Manchester Theatre Awards

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

Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.

Quarantine Theatre
Quarantine, HOME and Contact Theatres
Old Granada Studios, Manchester
22 March 2016 to 03 April 2016

Summer, a 2014 performance art event from Quarantine Theatre, now gets not only a revival but also a number of sequels to cover the other seasons of the year. Audiences can attend Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. in individual ‘seasons’ or as a day-long programme that includes the revival, another performance event, a film and an interactive event that feels like a very long interval. It is a staggeringly ambitious concept from director Richard Gregory and the most surprising thing is that it works so well.

Throughout Summer a sign over the stage area relays to the audience, gathered in a vast hanger-like space in the former Granada television studios, instructions on how we should behave and react. The final one reads’ Try and make sense of it all’. Well, I’ll have a go but this is community-based performance art so it isn’t going to be easy.

Summer, as is often the case with seasonal change, creeps up on you, starting before the audience realises it has begun. Mistress of Ceremonies Leentje Van de Cruys demonstrates the futility of preconceptions and prejudices by chatting with the audience and forming opinions about their nature and background based purely upon appearance.

The designs by Simon Banham are not subtle but they are effective. The formal opening of Summer arrives with a blaze of hot lighting and ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ blasting out (played in full – nothing about this event is short).The stage area gradually fills with 39 performers drawn from the community and covering a range of ethnicity, gender and age. While the cast have rehearsed, their performance on the day is largely improvised.  In a manner that brings to mind obeying the dictates of organised religion they follow instructions from above. In this case the directions from Richard Gregory appear on a screen facing the cast and specifying the actions they should perform.

The cast demonstrate the difference between fantasy and reality by showing how stage fighting works and respond to a series of questions that seem deliberately mundane. Thus the cast reply to queries on the time they got out of bed, their method of travelling to the venue and so on. The point may be that life comprises the trivial as well as the profound.

The flexible cast cope well with this unorthodox approach going so far, at the conclusion, to litter the stage with possessions that may represent the debris that we accumulate throughout life. However, the young children, who play by their own rules and so bring a welcome sense of anarchy to the production, steal the show. Could have kissed the girl who, upon hearing her mother asked what she carries every day, called out her brother’s name.

The interactive elements of Summer do not really work. No one in the audience responds to, or really understands, the instruction that we should ‘Lose yourself in the chaos’. 

As is often the case with performance art Summer is more than a little self indulgent and goes on longer than is physically comfortable. It is, however, extremely evocative. There is a sense of entering while a performance is underway and leaving knowing that it will go on without you. Just like life really.

Golden leaves blown across the stage by an industrial fan signal the arrival of Autumn. One tries to be open minded about performance art. Hell, I once posed naked at one such event at The Lowry (no, really). But Autumn at times tests the patience.

Autumn is intended as a playful but intellectually challenging interactive event.  The audience is given the chance to wander around sampling a range of activities that are led by experts in the field and also to play ping-pong. The options are varied and potentially fascinating but performance art is not very disciplined and Quarantine fails to devise an effective way of allowing patrons a chance to sample them all. Rather than impose a time limit, in the style of speed dating, after which one group of patrons leaves and another joins, events are allowed to run as long as the organisers feel appropriate. Seeing as the public discussion on identity and individualisation is structured like a lecture with questions leading to a conclusion your chance of joining in, or understanding, the discussion after the event has started are limited  

Had to sympathise with skeptical clairvoyant Dr. Tuheen Huda who was lumbered with trying to read the Tarot for someone as emotionally retarded as me. In theory Autumn is a stimulating concept but in reality it feels like an elongated bathroom break in a show that is anything but concise.   

Winter, directed by Rachel Davies and Daniel Saul, is the first film that Quarantine has made but there is no lack of confidence apparent. The ‘widescreen’ style screen erected onstage is fully utilised with bleak images. The title reflects the ending of a life and comprises interviews with Mandy King-Holmes who has been given a terminal diagnosis. Perhaps to make the point that life does not necessarily change as it nears the end the questions to which she responds are the same as those put to the performers earlier in Summer.

Davies and Saul open and close the film with shots that linger for an uncomfortable length of time on Mandy’s face. It leads to the inescapable conclusion that she looks too young for her horrible fate. The directors combine the routine with the abstract- the screen is split between Mandy performing her daily tasks and extreme close-ups of kitchen implements and grasslands. Mandy’s down to earth attitude is in contrast to such artistic pretension. Although she expresses a wish to visit Rome Mandy’s bucket list is little more than tiding up the garden

Mandy’s attitude towards her condition is not so much resigned as brutally realistic and astonishingly brave. The terminal diagnosis means that she has no future; you don’t give up the fight, she opines, but you do lose. 

Inspiration may be running dry by the time Spring rolls around as the format feels very similar to that adopted for Summer. The stage is full of shiny metallic balloons with a single vase of daffodils and nine pregnant women emerge from behind a glittery screen.

Spring is less about the glory of childbirth than the anxiety of motherhood. There is no performance as such, rather the mothers-to-be respond to questions that articulate their concerns.

The point may be that, for mothers, there are no minor concerns everything is a major issue. Thus the list of questions makes no distinction between trivial and vital matters. Concerns about whether the child may have a deformity are followed immediately by worries about if he/ she will be a Coldplay fan or how they will pronounce words like ‘ garage’ or ‘scone’. It is a gentle and amusing sequence but without the physical elements that brought texture to the earlier event Spring feels rather dry.

The achievement of Quarantine with Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. should not be underestimated. Performance art is an acquired taste and the event is more of an intellectual than an emotional experience; but the Company has secured the participation of a large group of very loyal community performers and attracted a substantial audience to an event that requires a considerable commitment in terms of time and concentration. Artistically the Company has broken new ground moving into film as well as further developing their already substantial achievements in theatre. Besides the concept is so audacious - to follow a successful event with a trio of sequels rather than just one is so cheeky that it adds to the sense that the audience has taken part in something special.

Reviewer: David Cunningham