The Mysteries – Royal Exchange Theatre (Studio)

The Mysteries is a series of six one-act plays rooted around different locations in England, depicting a day in the life of their inhabitants. Two plays are staged each night, with ‘Eskdale’ and ‘Manchester’ being performed on the night I attended.

As soon as you enter the studio, you feel like you are part of a community church fete, as tea is served and free raffle tickets are handed to audience members. Television screens adorn the auditorium, showing sheep grazing, creating a visual portal into the countryside. ‘Eskdale’ is an endearing play which debates the idealism of urban dwellers believing that moving to the country provides an escape from their worries and finding their roots, becoming one with the land. Providing multiple narrative vantage points, ‘Eskdale’ challenges this ideology, showing how rural communities struggle when the tourist season ends. Having to struggle with weather, low wages, a lack of job opportunities, environmental destruction, such as fracking, and poor broadband connections, it is clear that living in rural areas is harder than the naïve dreams of urban relocators.

The studio space is used well, with an inventive shift of lighting and different levels of the stage being used to indicate when characters were visiting a Roman fort in the hills, and when they were in their house. Locally resourced props, such as sheep sheers and wool, decorate the stage, reinforcing the rural setting of the play without the need for extravagant stage design. This is a skillful use of an intimate space and works wonders! Intimacy is further added as characters sit in the audience whilst still participating in the play’s action and Nadia Clifford’s character brilliantly breaks the fourth wall.

The thing I love most about ‘Eskdale’ is its clever injection of poetic verse, exquisitely dictated by Andrew Sheridan. It feels Shakespearean and seems to follow the rhythm of iambic pentameter, lending gravitas to lines that encourage reflection of our own impact on the environment.

There is a fun raffle in the interval, where socks, soap, chocolate biscuits and a bottle of bubbly are the prizes.

The second play, ‘Manchester’, sees a dramatic shift in mood from the light-hearted, endearing play of ‘Eskdale’. The stage is stripped and the idyllic countryside on the televisions has been replaced by one word; ‘Manchester’. The feeling of being at a church fete vanishes. It now feels like we are being included in a support group. The six actors take their positions in and around the audience. Taking turns, they describe small details about Manchester, from its modern architecture to its industrial heritage, from trams to the artisan restaurants that occupy the Northern Quarter, serving ‘thick cut chips in metal baskets’. Slowly, these small details are pieced together to create a true reflection of a day in a bustling city. That day is 22nd May 2017.

It is profoundly powerful and moving as details about that fateful day are read aloud. Commuters are squashed onto the trains departing Victoria Station. Life carries on as usual, oblivious of the impending disaster. Children and their parents are on their way to an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. A man is stood in the foyer with a backpack on.

Silence.

Details are then read about the aftermath, describing how Manchester pulled together as a community as the public opened their homes to stranded families. Emergency services, homeless people, taxi drivers all ran to the aid of those caught up in the catastrophe.

‘Manchester’ then shows how a city can pick itself up and carry on from such an event. An immense feeling of pride flows through me as details are read about how Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ became an anthem of the city and how Tony Walsh’s poem became iconic. A tattoo artist works on a bee tattoo, one of many they have done that day. A sea of flowers covers St Anne’s Square. The dead are remembered as a city unites in solidarity.

Reliving the events of that day is painfully poignant and upsetting, but acts as a powerful reminder of how incredible the spirit of Manchester is. From our historic reputation of ‘worker bees’ to the present day, Mancunians have proved that they are resilient, coping with whatever is thrown at us.

For The Mysteries to tell these events so soon after the bombing, while it is still raw, can be seen as controversial. This is particularly true with the shocking line, “But we never speak about him”, which shook me to the core. The idea that Salman Abedi was Mancunian. He lived a normal life, like the rest of us, before being radicalised. It implies that he was ‘one of our own’. ‘Manchester’ contentiously asks whether his radicalisation could have been stopped by the community. If we held out a hand in support, could it have been stronger than the hand of Islamic State? After a resident commits horrific atrocities, do they still class as Mancunian? It is incredibly uncomfortable to confront these questions, but do these questions need answering in order for Manchester to move on?

Both plays encourage reflection, but ‘Manchester’ is really hard-hitting. I was left emotionally wrecked. To reflect on the Manchester bombing is excruciatingly difficult as I worked literally across the road from Victoria Station and was reminded daily of the horrific events of that day. Thankfully, there was a warning in the interval that the terrorist attack will be discussed. ‘Manchester’ is profoundly moving, emotional and poignant. It also made me feel proud to be a Mancunian.

I don’t feel that it is appropriate to give The Mysteries a star rating so I will leave this instead:-

“This is the place in our hearts, in our homes,

Because this is the place that’s a part of our bones”

Tony Walsh – ‘This is the Place’ (2017)

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