Manchester’s Monkeywood Theatre challenged fifteen writers to explore what it means to be Mancunian, and the result is the excellent Manchester Project. In the course of nineteen vignettes – each only 2-3 minutes long – we are taken on a tour of the different areas that comprise Greater Manchester and acquire an insider’s insight into the place, its people, its delights and its struggles.
The breadth and depth of experience conveyed in these nineteen short pieces reflects the extraordinary variety that exists within this city. We are given glimpses of areas in decline and areas languishing in bleak suburban greyness but these are juxtaposed with other areas rich with all the sights, sounds and smells of cultural diversity and flourishing enterprise. Some stories connect with a sense of history and social change while others touch on issues of class, race, war, sexuality, poverty, affluence, loneliness and mental health. The stories also reveal varying degrees of alienation and belonging; some convey a disconnect or a yearning to leave, whilst others describe the ways in which the locality provides a profound source of identity and solace.
We all know, of course, that places are made by the people who inhabit them, and so it is the characters from The Manchester Project that stay with me. For example;
the gay man closeted in a chippie in Middleton for whom Manchester city centre offers a place where he can be himself (writer Chris Hoyle)
the posh private schoolgirl in Rusholme, navigating her way through the perils and opportunities of Platt Fields Park (writer Victoria Brazier)
the wannabe musicians in Didsbury wondering whether their affluent backgrounds disqualify them from producing ‘authentic’ Mancunian music (writer Anna McDonald Hughes)
the young girl in Prestwich, struggling with being ‘different’ who learns how to ‘just be’ from an orthodox Jewish boy (writer Becky Prestwich)
the Withington trendies who celebrate the authenticity of the place but regret that some of the cafes are “too inclusive – full of social misfits” (writer James Quinn)
the young man in Harpurhey who retreats to a sound-proofed room to shut out the ‘noise’ of deprivation and racism (“If I choose not to hear it, is it happening?”) (writer Ian Kershaw)
Humour and pathos lend texture and pace to this piece, as does the variety of form as well as content – there is a very effective mix of poetry and rap, monologue and dialogue. But what is remarkable is the way in which the nineteen very different stories flow into each other with such ease that we are left with a sense of real coherence. This is a tribute both to the skill of the actors and to Martin Gibbons’ excellent direction. And it is a perfect metaphor for a diverse and complex city.
The Manchester Project is not trying to ‘sell’ Manchester. Indeed, some parts of it are neither sympathetic nor affectionate. But it feels honest and authentic – and it is thoroughly engaging and entertaining. A terrific and fitting start to the PUSH Festival’s celebration of home-grown artists.
The Manchester Project will be performed again at HOME on Saturday 27th January, at 1pm and 2.30pm. Writer/location portraits are by photographer David Fawcett.