Royal Exchange, Manchester.
16 August 2017.
It starts with a few coded knocks, a secret phrase and a charming warm Polari welcome on our entrance… The Royal Exchange Young Company’s latest production begins in a louche 1950’s gay bar and then takes us on a journey of lives half-lived, secret stories and modern-day oppression.
‘We Were Told There Was Dancing‘ is a promenade performance within the vast spaces underneath the Royal Exchange that uses the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act as a starting point to explore changing attitudes to LGBT rights.
Struggles for freedom rarely move smoothly from A to B and this production echoes that in the way the promenading stops, doubles back or turn corners within the space. Similarly, although one gay couple act as a connecting thread, and reappear at various points throughout the performance, the overarching narrative is fluid and flows loosely through time.
The impressively striking design by Bethany Wells is reminiscent of her recent work with Abigail Conway on ‘Party on Skills for the End of the World‘. Some spaces are left with minimal intervention, others resemble gallery installations and there are some fully dressed immersive ‘sets’ like living breathing museum displays. It’s an approach that cleverly manages and manipulates our relationship with the spaces as an audience. The eerie atmosphere of seemingly abandoned areas triggers our imaginations as we move quickly through them, or in others a delicately curated set piece signals to us to stop, observe and wait to be invited in. There are occasional spaces in which to dance and one sequence of rooms bursting with bustling activity. In the latter space – the riot of colour, texture and detail creates a fully realised setting with a scale and layout that seems to offer an unspoken permission to wander around, relax, explore the space and interact with the large busy cast.
Within all these spaces, the Young Company’s actors create a series of imaginative and involving scenarios. Some more abstract and some explicitly rooted in researched history. In one scene, a room full of letters telling stories of frustrated passion and unrequited love are shared both in writing and verbally. At this point and at others we are told to hide things – to keep our stories secret and conceal our identities. It’s a reminder of how something as innocent as a letter to a lover was often used as evidence to persecute gay men. Later we become absorbed in to the cheerful preparations to prepare for the 1988 Manchester march against Section 28. However the production doesn’t just glance back – it powerfully evokes the work still to do. One room is plastered in horrific tales of hatred against LGBT communities printed from the internet. People ‘outed’ and condemned by newspapers in Uganda or gay men thrown from buildings by their relatives in Russia – and so so many more stories covering those walls.
Inevitably any play reflecting on social history will need to edit its source material and in this instance Manchester’s unique LGBT history is occasionally over-simplified. This is particularly noticeable in the 1980’s scenario where the immense impact of AIDS on the city is only briefly alluded to and the long era of intensely discriminatory policing by Manchester’s very own ‘God’s Cop’ James Anderton goes unmentioned. Also, the vastness of the space and the need to move the audience around it, can sometimes momentarily drain the energy from proceedings.
‘We Were Told There Was Dancing‘ works best when the promenading pauses for a while longer and the actors have time to tell a story or fully inhabit a space. Jessica Murdoch delivers an impassioned speech that sees a call to action take on an unexpectedly poetic dimension imploring us to break the silence and seek light in the darkness. As is often the case in immersive theatre, one of the most powerful performances was also the most intimate. Zak Ford-Williams involved a small group of us in his excited preparations for a date and then led us to somewhere darker and distressing. The company also works incredibly well collectively, their welcoming and energetic camaraderie in the preparations for the march is wonderful to become part of.
As our time underground draws to a close, fictional alter egos become real documented lives and the spaces they inhabit are increasingly revealed to be not just locations for performance but places anchored to actual histories.
The couple who we first encountered struggling awkwardly with their feelings in the 1950s, and who accompanied us on our journey underground, emerge to be greeted by a rainy Manchester sky and disappear in to a 2017 evening full of possibilities. Although this beautifully realised subterranean LGBT odyssey ends with a moment of hope we can’t help but take away the powerful reminders of ongoing struggle that we encountered along the way.