Dirty Old Town

Rob Johnston
Pact Productions
Greater Manchester Police Museum, Manchester

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Dirty Old Town Credit: Shay Rowan
Dirty Old Town Credit: Shay Rowan
Dirty Old Town Credit: Shay Rowan
Dirty Old Town Credit: Shay Rowan

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have based Sherlock Holmes upon his medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Not everyone agrees—historian Angela Buckley argues the fictional detective was modelled on Detective Superintendent Jerome Caminada whose eccentric methods involved dressing in disguise to gather evidence and the maintenance of a large network of informers. As Caminada operated in Manchester where Pact Productions is based, it is understandable why they would use this theory as the basis for their latest production, Dirty Old Town.

Dirty Old Town is a production that flaunts Mancunian credentials. Place names are dropped with regularity—fleeing across rooftops, characters spot Salford Cathedral and joke they will soon end up in Eccles. Caminada meets his contacts in St Mary's RC Church—AKA The Hidden Gem. Ryan Mulvey throws himself into a staggering range of characters—Salford hardmen, Irish bombers, Liverpudlian pickpockets. His main role is, however, a young offender who serves as narrator. Strutting around the stage with a cocky pimp roll, Mulvey seems more than a little inspired by Mancunian bad boy Liam Gallagher.

The play is staged in the Greater Manchester Police Museum. The stark white walls and even a stuffed dray horse add to the Victorian atmosphere, as does the avuncular gent who greets patrons on arrival. The presence of motorcycles and a vast collection of toy police cars are, however, a bit out of place.

Dirty Old Town demonstrates what can be achieved on the theatre fringe with imagination and style. Director Malcolm Raeburn gives a full-on physical production with fist fights, rooftop chases and dramatic confrontations. The only props are a table and a coat stand from which disguises and costumes are plucked. It could very easily descend into panto, but a highly committed cast keep the show melodramatic but free from camp.

Eddie Capli brings hint of theatrical flair to Jerome Caminada. The detective enjoys dramatically stepping out of disguise to confront culprits. Overall, Capli suggests a fundamentally decent character—Caminada is embarrassed as he confronts a corrupt colleague.

There is no overall narrative arc to the show, rather it is a series of episodes. Rob Johnston’s script emulates the lurid Victorian Penny Dreadfuls in which the hero regularly ends up in peril. This is, after all, a world in which a detective chases a culprit to America only to end up drugged and at his mercy. It is easy to imagine "To be continued…" appearing at the end of each scene.

Johnston avoids the modern problem of imposing contemporary values upon past situations. Caminada’s agonising over why, despite his poverty-stricken origins, he avoided a life of crime and his begging mercy on behalf of a young offender brutalised by the penal system is more a development of the character than the author imposing a point of view.

Dirty Old Town is a rip-roaring rush through the mean streets of Victorian Manchester and great fun.

Reviewer: David Cunningham