Mostly MIFfy 2015 

The Manchester International Festival is an 18 day celebration of the best new artistic work from around the world. Here’s what Spank The Monkey saw there during two of those days.

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Well, that’s Alex Poots off. He’s delivered a Manchester International Festival every two years since 2007, in his role as its Artistic Director: the 2015 festival, currently running until July 19th, will be his swansong. There are many star collaborators Poots has worked with over his five festivals, and it’s tempting to see some of this year’s performances as being in the nature of a lap of honour, bringing those big names back just one more time.

That’s certainly the case with wonder.land, the third MIF theatrical production built around the music of Damon Albarn. The inaugural festival’s Monkey: Journey To The West was a groundbreaking piece of work, although hindsight suggests that director Chen Shi-Zheng was the main driving force behind that one. Certainly its two successors (both directed by Rufus Norris) haven’t been anything like as interesting, with 2011’s Doctor Dee suffering from a fraught production history that was more interesting than the production itself. This time round, Albarn and collaborators have taken their inspiration from Lewis Carroll. Here, when Aly (Lois Chimimba) enters her fantasy world, it’s an online environment where she can escape from her broken family, representing herself with a pretty blonde avatar called Alice (Rosalie Craig). At least, that’s what I’ve been led to believe from the publicity material: unfortunately, that fantasy world is represented by giant-sized video projections across the top half of the proscenium arch, most of which are largely invisible to anyone not sitting in the front stalls.

Albarn’s melodies here are solid rather than show-stopping – detractors will have a field day when they find out that after two decades of faux-Cockneyisms, he’s finally written a song with a spoons solo – but the problems with wonder.land go beyond careless set design. The basic premise behind the story’s update is perfectly sound, and gets better in the second half as Aly loses control of both Alice and her identity. But you do find yourself wondering who this show is aimed at. Presumably teenagers are the target audience (judging from the BBFC-mandated One Use Of Strong Language), but all too often it talks down to them to an embarrassing degree. I’d love to know how many committee meetings it took to agree the wording of the scene where schoolgirl bullies warn Aly “we’re going to tell everyone you perform sex acts.”

In the end, fingers have to be pointed at Moira Buffini, who’s responsible for both the book and the lyrics. The dialogue comes from that school of ham-fisted satire where simply acknowledging the existence of concepts like ‘money’, ‘gambling’ and ‘the internet’ is used as a substitute for saying something about them. Meanwhile, her lyrics are uninspired and massively repetitive: a song about Aly’s jealousy over her younger brother degenerates into the phrase ‘everyone loves Charlie’ being repeated a couple of dozen times in a row. After the first dozen, your mind wanders and you think about how that would have been a very different song if Albarn had written it 20 years ago. The sightline problems should go away when wonder.land transfers to the Olivier for its London run: the script problems, however, will need much more work.

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The other major theatrical event in this year’s MIF reunites Potts with director Sarah Frankcom and actress Maxine Peake, who were at the previous festival with a staged reading of Shelley’s The Masque Of Anarchy. That was an intimate solo performance in the beautifully restored Albert Hall: for The Skriker, they’ve gone to the other extreme, with a fifteen-strong cast occupying a Royal Exchange Theatre that’s been dressed to look like a bomb’s hit it. Peake plays the Skriker, ‘an ancient fairy’ according to her own description, and the main thrust of the plot covers the damage she causes by wheedling her way into the lives of two friends, Josie (Laura Elsworthy) and Lily (Juma Sharkah). Because the Skriker is one of those fairies who’ll grant you wishes, but only the sort of wishes that will do more harm than good.

The programme notes focus aggressively on The Skriker as an ecological parable, banging on about how Caryl Churchill’s twenty-year old play was written ages before we realised we had problems with the environment, apparently. Sure, it’s one possible reading, but it strikes me that it’s a massively reductive one. Fairy tales are how we, as children, learn to process the moral extremes of good and evil: can’t we just accept this as another fairy tale? If you start locking down a piece like this with simple x=y equivalences, you end up losing huge amounts of the ambiguity that Churchill has built into it.

And make no mistake, there’s infinite room for interpretation in The Skriker. As is frequently the case with Churchill’s plays, the first scene seems largely there to disorient the viewer, as Peake belts out a gigantic stream-of-consciousness monologue that tricks you into fearing that the whole play will be an extended version of the Monty Python sketch about word association football. But the Skriker is a changeling, and over the course of the next 90 minutes Peake will occupy several different bodies, genders and statuses, all the while still convincing you that this is the same character. It’s a stunning technical achievement on her part, and the danger is that this is all people will talk about – which is why it’s important to emphasise the contributions of Laura Elsworthy and Juma Sharkah as the humans she’s toying with. Peake gives you a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience, that’s true: but Elsworthy and Sharkah give you an emotional story, and it’s the combination of the two that makes this play so powerful.

It’s not all serious theatre at the festival, of course. Over in the Pavilion Theatre, there’s The Invisible Dot Cabaret, a late night show run by a company best known for dabbling in the more experimental end of comedy. On the night I visit, the audience feels strangely subdued for 10pm on a Saturday, as if they’re there for a theoretical demonstration of comedy rather than a bit of a laugh. Then again, it could be the noise from next door that’s distracting them, as DJ Dave Haslam is in the tent next door playing Earth Wind And Fire at skullbuggering volume.

Invisible Dot are drawing from a large pool of performers, and it’s down to luck as to which ones you get to see. On this occasion, our compere is Mae Martin, a Canadian bisexual who natters entertainingly about her dating woes since moving over here. Local comic Phil Ellis appears to have no such problems, managing to get a whole twenty minutes out of his unscripted, just-creepy-enough flirting with an audience member. The low point comes with Natasha Demetriou and Ellie White and their Eastern European dancing girl schtick: a pair of underdeveloped characters who don’t know how to react when audience members heckle them with Borat catchphrases. By comparison, three-man sketch troupe Sheeps come off really well, combining proper jokes with an interestingly dark edge – they’re not afraid to have a character lying on the ground howling in pain for thirty seconds or so before moving on to the next gag, a trick they successfully pull off twice. They’re also not afraid to address the elephant in the room (or just outside it), as one of them breaks off halfway through a sketch to remark “that was your mother’s favourite song…”

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The loud music is intentional and part of the show when you go to see FlexN Manchester at the old Granada TV studios, where a carefully colour-coded wristband system prevents audience members from sneaking off to see FKA twigs elsewhere in the same building. In a festival that prides itself on mixing up the international with the local, this has to be the best expression of that ideal: Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray’s Brooklyn street dance troupe brought ten Mancunian dancers over to their rehearsal studio, and then the whole lot came back to Manchester to show off the results.

This turns out to be one of those shows where getting there well before the advertised start time pays dividends. (It’s also true for The Skriker, as you can watch the people who’ve paid top whack for stage level seats discovering what they’ve let themselves in for.) Twenty dancers make their way in ones and twos onto the stage, and commence warming up – it’s delightful to see them informally trading off each other, as one person busts a move and the ones nearby play with it and offer up variations. And then music director Epic B flips a switch, and the whole team jolts into focus. There are a few numbers involving the group as a whole, but mostly they’re performing in twos or threes, acting out small stories in dance, to music covering the gamut from Black Skinhead to With Or Without You. There are no props, apart from some chairs used in a courtroom scene, and a couple of cudgels that come out during the more racially tense sequences.

The emotions displayed are a mixture of tenderness and anger, with the most electricity coming from the transitions between the two. You might not expect street dance forms to be that expressive: well, Gray and his crew are here to show you that you’re wrong, as along with the expected showboating there are some beautiful moments of calm. In the middle of all the macho headspins and virtual limb dislocations, Deidra ‘Dayntee’ Braz performs a quietly effortless solo to Beyonce’s I Was Here that makes the entire audience fall in love with her a little bit. But by the time we get to the encore – as everyone in the group gets a few seconds of freestyling in the limelight – you’ve fallen in love with all of them a little bit. FlexN has become the surprise success of this year’s MIF, with its initial run of three shows extended to seven, and deservedly so.

This year’s festival has had one other surprise hit as far as I’m concerned, with A Manchester Walking Tour also extending its run. Jonathan Schofield, editor of the Manchester Confidential listings website, is the perfect host for a ninety-minute stroll around town, only slightly constrained by its subtitle Radicals, Pioneers And Rabbit Holes. Starting outside the Albert Memorial – where he notes the mutual fondness that developed between Manchester and Prince Albert, and the lack of an equivalent fondness for Albert’s wife – he introduces us to some of the locations and people that made this city what it is today.

There’s a cheeky edge to Schofield’s narration, pulling the tour group together with stuff that you feel he really shouldn’t be telling us. Like when he’s standing by the statue of Abraham Lincoln, and contrasts Manchester’s anti-slavery stance with Liverpool’s effectively pro-slavery one. Or when he’s pointing out the huge (but easily overlooked) promotional stunt for the Manchester Fringe that can be clearly seen from the rival Festival’s hub. Snippets like this make the tour feel like a little conspiracy between us all. The highlight comes when we go inside an old pub in Barton Arcade – well, not inside it, exactly – to learn about a 19th century opera singer and her connection to a previous incarnation of the MIF. A Manchester Walking Tour may have lower overheads than any other event in this festival, but that has no bearing on its sheer entertainment value.

I mentioned the Manchester Fringe back there – it’s not as fundamental to MIF as, say, the Edinburgh Fringe is to Edinburgh, but it’s a testament to the work Alex Poots has done over the last decade that he’s curated a festival that’s worthy of a fringe. And as if to bolster the Edinburgh comparisons still further, this year the inaugural Manchester International Film Festival ran alongside it. Whether he intended these sidebar events or not, the fact remains that Poots has turned Manchester into a full-on festival city in the space of a decade: he’s left his successor with some gargantuan shoes to fill. We’ll find out in 2017 how well they do.

wonder.land has completed its MIF run, and transfers to the Royal National Theatre from November 27th.

The Skriker continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre until August 1st.

The Invisible Dot Cabaret FlexN Manchester and A Manchester Walking Tour continue throughout the Festival until July 19th. See individual links for full details.

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About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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