Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

MIF: Cotton Panic!

Co-creators: Jane Horrocks (performer & music), Nick Vivan (writer), Stephen Mallinder (music), Phil Winter (music), Ben Edwards (music)
Manchester International Festival
Upper Campfield Market Hall
08 July 2017 to 15 July 2017

Like Jimmy McGovern's King Cotton at The Lowry a decade ago, Cotton Panic! examines the relationship between the Lancashire cotton mills and the cotton growing trade of the US in the mid-nineteenth century, the latter fuelled by slavery.

I'm always suspicious of a title with an exclamation mark, as it looks like it is trying to make up for something lacking in the performance. That is the case here, in a show that amounts to a collage of bits and pieces played with such over-earnestness it borders on parody.

It begins with some promise: the audience is stood in the large empty space of the Upper Campfield Market building with screens on either side of them and across the back of the stage, the latter a gauze that can reveal the 3-piece band behind with its keyboards and an array of plugs and cables in a wall of analogue synths and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Cotton snows down all around us on the screens, as the band creates a tense musical atmosphere.

Jane Horrocks appears through the audience (pushing us quite forcefully out of her way) and mounts the stage, dressed in flowing white. She then delivers a collage of verse, contemporary accounts from Lancashire and USA, modern songs and traditional folk songs—some of the writing isn't that great, but it's all delivered as though it is brilliantly profound.

The thin dramatic thread that pops up now and again begins with the workers in the Lancashire mills, then makes the link with the plantations in the Southern States where Lincoln is campaigning to end slavery. The Southern ports are blockaded, with the result that the cotton can't get to Lancashire and there is no work, therefore no pay, for the mill workers.

The people of Manchester crowd the Free Trade Hall to collaborate on a letter to Lincoln in support of his attempts to ban the slave trade, despite the effects it has on them. Lincoln responds with his thanks. The ending is backed with a film collage of recent events, including the face of Trump and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The constantly running film on three screens is slick and polished, with some atmospheric imagery and a couple of monologues, one a compellingly delivered account of the poverty in a Manchester home, spoken by Glenda Jackson. The songs are, of course, sung very well by Horrocks and include the Grace Jones hit "Slave To The Rhythm" (which she changes right at the end to "Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton"), The Clash's "White Riot" and a snatch of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", sung through a megaphone.

During all of this, Horrocks cavorts about the stage, often with arm movements that suggest some kind of machine, puts on clogs, floats through the audience like a ghost, repeating "Can you help us a bit?" to no one in particular, before being carried back to the stage. Production values are high, but it doesn't seem to add up to very much at all.

Even down to the '80s fanzine-style photocopied programme, it all looks like a self-consciously "arty" scrapbook of ideas rather than a finished piece that delivers a clear message or story. I've no idea why we had to stand up for an hour and ten minutes, but it is carried off with a certain polish.

Reviewer: David Chadderton


Comment by Paul Genty

Jane Horrocks is a terrific actress but when left to her own devices is shown here to be self-indulgent - and indulged by everyone around her.

This electropop rendition of the Cotton Famine adds nothing to the historical record and to all intents is merely Horrocks taking her moment to be a rock-chick, head-banging her way round the stage, dressing up and generally strutting like some sort of robotic lead singer in a cheesy rock band.

The content is mundane, the venue wildly inappropriate for this production - 95 per cent of the text was unintelligible from my position near the back of the crowd - and the highly-polished visuals are good only for about 20 minutes of the 70 minute run time (and only 10 minutes if they played it at normal speed). In other words, there's a lot of repetition, and I could barely take any more of Horrocks swaying about in slow-motion. The whole thing is horribly misjudged.

Since I was near the door I noticed a few walk-outs long before the end. They might have been history fans horribly let down by the title, but I reckon they just had more sense than the rest of us.

Comment by Alan Hulme

Yes, David and Paul sum it up very well.

It emerges as a highly self indulgent mess, rescued spasmodically by the visuals and in particular by a turn, on film, from Glenda Jackson who gives an object lesson in how to dramatise a reading. The pre-show atmosphere is very good, there's a real 'this is special' festival feel about the venue but then Horrocks takes to the stage and it's practically all downhill from then on.

I'm not having a good festival overall I'm afraid.

Comment by David Cunningham

Cotton Panic feels more like a ‘concept’ rock album than a structured play. The idea of the audience standing while watching the actor sing is very like a concert in , say, The Academy , and is prone to the issues that arise in that kind of setting. The degree of discomfort makes it hard to concentrate and the audience becomes distracted.