting occurred.
Perhaps to offset the negative impression of Salfordian’s, Footlights supplement the actors in their production with young non-professionals from the area. The difference in quality is apparent only in the occasional rushed delivery of lines as a fine cast slip seamlessly between different rôles.
A theme of the play is the struggle to comprehend how a previous generation perceived poverty and deprivation to be character building while nowadays the defeatist response is nihilism and anarchy. The point is made with the opening as the cosy song ’Matchstick Men ‘, played over black and white film of cheerful stallholders on the old Flat Iron market, gives way to the bleak ‘Ghost Town’ over colour footage of blazing cars and hooded rioters. As both songs are played in full the play takes awhile to get going which draws attention to its only major failing– it could stand some editing.
Writer Sarah McDonald Hughes avoids the episodic storytelling arising from verbatim reporting by building a story arc around a specific rioter- Zac. McDonald Hughes refutes the suggestion that the root cause of all society’s problems lies with the parents of offenders by starting the story with Zac’s mother – a hardworking nurse/cleaner who is appalled by her son’s actions and whose only real failing seems to be making rotten choices when picking men to father her children.
The play examines all possible causes for the riots – vile politicians, alienated population, inadequate/ inappropriate policing and the influence of social media. In a fine piece of storytelling a sociological report on the way that gangs offer disaffected youths a sense of worth and identity is later echoed in the gloating cheer that the riots gave the locality ‘a bit of pride’. It is hard to avoid the frightening conclusion that the riots in Salford were motivated less by envy or opportunism and more by an inarticulate hate directed at an uncertain target.
Rather than stage the play as a series of interviews director Alan Pattison takes a naturalistic approach. Points emerge gradually as characters chat around kitchen tables and sat on sofas or make announcements at press conferences. Quotations from local and national politicians flash across the screen at the rear of the stage to clarify scene changes and maps from Google Earth trace the route of the riot.
Although the storytelling is clear neither the writer nor the director can avoid the verbosity to which the verbatim technique is prone. This is a shame as the final speeches go on so long they blunt the emotional impact of the conclusion in which a distorted image on the rear screen gradually becomes clear giving a glimmer of hope for the future.
Reviewed on 21st April 2014