Manchester Theatre Awards

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

The Funfair

Simon Stephens/Odon von Horvath
14 May 2015 to 13 June 2015

Big, bold and brillianntly provocative, this opening theatre production at HOME is quite a calling card for a new cross-arts venue that has set its sights, not just on thrilling Manchester audiences but on establishing itself as a European centre of excellence.

It’s fair to say that it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste and that there’s not really a lot of fun either in Stockport-born writer Simon Stephens’s adaptation of a 1932 play ‘Kasimir und Karoline’ written in German by Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth. He’s hardly a household name in the UK, although Walter Meierjohann, HOME’s Artistic Director: Theatre, looked very disappointed in me when I recently admitted that I was completely unfamiliar with the play. Simon, though, adores (his word) his work, having been introduced to it by Sarah Frankcom, now Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange when she was Literary Manager there and Simon was Resident Dramatist.

So the play has more Manchester associations that one might initially assume, thus playing very neatly into HOME’s aspirations. Moreover, the action, originally set in Munich at the height of the recession towards the end of the twenties, on the cusp of the rise of the National Socialist Party, has been updated by Simon to contemporary Manchester. He, like Walter, perceives a real contemporary relevance to the play and observes that he “loves the idea that, in my version, von Horvath’s constellation of characters will be telling their stories a stone’s throw away from the site of the Hacienda nightclub, which I often went to when I was their age.”

In fact, he goes further and credits von Horvath with predicting “many of Manchester’s dramatic literary traditions. There is a compassion for the poor and a celebration of their capacity for poetry and wonder in the play that is more likely to be found in the works of Shelagh Delaney or Jim Cartwright or Alistair McDowall (another MTA success, folks!) than in Brecht. That tension between a flinty examination of the lives of the skint, the drunk and the disenfranchised and a faith in their capacity to reach for the poetic seems to run like a vein through much of Manchester’s culture.

“I wanted to write The Funfair because von Horvath’s play speaks so startlingly about Britain now. It may have been set in 1920’s Munich but I know of few other plays that so directly dramatise what it feels like to be alive today.”

Which would all be so much PR cant, of course, if the play simply didn’t speak to the audience at HOME, which, on balance, it did. I’m sure neither Simon nor Walter would be surprised to hear that there were people there who, even if they loved the new space and the way the production (designed by MTA-winning Ti Green) indisputably looked stunning, simply didn’t like the play, finding it rather too bitter a pils to swallow.

And it was undoubtedly tough to watch. Basically, it tells the story of the disintegration of a relationship between Cash (Wigan-born Ben Batt), embittered after losing his job, and Caroline (Katie Moore, nominated in last year’s Manchester Theatre Awards) over the course of a night at the fair. Characters like the terrifyingly misogynistic Frankie Marr (Michael Ryan), his woefully put-upon girlfriend Esther (Victoria Gee) and the drunken, corrupt authority figures Billy Smoke (Ian Bartholomew) and David Spear (Christopher Wright, a familiar Library Company face and thus another link to HOME’s antecedents) constantly reappear and add to the overwhelming sense of dread that drenches the production. Adding to the general sense of dislocation and carnival weirdness, proceedings are narrated by a classic carnival character Tiny (James Lusted), a garishly made up rock-band punctuate the action with live music, drunken revelers wander in and out of the proceedings and there’s even a Freakshow.

It all looks fantastic and is full of real “wow!” moments – earlier in the day’s Opening Celebrations Walter had talked about a cinematic quality that he was looking for in HOME’s productions - but it’s a very long way from the relatively staid repertory theatre tradition represented by the old Library Theatre Company and, for that alone, will no doubt disturb some theatre-goers. Too bad, I have to say. That was then, this is now and HOME has arrived with quite a bang, even apart from the Opening Night fireworks outside.

Reviewer: Kevin Bourke


Comment by David Cunningham

Afraid this is a disappointment. It isn’t so much that the play is bleak but that the points made are obvious and the storytelling ponderous. It looks fantastic but when such a skilled cast turns out caricatures rather than characters you have to conclude that style has overtaken substance.

Comment by Alan Hulme

Firstly, and most importantly by far, on initial acquaintance, the main theatre space at HOME seems very much fit for purpose. It’s a comfortable, pretty intimate 500-seater with an impressively large stage and excellent technical facilities that include flying. Not since the Library also had the Forum has the Library (of which HOME is the successor) had such a tech box of tricks to play with. Thank you Manchester City Council.

There will be sightline problems from some seats in the two balconies of course but only Frank Matcham has ever seemed able to solve that one. Front of house however is vastly better than Matcham ever managed and of course far superior to either the Library or Forum.

So, so far so good. A pity then that the opening production isn’t more interesting.

It must be appallingly difficult to choose a piece with which to open a venture like this and I’m afraid this isn’t a huge success. In general, so far, The Funfair has had a lukewarm reception, and that against a background of generally goodwill all around that wants HOME to be a winner.

I’m all in favour of moving on from the traditions the Library worked to, as, uniquely in the regions, in Greater Manchester we have other venues that can and will carry on the repertory heritage (though they will have their work cut out to rival the Scase/Lloyd-Lewis/Honer/Haines/Kerryson era). And I very much hope HOME will live up to its aim of delivering something more radical/barrier-breaking/exciting.

But The Funfair isn’t it. Despite more grandiose claims by writer/adaptor and director, it simply comes across as little more than two-and-a-half hours of bickering by two fairly unpleasant couples, in a warmed-over version of an obscure German play from the 1930s.

The band is good, there’s an excellent singer and the staging is impressive – a curved rear wall with coloured lights around the edges of tall slot entrances/exits, raked stage with revolve and so on – and so is the quality of the sound.

But the problem is the piece itself, which just doesn’t grip and has very little to say, a slight story stretched vastly beyond its worth. I was very bored and if this hadn’t been such an important/significant night for Manchester theatre, I would have left at the interval, as four others did from my row alone…

Comment by David Upton

Theatre director Water Meierjohann gave the game away when he introduced his first-ever stage production as being “very visual”.
For that’s exactly what it is . . . and all that it is.
A gaudy piece of sub-Brechtian theatre that may well signal a new order of mittel-European performance in the city, but does not bode too well for putting itself on a wider cultural map.
Stephens has adapted a 1930s Hungarian play, about young love being trampled upon in a time of economic despair, and attempted to drag it towards some contemporary relevance to Manchester at a moment just after the recent general election.
Trouble is, Meierjohann and Stephens have maybe second-guessed the outcome of that election, and certainly forgotten to take out mention of a Zeppelin overhead.
What we’re left with is a series of predictable alienation techniques that draw a few nervous audience giggles, but are acted out by two-dimensional cartoon characters.
Familiar stage clichés from this type of theatre abound.
A dwarf narrator, check; characters carrying balloons, check; circus or fairground setting, check; mad dancing, check; a freak show, check; reptilian capitalists – the list goes on.
By the time one such reptile starts to ply a young girl with drink and lure her to Blackpool in his Bentley there is some current though thoroughly unpleasant relevance.
As a technical showcase of HOME’s stage apparatus The Funfair is occasionally eye-catching. A central stage revolve that can also tilt; digital projection techniques on a front gauze or stage backdrop that appear to set the whole stage spinning; and simultaneous projected replay of stage action on to the set.
The potential for theatre that hits you between the eyes is enormous, but if it’s not coupled with some effect between the ears then it’s just shadows without substance.
Manchester’s striking new house of culture is not yet quite at home.

Comment by Robert Beale

We seem to have common ground that the UK tradition of working class realism does it better than von Horvath ever did, and so you wonder why anyone bothered to Mancunianise this play. But the very fact that its picture of a disintegrating society so closely preceded Naziism raises the question of whether plays that show communal malaises and reflect on the uselessness of 'politicians' ever actually do any good. Discuss.

As a set of performances, though, I rate it pretty highly. Yes, the director is playing a bit too much with his new toybox of technical tricks, and yes, the question of 'period' is distinctly (deliberately?) ambiguous, with miniskirts, platform shoes, 1950s songs, Georgie Fame and ... Zeppelins (to today's audiences, maybe that's all just 'somewhere in the past'). But when I saw it, well into the run, the portrayals by Ben Batt, Katie Moore, Michael Ryan, Victoria Gee and Ian Bartholomew were vivid and well able to make you think. It wasn't pretty, but it had a whiff of reality.