Manchester Theatre Awards

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

On Corporation Street

ANU Productions
ANU productions and HOME
HOME, Manchester
15 June 2016 to 25 June 2016

Even before HOME opened its doors, they had brought the innovative Irish company ANU Productions to the city for the brilliantly down and dirty site-specific piece Angel Meadow in an old pub in Ancoats. Now they’re back, exploring Manchester’s more recent past, and indeed the HOME building itself, with a challenging and immersive piece inspired by the IRA bomb, the largest bomb to be detonated in Great Britain since World War II, which exploded near to the Arndale Centre exactly twenty years ago. Miraculously, no-one was killed but many hundreds were seriously injured and businesses, dwellings and livelihoods all across Central Manchester were disrupted or destroyed, while its civic, cultural and financial shock waves are still being felt.

For ANU it’s part of a year-long triptych looking at “Irish renegades and acts of rebellion that have shifted cultural thinking at home and abroad.” Obviously, it has enormous resonance in this city and seems a splendid example of how HOME are working hard to be involved in work that is relevant to their home city whilst consciously operating in a much wider context.

“We’ve tried to be as truthful as we can in the research and the development, and then to re-imagine that as art. For every hour of work that we show to an audience, there’s seven hours that doesn’t get in,” ANU’s Louise Lowe has explained of a process that involved taking almost 200 testimonies from people who were there on the day or subsequently involved.

Initially, the audience at HOME are taken into the main theatre but this is certainly not a traditional piece. “I haven’t made anything for a stage in 20 years,” Lowe laughs. So it’s not long before a fire alarm sounds and the audience are whisked in small groups through a kaleidoscopic, sometimes harrowing, occasionally unexpectedly funny representation of what happened that day and afterwards. Much as with Angel Meadow, what audiences actually see and experience can vary quite significantly. My group, for instance, initially saw a short film about the Bomb, before a belligerent Irishman arrived to whisk us off to a storeroom where a worker who had happened to be below ground at the time movingly described what happened and how he felt when he emerged in the midst of the chaos, extraordinarily finding himself at one point held at gun point by a soldier in a tank!

Elsewhere in the various nooks and crannies backstage at HOME we met a tearful, unnecessarily apologetic Irish nurse, and were conducted from there into an area crammed with mannequins (212, in fact, a reference to the numbers injured and the way shop mannequins were mistaken for bodies in the confused aftermath) as an actress writhed, wrapping herself in white lace. In a room full of hanging keys, we waited with one of the many hundreds who were displaced by the Bomb and compelled to wait for days, weeks or even years to get back the keys to their property, shut down in a quasi-military operation.

Other audience members might well have had a quite different experiences, it emerged when, 75 minutes later, we were all chased onto the street by soldiers. “For the audience, it has to feel wild enough and bold enough that anything can happen, whilst being orchestrated to within an inch of its life,” laughs Lowe, and I heard one audience member wondering aloud why “all theatre can’t be this immersive and thrilling.” A slightly extreme point of view, perhaps, but I know what they mean.

 

Reviewer: Kevin Bourke

Comments

Comment by David Cunningham

On Corporation Street is essentially a dramatisation of the testimonies about the 1996 bombing of Manchester by the IRA. The staging by director Louise Lowe pushes the play beyond the boundaries of verbatim theatre. The audience is imaginatively split into small groups and channelled around the HOME complex hearing the stories in an intensely personal manner, which includes holding the hand of a bloke on the verge of tears. It is an ambitious approach and have to say didn’t completely generate the empathy the producers might have hoped.

There are striking sequences especially entering a room that has literally been turned upside down by the blast. There is a bracing sense of lingering bitterness with the phrase’ Well, at least no-one died’ becoming an increasingly insincere litany. The conclusion is, however, something of a let down giving the impression that; unable to devise a suitably stunning ending, the company just made do.

Comment by Paul Genty

It might have been nice if some more of the ideas allegedly discarded in the one-hour-from-seven ratio had been put back in, or perhaps I just got one of the short straws. At least 20 of the 75 minutes were taken up with the interminably long opening "bomb" sequence - watching actors mime, in ultra-slow motion, being blown over by the blast; and by the mannequin room, a slightly boring standing about in gloom while the dancer moved repetitively among the 212. A nice idea, but dragged out way beyond its interest.

And as David says, the ending is a bit lame; it amounts to sending people out of the back doors and leading them round to the front.

Elsewhere, the vacillating bride (was the bomb a sign she shouldn't be going through with her on-off wedding?) was nervily on point, and the Manchester-Irish nurse shocked at both the carnage and the dishonour, powerfully done. Closer to the matter, our visit with one of the men who transported the bomb materials (young and personable), and one of the men who designed and built it (violence now long behind him) were more telling; this was a political act, designed to bring the government back to negotiations, not to kill. Though only the IRA seemed to look at it that way...

Theatrically we have to realise that no matter what, this is a "post-act" document, a time of chaos, then quiet shock and release after the explosion. It could never have the visceral impact - despite its subject - of Angel Meadow, which effectively bottled in a theatrical experience an extraordinary powder keg of Irish-Italian tension and the very real possiblity, in the audience's mind at least, of physical violence.

Both shows approach the pojnt of impact from opposite directions, but the former did it far more effectively. Which is not to say that once again, ANU sets a bar for other companies to aspire to.

PS: Was I the only one who spotted in the HOME shop an edition of "Bomb" magazine - completely unconnected to the show?

Comment by Alan Hulme

Having heard how tremendous was Angel Meadow, the company's previous Manchester outing, I was greatly disappointed by this.

I found the format entirely false and often silly and the individual episodes mostly rather boring, beginning with the confusing, and as Paul says, interminable, slow motion sequence on the main stage.

I was engaged fully only twice, once with a simple but clever staging effect involving shattering shards and once with the aforementioned apologetic Irish nurse, her narrative (and performance) being the only one that connected at a deeply human level for me.

Being finally herded out into the street by the, unconvincing, soldiers, was, as David indicates, very lame, much like the rest in fact.

Comment by David Upton

The unanimity for Angel Meadow, rarely enjoyed by the Panel, seems to be missing here. For me, the power of drama, with an intensely human touch, is exemplified by this remarkable production.

When one actor holds out his hands for help, and a theatregoer (see above!) instinctively takes them in his, the ensuing silence between them speaks volumes for the impact generated.

Such simple humanity is celebrated through a complex amount of stagecraft, logistics and creativity.

Twenty years after the IRA used a massive truck bomb to turn Manchester upside down, Irish theatre company ANU turn one of the city’s shiniest new landmark buildings inside out to achieve a commemoration of the anniversary.

Apart from an opening stage sequence, where the only prop is the bomber’s vehicle and the cast of 14 move – in achingly slow motion – about their everyday lives, the rest of the performance is to be found in stairwells, backstage corridors and basement storage areas, where geometrically distorted rooms create settings for characters whose lives have been savagely interrupted.

The verbatim dialogue is drawn from actual witnesses and then interpreted through cast members. No two theatregoers, broken up into small groups and urgently huddled around the spaces, are likely to see or experience the same encounters. The uncertainty of it all mirrors the feeling of disruption to ordinary lives.

The sheer restraint of this production becomes part of its astonishing power. And the final abandonment, on the streets of Manchester, seemed to sum up the disorienting experience . . .