MIF17: Cotton Panic!

If you break Cotton Panic! down into its constituent parts, each is strong.  The location is Campfield Market, an eery throwback to Manchester’s industrial past.  The audience stand with two giant video screens at either side, as if in an art gallery video installation.  To the front, on stage are three musicians looking every bit the part of electronica superstars, and the music they play is brilliant, both new and based around Lancashire folk songs.  Jane Horrocks is an amazing performer as she narrates and sings her way through the story of how Manchester stood in solidarity with American slaves in 1862 even as the workers starved.

But the whole does not equal the sum of the parts.  Gig-theatre is a tricky thing to get right.  I’ve seen only one – KlangHaus in the Southbank roof space last summer – that truly worked in a non-club space.  The problem is how to combine the very different elements and maintain a sense of pace and energy with a static audience.  This production is no different; the high energy of the musical pieces is lost as we watch important messages being portrayed on the video.  Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s War is always a good place to start.

At one point Jane Horrocks enters the audience and is lifted aloft.  It’s a powerful and moving image but it’s hard to see how it fits the narrative.  And that sums up the performance.  What comes off the stage, out of the screens, from the performers’ bodies, is all impressive.  But inside the audience’s eyes, ears and brains it just doesn’t quite make sense.

This is at heart a fascinating story and the production does well to recreate the sounds, the chaos and the danger of life around the cotton mills in 1862.  It’s important that we in Manchester understand the trade on which our city’s fortune was built.  To highlight the impact of the American Civil War on Manchester is to demonstrate the precarious nature of globalisation 150 years ago.  We don’t need reminding how our world is affected today by the same forces, yet a later video does just that 😞.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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