Meeting at a secret location in Manchester, the gear is going down and the groove is starting up as you are invited to a very special undergroundband Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang about two tribes (who) go to war, apt for what follows in the latest site-specific production from the Library Theatre. Those two tribes, in this case are the acid ravers of Madchester and the freedom seeking liberals of Peterloo who clash, in unorthodox ways.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that these two cultures make strange bedfellows. And whether or not you’ll move from that attitude is going to make or break Manchester Sound for you. In trying to explore ideas of liberty and freedom across the generation gap, is the play successful?
I think some of the more touching moments come from interaction across the centuries. A prop in a grotty nightclub toilet suddenly becomes a plot point. Later, a confused 19th century reporter collides with 20th century ravers demanding “more tunes”. These fleeting moments ram home the differences between the cultures that’ll you’ll either find endearing or jarring depending on how well you can go with the flow.
At times, it does feel like the play threatens to pull itself apart. The journey to the actual venue is a little indulgent, if a valiant attempt to build anticipation from the audience. Actors drowned out by overlapping music cues can be fixed, but with so much immersion in the world, sometimes you can be distracted by the sheer force of audio/visual stimuli.
The venue is immaculately presented and crammed with detail. Designer Amanda Stoodley has done an exceptional job of ensuring the extraordinary venue, right down to the smaller detail, fits both time periods.
A strong cast stars; Stephen Fewell’s Henry Hunt is a born leader, commanding the stage whilst Adam Fogerty’s Chief of Police is an intimidating highlight. The dual performances each actor undertakes (in their 1980’s and 1819 personas) show two sides to their talent, and often both sides are polar opposites.
Manchester Sound delivers on atmosphere by the bucket load. Pausing for breath, one dream-like set is breathtakingly lit by the setting sun. And the later mounting feeling of dread as the massacre approaches is helped by the urgency of the actors. The actual depiction of the massacre itself is executed terrifically, but will no doubt polarise opinion amongst the audience.
The force of emotion that comes at the end however may come too late for some. The earlier introspective examination is pushed out the way for a bloody climax that serves to shock and upset. But then, the Peterloo massacre is an upsetting piece of Mancunian heritage and one that set back reform in this country for decades. But, like the ravers, are the Peterloo mob so wrapped up in their own self-beliefs that they are blinkered from reality? Writer Polly Wiseman has crafted a thought-provoking, if disjointed, script. Henry Hunt’s agog declaration about the nightclub to the ravers that “I thought this was your sanctuary from violence” resonates in several ways.
Ultimately, Manchester Sound will be one of the most discussed plays this summer. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it hung together as a coherent narrative? That’s trickier. It ignites debate on youth culture and mob mentality. It also polarises audience opinion provoking discussion. If a piece of theatre manages to get people so animated, then perhaps it’s done its job, irrespective of how well it’s executed. One thing is for sure, rightly or wrongly, the final scenes will linger long after the last beat of Manchester Sound fades.
The Fiction Stroker gives Manchester Sound three strokes out of five.