Mixed Up North
Out of Joint and the Octagon, Bolton
Wilton's Music Hall
The Burnley Tourist Board, if there is such a body, will not thank Robin Soans for creating Mixed Up North. His portrayal of the town through the disillusioned eyes of its youngsters, who aspire to nothing better than a life on the dole, pulls few punches. In fact, while Burnley is in focus, it is a microcosm of much wider problems.
Soans has become one of the leading lights in Verbatim Theatre and uses the words of the locals to tell their own stories. However, on this occasion, his editing is far more pronounced than usual, as he threads together sad tales to create a gripping and sometimes heartrending drama.
The structure of the first half is metatheatrical, as a group of lost young people, both White and Asian, is brought together to perform a community play. They do this under the joint leadership of Celia Imrie's do-gooding, born again Trish and the more straightforward but equally committed Bella played by Kathryn O'Reilly.
Their charges are as mixed up a bunch as could be imagined, having been brought up in a town that lost its mills and its soul simultaneously before succumbing to race riots in 2001. The result is a level of mistrust that no quantity of social Band-Aids can resolve.
After the interval, the format changes to a Q & A featuring a seemingly happy couple, Catherine who is Irish and Bilal, a Muslim (Claire Rafferty and Tyrone Lopez). While they are harmonious, their presence lights a fuse under Roy, the head of local social services who has lost his way due to a perceived political need for impartiality that prevents any kind of action for fear of giving offence.
Through the 2¼ hours, the characters tell stories, many of which are hard to take, such is the state of deprivation in this Lancashire hotbed of racially charged anger.
First, Muzz Khan as ex-con youth worker Uday talks of a violent youth (practically childhood) that ended in a racially motivated murder and incarceration.
The stand-out tales though are all delivered by women, which is not coincidental. In this dysfunctional community, they suffer even more than the menfolk.
The really talented Rose Leslie, who only graduated from drama school last year, is Wendy, who reveals a horrific history of child abuse topped off by a recent rape. In a similar vein, Tamsin (Lorna Stewart) explains how her fourteen-year-old sister was kidnapped and weaned onto hard drugs by what would in other circumstances have been called a White Slaver (despite his Pakistani origins).
Finally, Stephanie Street, who has had a great year starting as star of Shades, plays Aneesa, a woman willing to confront her own hidden feelings in the public gaze, exploring an arranged marriage that took her from the (married) man whom she loved.
Evenings like this are never going to end happily, at least not until the powers that be devote adequate resources to deprived communities. However, the sight of these varied people working together, if a little reluctantly inspires at least a modicum of hope for a more peaceful, if not actually joyous future for this growing underclass.
When Robin Soans takes on an issue, the authorities would be wise to take note. Once again, he has objectively highlighted social problems that have to be solved before our society can once again claim to be civilised.
David Chadderton reviewed the production's premiere at the Octagon, Bolton
Reviewer: Philip Fisher