End of the Road

Young@Heart / No Theater
Manchester International Festival 2009
Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

End of the Road

The Manchester International Festival's eclectic nature can be clearly demonstrated by watching a new opera in a big, traditional theatre one night and then seeing this difficult-to-categorise collaboration between Young@Heart and No Theatre at RNCM.

Young@Heart is a chorus of singers from USA born between 1920 and 1935 who sing a range of popular songs across many genres from jazz to rock dating from the 1930s to present day. Their collaboration with No Theater introduces a staging concept and a theme to the performance without imposing any kind of a narrative on it.

For End of the Road, the chorus members and the band arrive gradually through a perspex revolving door dressed for a night out into a bar made from white and clear plastic, designed by Wim Van de Cappelle, and staffed by people in white overalls, who seem to be a cross between bar staff and care workers, or possibly angels. The songs refer – although many of them were not written to these themes – to ageing, loneliness and death, but in a positive, indignant and celebratory way.

The songs range from The Traveling Wilburys (Handle With Care) to The Buzzcocks (What Do I Get), from Neil Young (Till The Morning Comes) to Sly and the Family Stone (Dance To The Music). There is a substantial Manchester band contribution including a brief snatch of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, I Wanna Go Home from James and a very moving Live Forever by Oasis sung by one man who steps forward with the aid of a three-wheeled walker and is then joined by the full chorus. The superb version of the Pixies' song Monkey Gone To Heaven fronted by an 85-year-old retired doctor in a white suit and hat has to be seen to be appreciated.

The show is extremely slick – in fact a little too slick at times as there are no breaks for the audience to applaud so the openings of some songs are missed – with superb backing from musicians who are mostly much younger than the singers led by multi-instrumentalist Ken Maiuri. There are several costume changes too, designed by Jill St Coeur.

The concept of old people singing modern rock songs is an amusing one on the surface, but this is more than just a gimmick show as this juxtaposition of the old and the new introduces layers of meanings that were never present in the original material presented by people who have been around since long before such terms as 'intertextuality' and the dreaded 'postmodernism' raised their ugly heads.

On the negative side, the PA sound is rather harsh and the staging is a little odd, placing the bar, where many of the chorus stand and sing from for much of the first part of the show, behind all the musicians. The last section is a little slow and static compared to the rest, and the song that got everyone to their feet as though it was a finale was right in the middle of the show. Also, if you take someone within the age range of the performers, don't book seats too near the front as the stairs in the RNCM theatre are rather precarious.

However these are minor niggles about a wonderfully-entertaining, heartwarming show that deserves to be noted as at least as big a highlight of MIF09 as some shows that have received considerably more attention. At the reviewed performance, there was a total standing ovation at the end, and no one moved to leave until the musicians had finished the playoff.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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