There is something distinctly Mancunian at the core of We Won’t Fall, and it’s not just the incredible wealth of emerging local talent that it showcases. The piece is devised and performed by the company members of Switch Mcr, a Manchester based theatrical collective driven by young artists, who have created a dystopian drama that is unique and refreshing.
In this alternative Manchester, 2020, the totalitarian ‘Party for the People’ are in government and all artistic expression is prohibited. With its focus set on exploring the impact that this autocratic regime has on the creative community, We Won’t Fall shows how music and art are a vital lifeline to the people of Manchester. When severed, this city’s inhabitants are prepared to rise up in order to defend it.
Every week, the activists who fight for freedom from oppression have a social meeting at a building on Cambridge Street, which, in reality, houses the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. This building serves as the venue for the play, providing a connection to its characters and their plight.
As the audience wait in the venue’s café for the doors to open, there is a jovial atmosphere, as members of the resistance group ask whether you were at the protest earlier on in the day. They welcome you to the social meeting, hold placards, and talk of rising up against the repressive government. Although, this leads one to question, if freedom of expression is banned by the state, why would they allow the masses to openly protest in Manchester without punishment? How could they be able to meet at this venue at the same time each week without the authorities being aware of their movements? Sadly, some things just don’t add up.
We Won’t Fall is marketed as an ‘immersive’ production, but it disappoints in this regard. Having experienced breathtaking immersive theatre last year, this play feels more like basic audience interaction, rather than full immersion. As soon as you enter the theatre space, all pretence of this being an immersive event dissipates, and it becomes just like any other play, leaving me feel slightly short-changed. Although it is an entirely subjective concept, there is a fine line between an actual immersive experience and audience participation. Regrettably, this play falls under the latter. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
Despite its lack of immersion, We Won’t Fall is still an engaging drama. With a dozen actors in the cast, it runs the risk of being confusing and chaotic. However, skillful direction from Andrew Long and Gabriel Clark prevents this from happening; deftly handling this large cast in an incredibly restricted space. With the audience sitting on three sides, the staging is long, yet barely ten feet in width. This must have caused considerable issues when blocking the play, but it never shows.
The stage is littered with wooden crates and pallets, on which the large cast sit. The majority of the dialogue in We Won’t Fall is delivered sat down, giving the impression of a close-knit, social community. However, this also causes sightline issues for any audience members that aren’t seated on the front row. They wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of the action over the shoulders of those sat in front of them. Although, if the chairs on the back row were raised, this wouldn’t have been a problem.
Directors Long and Clark alleviate most of the issues caused the restricted space. Whenever these conversations take place, if one actor has their back to one side of the audience, you are always able to see the person they are conversing with, ensuring that the actors are able to include the entire audience. Many shows at the Royal Exchange Theatre last season fell at this pitfall, so seeing this perception from two young, emerging directors is seriously impressive.
Every actor in the play’s considerable cast also deserves huge credit, as they give their all, crafting believable characters that the audience can invest in. Each actor only has a limited time on stage to make an impact on the audience. These are rare occasions when their characters are not part of the wider collective, and are given time to develop, making their mark on proceedings. Although there are far too many names to remember, each actor brilliantly conveys their character’s personalities, ensuring that every member of this large ensemble is unique and memorable.
In a scenario where homosexuality is illegal, a captivating romance blossoms between Nathan Lea‘s Tyler and Rory Kelly‘s Jason. This social gathering is the only place they can truly express their love for each other. There is also an amusing, excruciatingly awkward first date between Ciara Ewing‘s Jess, and Jack D’Arcy‘s Peter. Other standout performances came from Louis Bisson and Yezuan Calvis, who deliver an impassioned tirade about what it means to be racially segregated in this fictional dystopia, whilst drawing appropriate parallels to the reality of post-Brexit Britain.
Although scenes like this are compelling to watch, throughout the play there seems to be an overwhelming lack of physical police presence, or urgent threat from the despotic Party for the People. Other than a thrilling short sequence, where the gang’s leader is violently beaten, the government’s agenda is simply reported through conversation, or broadcast via audible public messages which promise Security, Safety, and Solidarity.
Although there is a distinct absence of physical threat, Mims Jeddal‘s evocative lighting design builds dramatic tension by subtly flickering throughout the show. The tension is heightened further through the fantastic utilisation of blackouts, with some scenes being lit entirely with flashlights. Sadly, the sense of danger seems to fizzle out and the play ends on a pleasant, yet anti-climactic, display of unity, rather than a powerful uprising of the people.
There is plenty to admire about this play. It is wonderful to see Switch Mcr push boundaries and take risks with such an ambitious project. Although it isn’t immersive, it is still an engaging play that feels profoundly Mancunian, displays fine acting from the entire ensemble, skillful direction, and striking lighting.
We Won’t Fall certainly has a lot of potential, but it lacks the urgency and threat that is synonymous with dystopian drama. With the play focusing on watching relationships evolving in a confined space, rather than witnessing the brutal oppression of a totalitarian government, it just feels less like “Big Brother is watching you”, and more like watching Big Brother.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆