King Cotton

Jimmy McGovern, from an original idea by Ian Brownbill

The Lowry, Salford

(2007)

Review by David Chadderton

The most-hyped opening of the new theatre season in the north west by far has got to be the new production written by leading television scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern for theatres in Manchester and Liverpool, which was given a grand press and VIP gala opening at its third public performance at the Lowry in Salford.

The story shows parallels between Sokoto, a black slave on an American cotton plantation, and Tom, a factory worker in a Lancashire cotton mill. Sokoto's master dies and leaves all his money and goods to the church, including his slaves. Instead of freeing him, Reverend Brown decides to sell Sokoto to a cotton plantation owner to pay for a new church roof, forcing him to separate from his wife and family, just as over in England Tom is marrying Emma and having a child of his own. After a serious incident at the plantation, Sokoto is forced to go on the run, but eventually slavery is abolished and he is able to return to his family. However the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil War ends the supply of cotton to the mills in England putting the mill workers out of work, so some decide to set sail for America to fight for the south and reinstate slavery.

The show is billed as a musical, which it really isn't; the music mixes black American spiritual music with the brass band music of the north of England, which works surprisingly well in Patrick Dineen's arrangements and creates an effective backdrop to the action, but these songs are not integrated into the script to develop the story or the characters as they would usually be in a musical. The script is very uneven, with some scenes that are very effective or very funny and many others that stop before they have had chance to develop into anything substantial, like scenes from a TV soap.

There were also a few technical problems at this performance. The doors of the auditorium were plastered with notices that the length of the interval had been doubled from twenty to forty minutes with no explanation given. The most obvious problems during the performance were with the sound, starting just with poor balance between singers, spoken dialogue and instruments and some poor vocal sound plus a lot of late microphone cues to loud scratchy noises through the PA. One actor had a microphone that started to make him sound as though he was speaking through a cardboard tube halfway through the first half, and this was not fixed during the interval. Also, the monitors on the front of the balcony for the singers to see the musical director were far too bright, casting a distracting flickering light across the front stalls.

The superb cast certainly gets the most from the material. Israel Oyelumade is noble and proud as the slave Sokoto, and Wendy Mae Brown has a stunning singing voice as his wife Jessie. Over on the English side, Paul Anderson is great as the proud young family man determined to keep his family, with good support from Kirsty Hoiles as his wife Emma. In some scenes that jump straight into comic fantasy from the gritty realism of the mills and plantations, John Henshaw plays God in his trousers and vest as a weary, middle-aged Lancashire bloke with a slight hangover. After creating the lively character of the slave Obinna who is murdered by his master, Cornelius Macarthy dons wings to become an angel and forms a superb comedy double act (with a serious mission) with God. The main acting cast is completed with equally fine performances from Paul Barnhill, John Elkington, Nolan Frederick, Emma Jay Thomas and Vanessa White-Smith.

This show features a superb cast, a top director and a large-scale, spectacular production, but it lacks a strong thread of a story to tie all of these things together. The result is that the issues that are obviously important to the creators of the show end up being dealt with in a rather superficial way, and it is only through great performances from the actors that the audience is led to really sympathise with these characters and what happens to them. It is certainly very enjoyable in parts, but it feels like a work in progress and not a finished item.

Until 22nd September