Review: MIF 2015

Our coverage of the fifth biennial Manchester International Festival

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The biennial Manchester International Festival returned this month with the world premiere of, a new musical co-production with the National Theatre inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It features original music from Damon Albarn – most famed as the frontman of Blur – who has become a regular contributor to the festival after operas Monkey: Journey to the West in 2007 and Dr Dee in 2011.

Carroll’s magical tale has been given a modern day reinvention on the 150th anniversary of its publication. The opening scene finds teenager Aly (Lois Chimimba) in her bedroom, glued to a smartphone. She is setting up a profile on the latest online game, The avatar Aly creates is a preferred reflection of herself through her looking glass. She comes to life as Alice (Rosalie Craig), who looks like Carroll’s original incarnation, and holds all the qualities Aly deems missing in herself. The game becomes her rabbit hole into a visually striking virtual world that channels Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and is soundtracked by Albarn’s 16-bit retro electronica. removes Aly from her mundane reality and it’s within easy reach in her pocket. Or so she thinks

Aly struggles with being separated from her father – the unemployed, online gambling Matt (Paul Hilton); with playing second fiddle to her newborn sibling; with taunting bullies at her new school; and the general woes of teenage girlhood. The story jumps between the greyscale of her ordinary, problematic life and the vividly coloured surrealism within the game. removes Aly from her mundane reality and it’s within easy reach in her pocket. Or so she thinks.

When hits the mark it is highly engrossing and entertaining, providing the same level of escapism encountered by its protagonist. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene – in which Paul Hilton embodies the central role – is a frantically exciting first half finale. Similarly, Miss Manxome (Anna Francolini) is every bit the Queen of Hearts in her performance of the school headmistress who confiscates Aly’s phone and much more besides. The ensemble performance is strong, costumes are enchanting and set design is often staggeringly good.

Sadly, the underlying messages of the musical feel very contrived at times, or at least overplayed. The same is true of the contemporary setting as exemplified by the performances of Aly’s classmates, which are solid, but the clunky dialogue and Twitter references they’re given to work with stretch the character limit in every sense. The second half of the performance feels rushed in trying to tie up all the loose ends, thus ensuring everyone lives happily ever after.

The musical numbers, although often funny and well delivered, largely blend into one upon reflection. Rather than focusing on songs of true depth and meaning, witty punchlines are overstretched into cockney knees-up rhymes that somewhat undervalue the fine orchestral arrangements they accompany. is a sight to behold but lacks the substance and darker moments of its source material, instead favouring a sugar-coated resolution that, quite ironically, feels nearer to the escapist reality of the online world than to reality itself. is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until 12 July

Stuart Holmes

The Skriker

Maxine Peake told Big Issue North that the Skriker, a shape-shifting fairy who pursues two teenage mothers in the eponymous play, is her toughest role yet. Watching her a week in to the month-long run of the play at The Royal Exchange it’s plain to see why. Peake delivered an intense physical and emotional performance that drained even the audience.

The play, performed in the round with the audience placed centrally to the action, begins with a lengthy opening monologue from the 40-year-old Bolton-born actor.

“Blood run cold comfort me with apple pie. Roast cats alive alive oh dear what can the matterhorn piping down the valley wild horses wouldn’t drag me,” she cries in a dramatic version of her distinctive Mancunian drawl. Peake’s delivery of the associative wordplay-cum-poetry of the 1994 Caryl Churchill play demonstrates her masterly grasp of her craft.

It’s part of Manchester International Festival and it is difficult, watching Peake play the Skriker, to imagine the play anywhere else in the world. It is littered with physical and verbal references to Manchester culture and, when she teases out the humour from the often absurd script, she even manages to get a few laughs. But they are short lived.

Maxine Peake is the Skriker
The Skriker: dark and deeply unsettling. Photo: Jonty Wilde

Dark and deeply unsettling, The Skriker is far from funny. It enters the lives of two friends, Josie and Lily. Josie, having already been tormented by the fairy, has killed her baby prior to the action and is confined to a psychiatric unit. Lily, her kindhearted friend, is heavily pregnant. Manifesting in various forms, including a needy child, an old woman and an infatuated man, the fairy preys on Lily’s generosity and makes itself a home between the two girls. Laura Elsworthy and Juma Sharkah hold their own against the formidable powers of Peake but their characters aren’t as resilient to the Skriker.

As a dystopian vision of climate change the play is powerful

The ensemble cast, in all their bizarre and disturbing costumes, bring the Skriker’s world vividly to life. The audience can’t help but buy into their freakshow horror but there are overly theatrical moments – when movement, song and choreography collide – when the illusion shatters and you are transported from a version of hell, back into the Royal Exchange theatre. There’s a sense that Peake is holding everything together.

The actor admits the wider political themes of The Skriker appealed to her, and as a dystopian vision of climate change the play is powerful. Arguably more affecting, it is an allegory for post-natal psychosis.

Josie and Lily’s troubled friendship is representative of the competitive nature of motherhood, made plain when the former criticises her friend for acting as though she’s the first woman in the world to have a baby. The Skriker itself represents the forces working against mothers as well as the frequent cruelty of mother nature herself.

Peake told Big Issue North she felt racial diversity in leading roles needed addressing more urgently than the lack of leading roles for females above 40. For her, the work has got better as she’s got older, but arguably her roles have become more masculine. She plays the decidedly female role of a fairy with macho bombast – somewhat stifling the message of self-destructive female behaviour.

 The Skriker is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 1 August

Antonia Charlesworth

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