The COVID pandemic had a devasting impact upon the world of work. Jobs have been lost and entire sectors still have not, and may never, recover. Working conditions and attitudes to work have changed. Some people decided not to return to work or to change their career and employers found they no longer needed to rent expensive office space but could require staff to carry out their work at home, or realised workers had other options and, to retain them, had to offer hybrid—part-office / part-home—conditions. This final point seems to really annoy comic Tory William Rees-Mogg, who is outraged civil servants are not chained to their desks, so at least something good has come from the changes.
In such a volatile environment, Quarantine launches 12 Last Songs conceived and directed by Richard Gregory. It is performance art intended to offer a snapshot of a changed and changing society. Non-actors perform their actual jobs—decorating, styling hair, baking bread—in shifts for a 12-hour (midday to midnight) period while answering questions, devised by Sarah Hunter, Leentje Van De Cruys and the company, about their occupations and lifestyle.
It is, unfortunately, not uncommon to be bored during a play but durational events—which deliberately focus on the passage of long periods of time—at least have the virtue of being honest about the possibility, indeed the probability, of things getting dull. If you think 12 Last Songs sounds like watching paint dry, you’re not far wrong—one of the exhibits involves observing a massive wall being decorated.
The exhibit is staged in the gallery at Manchester's HOME rather than one of its theatres. A surprisingly large audience is seated around the walls and a series of exhibits take place in the central area. As is traditional in theatre, the show starts late but this is intentional rather than simply annoying. The technicians performing soundchecks and setting up equipment become the first people to answer questions on their occupations.
Over 28 workers 600 questions are asked. These start out as the type of innocuous queries made by the royal family when meeting the general public—what do you do and have you travelled far. There are, however, supplemental questions which add a bit of spice. A question about the time you got out of bed may be followed by one about whether you were alone. There are questions which stray into politics. After stating where you come from, you may be asked for an opinion on who else deserves to live there.
It is emphasised no-one has to reply to the questions; few take this option, although sometimes you wish they had. The request to state something you would not tell the neighbours results in the response, "well, I wax my pubic hair." A participant taking part in an exhibit removes his shirt to reveal a striking pair of nipple rings.
The gender of the non-actor particpants is equal between male and female. The occupations are practical in nature and have a demonstrable outcome that make for interesting visual displays. Professions like banker which are likely to provoke a lynch mentally in the audience are avoided. The closest to an outraged audience response is when an artisan baker reports the average price he charges for a loaf of bread is £3.60. But then his bakery is based in the gentrified Ancoats area, not Aldi, and he pays £250 for his shoes. To be fair, he passed around samples of a bloody good chocolate croissant.
The bakery sample is the first point at which the subject of time is raised. A comparison is made between the hours and skill taken by the baker to make the confectionary and the brief minutes in which it is consumed.
The choice in occupations is eclectic. One had not expected to see practical demonstrations of work undertaken by a competitive cheerleader (complete with a display by the youngsters who have been trained) or someone hand stripping an Irish terrier (it’s not as sexual as it sounds).
Concentrating on practical presentations is an inspired choice. A lecture by a midwife on foetal development is a bit dull. On the other hand, a beautician with a warm personality doing Peggy Mitchell impersonations and sharing reminiscences about shaping a client’s pubic hair into a Bowie-style lightning bolt is so funny as to be close to a stand-up routine.
A common feature of the interviewees is that their current job is not the one in which they started their working life. In some cases, they seem to have switched from jobs which, to an outside observer, seem more interesting—a private investigator becomes a painter and decorator or a chemist a boiler engineer. Perhaps the point is that sometimes a simpler occupation is better than one that is challenging but stressful or that one should not be afraid to make a change.
Ironically, in the shop at HOME, there is a poster on sale depicting a fully clothed woman passed out drunk with the caption, "After work I like to have a drink and a lie down". It is a neat counterbalance to the positive impression given of work in 12 Last Songs.
But then 12 Last Songs is not just about work and is not an insular, enclosed event. At the commencement, details of events—weddings, football matches, concerts—going on elsewhere in the city are listed. Throughout the show, a video live feed of events is broadcast onto the screen methodically being wallpapered by a painter and decorator at the end of the venue.
The interviewees, some of whom originate from outside the UK, are unanimous in praising the cosmopolitan culture of Manchester and saying how much they feel at home. For someone who has begun to regard the city as a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible, it is a reminder there are differing, more positive opinions. But then the interviewees probably do not commute by bus.
Richard Gregory, who conceived and directed 12 Last Songs, does not restrict the scope to assessing opinions on work or location. There is no clock in the venue and, from an early point in the event and at regular intervals, members of the audience are asked if they have the time.
The phrasing of the question (do you have rather than do you know the time) and the frequency with which it is repeated brings a sense of urgency and pushes the show into existential territory. The audience is being reminded of the limited time available and asked to consider if they are using it wisely to achieve all they wish.
Despite the indulgent and lengthy running time, 12 Last Songs is not the waste of time that might have been anticipated.