This is Manchester. We do things differently here. The Mancunian spirit is almost as famous as its two football teams (come on you reds!), and the indie music that was born here. But what does it mean to be Mancunian? Monkeywood Theatre respond to this by creating fourteen bite-sized, micro plays that are penned by the region’s greatest writers.
The Manchester Project at Christmas provides snapshots of everyday people at Christmas time. Each play is set in a different town within Manchester, creating a theatrical map of the city. They are all performed by fantastic local actors, who will be familiar to those who visit Manchester’s theatres, with most of them being regulars at The Royal Exchange.
The stage is adorned with fourteen hexagonal, honeycomb blocks of varying size, each representing a location in Manchester. The honeycomb blocks aptly evoke the symbolism of the worker bee, an iconic motif which has signified the Mancunian spirit for centuries. Although each of these plays is rooted in Manchester, they tell universal, everyday stories centred around the festive period. You don’t need an extensive knowledge of the city to relate to these stories.
The Manchester Project begins at HOME. That’s a capital HOME, the arts complex where the collection is being performed. Ian Kershaw‘s play presents a portrait of Colin, a Big Issue seller who moved his pitch from Oxford Road to HOME when the Cornerhouse was closed down. It tells the human story of the man we all walked past to get into the theatre. A man who, sadly, most people ignore.
Colin’s story is performed by Andy Sheridan with the utmost care and respect, creating a connection with him, whilst also prompting self reflection of how we should all be more considerate of others. Colin’s repeated mantra, “Kindness. You have to pay it forward”, is as inspirational as the man himself. Kershaw’s play also champions the incredible impact that the money made from selling the Big Issue can have. The magazine publication has provided a lifeline to so many people, like Colin, who have experienced hardships.
From HOME, the location changes to Little Hulton as Reuben Johnson performs his own composition about a troubled upbringing. Poetic in structure, it is impressively laced with striking rhymes, and is delivered at such a frenetic pace, it almost becomes a rap.
Up in north Manchester, Chris Hoyle‘s Middleton shows the perilous nature of being a retail worker at Christmas, as a disgruntled customer complains to Santa about the present her child received at Santa’s Grotto. Zoe Iqbal is incensed that her son was given a Little Mermaid costume, which, God forbid, he actually likes! Iqbal gets more irate as she gets little sympathy from a nonchalant Gurjeet Singh. This is a brilliantly funny play which left me wanting more.
The humour is punctuated with Eve Steele‘s Strangeways, a thought-provoking snapshot of what Christmas is like for inmates, as a mother visits her son. It is then restored in Crumpsall by Chanje Kunda. This is one of my favourite pieces, as I am a huge fan of Kunda’s trademark humour. It is a hilarious spin on the Nativity, with an ‘immaculate’ teenage pregnancy, predicting that “the second coming is going to be in Crumpsall”. It is packed with punchy one-liners as Mary adamantly declares that she is a virgin, and was visited by the Angel of the North because “God loves the poor“.
Cathy Crabb‘s Shaw is an amusing, yet endearing play in which a workplace prank goes viral on YouTube. After setting a ferret loose, Reuben Johnson‘s shop worker is convinced that he will get the sack, but as Christmas is the season of good will, he is forgiven by his boss.
The Manchester Project takes a political turn with Hulme by Louise Wallwein, which exposes the plight of refugees facing deportation. This is a subject that hits close to home in these increasingly divisive times. Likewise, it is hard to ignore the striking relevance of Keisha Thompson‘s Whalley Range to the Windrush scandal, as an elderly Caribbean woman is confronted by a police officer in the derelict Nello James Centre. It is an encounter in which the tension is perfectly realised by Cynthia Emeagi and Gurjeet Singh.
Travelling down Withington Road from Whalley Range, you will arrive at Chorlton. Written by Chris Thorpe, this is a deeply affecting vignette that highlights how Christmas is a difficult time for those who have experienced loss. Andy Sheridan and Samantha Siddall tenderly depict an estranged couple who meet every year at the grave of their daughter, who tragically died aged only five years old. Profoundly moving, it is difficult not to get choked up when they recount previous Christmas Days spent together with her.
The mood changes again in Punam Ramchurn‘s delightful Cheetham Hill, which capitalises on stereotypes, with Zoe Iqbal stepping down from the stage, walking amongst the audience, trying to sell clothing. She charms us with compliments as her smooth-talking sales pitches get more extravagant. Exchanging hilarious banter, she quips that Marcus Rashford is her best customer before telling a customer that they look like Christina Aguilera. It is a brilliant play made even funnier by the fact that the garment for sale is a Santa hat.
This smooth-talking continues in Curtis Cole‘s Moss Side which sees Andy Sheridan as an adorable, over-friendly Eastern European who persuades a complete stranger to give him hospitality. Reuben Johnson‘s character is initially abrasive but slowly softens to allow the man to watch Tipping Point with him. This is a delightfully charming bromance, and I would love to see how this plays out.
From Moss Side, you can get the 101 bus to Wythenshawe, which is the location for Sarah McDonald Hughes’ play that champions the brilliance of the NHS, as a young mother is in labour at Wythenshawe Hospital’s maternity ward. Cynthia Emeagi plays the panic stricken teenager, who is terrified that she will become another statistic, meanwhile Samantha Siddall‘s midwife is a calm voice of reason. This play proves what an invaluable service NHS nurses and midwives provide, working over the Christmas period. They really are unsung heroes.
The penultimate play of the evening is Old Trafford by Furquan Akhtar, which is a deeply moving account of a young Muslim boy raised by a single mother. It is exquisitely performed by Gurjeet Singh, who beautifully renders the love his character has for his mother, even though their Christmases weren’t extravagant. “It was my mum doing her best”, he proudly declares. It is a line that hit me hard, and made me well up. As someone who was raised by a single mother, this is something I can really relate to.
The evening ends on a high, with Andy Sheridan‘s Timperley. Reprising the fantastic bickering couple, Albion and Eileen, who have been in Monkeywood productions before. This time, they are buskers battling for their prime spot on Timperley high street. The feuding couple fire wickedly funny insults at each other, before joining together in a heartfelt rendition of The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York.
The Manchester Project at Christmas encapsulates everything great about Manchester. It brilliantly captures the spirit of the city, showcasing the incredible wealth of creative talent that we have. This is Manchester. We do things differently here.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★