ANU Productions and HOME Manchester
Streets and deserted pub in Ancoats, Manchester
Last night I was propositioned at least twice, promised toast I never got, rubbed baby oil into a boxer's shoulders, recruited as a spy, began a game of pool, was threatened, doused with petrol in a pub and witnessed some strange and abusive domestic arrangements.
In my younger days, that may have been a normal Friday night (other than getting propositioned) but this is the Manchester debut of Dublin-based ANU Productions in the first in a season of site-specific productions from HOME Manchester leading up to the opening of its new building next spring.
The events and characters in the play (hear our podcast episode about this production) come from the tough immigrant communities of Ancoats in the late nineteenth century, when the Irish community was in constant, often violent conflict with its Italian neighbours. However this is no historical piece; while the people and their stories have travelled a century or more, they come to us in modern dress, presented as contemporary stories.
It is difficult to give any account of the story as each person will follow a slightly different thread. The hour-long piece starts at half-hourly intervals, so there are usually two groups at different stages in the narrative. However these groups quickly become split and split again to rejoin familiar faces later on. I was taken aside, whispered to or taken away to be alone with an actor on several occasions.
The link to the history of the area gives the piece an added resonance but is irrelevant while you're experiencing the production as it works perfectly well as a convincing contemporary piece. There are the usual thrills of interaction with the actors and heightened events of immersive theatre, but overall this is a fairly depressing piece about people living lives of noisy desperation, full of cruelty and violence even within families and communities.
As may be expected, most of the action is designed to be completely true-to-life, but there are one or two parts that are more expressionistic, like walking through a piece of performance art in the games room of a pub.
As a spectator, there are different ways of approaching a piece like this. Some like to lurk in the background and not get involved at all. Others try to influence the action by asking questions or leading the conversation. I took the route of observing quietly but joining in when asked, which worked for me, but the performers are very good at judging how much each person is willing to become involved.
Immersive theatre tends to go for the sensational effect, to make the spectator feel as though he or she has been involved in something, rather than depth of meaning. There is an element of the sensationalistic here with sudden violent intrusions into calmer scenes, but it feels more genuine than some similar productions. While it is more an impressionistic view of a community than a traditional narrative, there are recurring themes and events that just about tie it together.
The real test is how affecting and memorable the experience is as most I have seen have been thrilling but forgettable like a fairground ride. Perhaps there isn't a great deal of depth to the stories, but the experience has stayed with me at least to the day after, which is better than most.
Whatever your view on the type of theatre, no one could be failed to be impressed by the committed performances and slick presentation from everyone in a true ensemble piece. It is an experience I would recommend, but the more adventurous you are about getting involved, the more you will get out of it.
Reviewer: David Chadderton