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How to Use a Washing Machine

Book and lyrics by Georgie Botham score by Joe Davies
SLAM Theatre
Hope Aria House, Manchester
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The programme for the 2019 GM Fringe has been varied but even so a musical featuring a live string quartet stands out. The most striking feature of How to Use a Washing Machine is not, however, the genre. Despite the title and cartoon poster, this is a musical drama, not a comedy.

Siblings Cass (Emelye Moulton) and James (Joe Winter) are having second thoughts about their life choices. James feels he was forced to mature early and traded his artistic ambitions for a mundane but well-paying job. Cass remains a free spirit but is skint. One is, therefore, a boring success and the other an arty failure. A parental summons back to the home where they grew up draws out old resentments and attitudes—Cass has never learnt how to use a washing machine.

The choice of a string quartet may have had practical as well as artistic reasons. The cast sing without amplification so drums and guitars may have swamped their vocals. Ironically, on opening night, a rock band is audibly rehearsing nearby. Joe Davies’s score sets a tone that is not so much mature as sombre. This is suitable for the rueful theme of the musical and provides excellent backing for specific scenes. The driving, almost martial opening number is perfect for the siblings anxiously braving inclement weather to reach their destination. On occasion, however, a degree of variety might have given some relief from the tension on stage.

Georgie Botham's songs are more dialogue set to music than conventional lyrics and the traditional verse/chorus is absent. However, as Botham also directs, he is able to turn what might be perceived as a limitation into an advantage. The limited space allows for scant physical action so Botham treats the songs as soliloquies drawing out the misgivings of the characters or acting as conversations between them.

Emelye Moulton and Joe Winter build their characters well. When James rediscovers his earlier hopes and enthusiasms, Winter builds an enchanted innocence only to revert to type and become embarrassed and resigned to his mundane life. Moulton shows how the outwardly defiant Cass is out of her depth at being an adult. There is a convincing familial chemistry between Moulton and Winter with irritation jostling with affection. For the siblings, the family home offers a comforting stability and the cast convincingly make the bittersweet point that, from an emotional viewpoint, they have never really left.

How to Use a Washing Machine is a show unlike any other on the Fringe and is well worth a visit.

Reviewer: David Cunningham