Dash back

As theatre shows resume in new and innovative ways, Richard Smirke speaks to the producers of an immersive outdoor production in Manchester and Salford

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Premiered in France last summer, at a time when Europe was battling the first wave of Covid-19, cultural venues were closed and social distancing had become firmly established as the new normal, C-o-n-t-a-c-t is an immersive outdoor theatre show specially created for these unprecedented times.

Last summer, the show transferred to London, winning rave reviews for its innovative 3D sound design and gripping narrative. Eight months and a third national lockdown later, the production is set to make its delayed debut in the north when it begins a six-week run in Manchester on 18 May, in partnership with the Lowry.

“We were originally going to open in January and I was a bit sceptical about the freezing weather. This is definitely a better time to do the show when it’s warmer and lighter,” says producer Katy Lipson, who was born and lived in Salford before relocating to London after university. She describes C-o-n-t-a-c-t as an exciting new form of immersive entertainment that marries technology with classical storytelling.

“As innovative as this is, the narrative is still very traditional. It’s still an emotional arc and you really care about these characters,” Lipson tells Big Issue North over Zoom. “People have been incredibly moved by it and surprised at how much they have connected with the characters. It’s been really quite humbling to see.”

The show tells the story of an unexpected encounter between the central character of Sarah and a mysterious man who she believes to be a stranger. Audience sizes are limited to 17 people per show with ticket holders instructed to meet at a pre-arranged location in either Central Manchester or Salford Quays and download a specially designed app.

For the next 50 minutes, they will become participants in a drama that unfolds on streets, park benches and public spaces as Sarah’s inner monologue is relayed into audience member’s headphones, merging with the natural sounds of the city. An accompanying piano score written by Cyril Barbessol complements the narrative. The cast is made up of Charles Angiama, Chloe Gentles, Rachael Gill-Davis and Cellan Scott.

“Going inside Sarah’s head and seeing her deal with her anxiety, mental health struggles, loss and lack of contact with other people is linked to what we’ve all been going through,” says Lipson. “I hope people leave and are like: ‘I was fully immersed. It didn’t matter that there was someone skateboarding behind me. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the action.’”

When the country was plunged into lockdown for the first time last March, Lipson had several shows on around the country that immediately had to close, including Zorro at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre. Her company, Aria Entertainment, relied on the furlough scheme to pay staff and didn’t make any money last year, she says. Now that the health situation is gradually improving, she’s hopeful that theatres will be able to fully reopen from 21 June, as per the government’s roadmap. This month also sees Aria make its West End debut with one-man show Cruise, which will perform to 50 per cent capacity audiences at the Duchess Theatre.

“The year has given me time to pause and reflect,” says Lipson, who has produced more than 50 shows over the past eight years. “We’ve built slowly, but that groundwork has hopefully put us in a place where we can now grow.”

C-o-n-t-a-c-t runs in Manchester for six weeks from 18 May. Tickets can be bought from thelowry.com

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