Writers: James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney
Director: James Yeatman
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The challenging nature of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out at The Royal Exchange is made clear in the tag line: Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion. The play does not attempt to give an exhaustive examination of the disruptive events during the industrial revolution when workers, fearing for their jobs or panicking about cuts to wages, sabotaged the machines that put their livelihoods at risk. Rather co-creators James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney offer brief samples; jumping from one to another.
Based on historical facts (and some speculation) about events in Westhoughton in 1812 the play concerns a skilled weaver who refuses to accept the factory conditions and becomes involved in a trade union movement so secret its procedures are close to arcane rituals. His daughter pragmatically accepts a factory job just to feed the family. A spy for the authorities within the trade union becomes so dependent upon the extra income for spying he agitates the workers towards violence. A mill owner critical of the lazy authorities has to beg their help when his life is threatened. In the background the mythical figure of Ned Ludd, clad in trench coat and rain hat, hatches his mysterious plans.
The start of the play was delayed when a microphone failed to operate. The irony was obvious –a play about sabotaging machinery being delayed by a technical malfunction. It also seemed a bit self-indulgent until it became apparent that sound plays a vital part in There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. The physical set for the play, designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby, is basic – a simple sloping bright red platform along with a visible row of costumes for the cast.
However, devices concealed within the platform are activated when a microphone is nearby creating the ear-spitting noise of factory machinery or the rural setting of a farmyard. Pete Malkin’s sound designs become, therefore, the background against which the play takes place and help convey the chaotic nature of events. The need for the cast to operate the microphones does, however, add an abstract air to the play – we are always aware they are performing- making it harder to relate to the characters as people.
James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney do not attempt to make direct comparisons between the working conditions that drove the Luddites to violence and the present-day problems faced by employees on zero-hour contracts or working in call centres or packing plants. There are, however, enough subtle hints for the point to be clear- the characters use modern vernacular ( ‘’ I don’t want to give spoilers but…’’) and the appearance of the Prince Regent is a ghastly over the top affair right out of reality TV.
The episodic nature of the play makes it hard to form an emotional connection with the characters as we see only brief glimpses of their lives. An extremely flexible cast of six actors take on a staggering variety of roles but the deliberately ramshackle atmosphere allows distracting hints of self-indulgence.
Events around the time of the play are already well known (Manchester is in the middle of a three-month commemoration of the Peterloo massacre) so it is doubtful anything new is learnt from the play. Nevertheless there are moments that are so ironic they really stand out. A loyal worker and her friend maimed in a factory accident later meet up at Peterloo. The Royal Exchange, where the play staged, is the site for a provocative meeting supporting the Prince Regent and is vandalised as a result.
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out is both fascinating and frustrating. The stylised staging is imaginative but limits emotional engagement and the ‘snapshot’ approach gives an idea of the complexity of the situation but does not allow for in-depth examination. Yet the play does as promised in the title – offers scenes from a period of great unrest and does so in a manner that reminds us such uncertainty is never far away.
Runs until 10 August 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan