Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 16 November 2019
Guest reviewer: Helen Gaskell
A family of five, scattered across the North of England, are brought together by tragedy. The play shows a picture of their lives as they find their way home. Written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sarah Frankcom, with music by Jarvis Cocker, it’s something one would really love to love: the brainchild of three Northern legends in the ultimate Northern theatre. The writing is superb, the direction too, the music thoughtful and brave.
But it’s too Northern. It’s far, far too Northern. The grit-spreaders have truly been out in force, and it’s excruciating to swallow so very many clichés in one dose. The lead protagonist Christine (Rebecca Manley) and her youngest daughter Ashe (Katie West) both have matching Maxine Peake haircuts. There are drugs, drink, a single mother, a debt collector working for a bookie, down-to-earth swingers and an awkward, overweight, cheating husband in an ill-fitting suit trying to pay for sex. Rain was a pivotal plot point. Everyone is startlingly poor and grindingly miserable. We were only missing a whippet on a bit of string eating a pie, and perhaps Morrissey wailing plaintively in a corner to make the tableau complete.
Stephens writes in the notes that he has spent the past 25 years in London, and that he felt relatively untouched by the financial crash of 2008. He notes that “the more I travelled outside of London, the more the heft of that collapse seemed legible and the more that economic disparity seemed oddly brutal.”
He and Frankcom (then artistic director of the Royal Exchange, now director of LAMDA) then went on a road trip across the North and met with people who “in some way echoed the lives from my life before I was born”. Which, incidentally, has led to half the North being tarred with their wild and inaccurate brush strokes. Cocker, too, has left the North: he now splits his days between Paris and London. It is difficult to see plays about poverty written by the privileged, and foolhardy to set decades-old experiences in the modern day.
This review is hard to write, and it may be hard to read. This is the kind of play which gets made into Radio 4 plays and gritty TV adaptations. It was described to me as “a powerful allegory to the North”. It absolutely is art, and there is some exceptional acting – Lloyd Hutchinson’s portrayal of middle-aged wannabe-swinger Bernard is spot on. But the role he nails is a stereotype. Likewise Jamie Samuel, playing flight attendant Andy: he is kind, compassionate and convincing, but being asked to walk in a direction unworthy of his talent. The writing cannot be faulted in its style and tone, but it clings to outdated stereotypes.
Affluent southerners will love this play: this is how they like to see us. Poor, grimy, suffering. It makes them feel especially cosy in their little southern nests. But the financial crash was not an exclusively Northern affliction: there is poverty everywhere, and affluence everywhere. Stephens might not have noticed the poverty in East London but that is not because it has been razed from the Greater London area altogether: it is because the impoverished people who used to live there have been forced out.
Frankly, you’d have to work spectacularly hard to find a bunch of people as resolutely downtrodden as those in this play – not just in the North, but practically anywhere in the world. It needs to replace half its A Taste Of Honey with a hefty dose of Abigail’s Party. Either that or focus less on the North and more on the universality of struggle. We in the North are sick of being told we are cheerless and tough. As in the title of this play suggests, light falls. So show it, please.