18 April 2019.
Royal Exchange, Manchester.
“You are invited to attend a Surprise Leaving Party for Amy Waters (Postwoman Extraordinaire) at Albion Close Community Centre“.
‘Guests’ find themselves seated at big round tables. There’s plenty of bunting and balloons, and the organisers make sure you’ve got your silly pointy hat on and party poppers at the ready. On the way to the main room, you pass by notice boards covered with posters and community information. The bar is serving fizzy pop, and there’s a buffet table packed with platters of crisps, biscuits, snacks and cakes. Bright orange cheesy balls mingle with pink Party Rings, and there are cocktail-stick-spiked chunks of cheese and pineapple (or pickled onions if you prefer).
Retro or old-fashioned? Who’s to say? It is undoubtedly a party though, and the Royal Exchange’s Elders and Young Company use this celebratory event, staged within the Royal Exchange Studio, to consider where we find ourselves now as a nation.
Our hosts, the fifteen strong cast from two different generations, introduce themselves through the medium of Tweets. Inevitably details are limited, but they include a shop owner, an animal lover, a new neighbour, a medical student and young Louis with his corny quips. Some people share a house, others are related. Although not everyone is sure what a hashtag is, there’s a sudden shower of them – #nonstopjokes, #zoocomingsoon, #everyonesfavouriteneighbour… One older resident gets carried away telling everyone about herself, and has to be cut off – she has exceeded her 140 character limit.
Everyone lives together as neighbours on Albion Close. Their street’s name is not the production’s only signifier of Britishness. Union Jacks adorn the bunting, the paper cups and the invitations. However it feels less like an intensive dissection of national identity (this is a knees-up after all), and more of a consideration of what constitutes community and belonging.
Although originally programmed as a response to life post-Brexit, the piece deliberately steers clear of “the B-word”. However, cantankerous resident Ben does want to “take back control” of some of the living space within the untidy chaos of his own home, and there’s a referendum (of sorts) on whether Mae’s party quiz should continue.
Not everything goes smoothly in the run up to the guest of honour’s arrival. There are all sorts of quirky mix-ups involving wild goose chases for cat food, a shattered ceramic post box, premature party popper pulling and some not-so-secret invitations. Yet there’s a sense that kind hearts, goodwill and collective effort can go a long way to solving most problems, including these ones.
Even, the audience is co-opted in on the community’s endeavours – contributing a line or two to a hastily assembled poem for the retiring postwoman, or scribbling down thoughts on what ‘home’ means to us (“where I feel safe, where I want to be” someone carefully writes on the paper tablecloth), while the partying residents ponder the same question.
Albion Close isn’t a perfect world. Newly arrived Sean is treated with suspicion by some. These are precarious times – businesses go bust, people feel lonely and everyday actions are destroying the planet. Even the community centre is under imminent threat. The notice boards on the way in reveal that many groups are struggling to keep going, with only the food bank thriving, and there’s pressure to prove the building is “needed” if it’s to remain open.
Although Adieu was conceived in just a month, and quickly pulled together within a week, the Exchange’s Associate Director Bryony Shanahan has worked with the two companies to create something with real depth, and an engaging attention to detail.
Shanahan is also willing to take risks, such as the dramatic shift in pace and tone mid-way through, when the revels are temporarily put on hold, and retiring postwoman Amy (Helen Browne) is called upon to make a speech. Browne delivers an impassioned and sustained call for people to make time for each other, a plea for more kindness and neighbourliness. She reflects on how even though technology allows people to communicate across continents, it can also create distance between those closest to us. Yet, although Amy mourns the loss of personal contact (and letters written in long hand), she also asks us to focus less on history, what’s been and gone, and more on building a shared future together.
Browne’s delivery is unrushed but her message feels urgent, and her calm conviction, as if drawing within those moments upon a lifetime of experience, is incredibly moving. Amy’s words powerfully distil down so much of what has gone before while shedding light on the way forward – it’s like some sort of manifesto plucked from “the post-bag of (her) heart”.
Fortunately the soft drinks and comfort food won’t leave anyone at risk of a hangover, but it’s still a bittersweet bit of a do. Adieu reminds us there are struggles ahead, and work to be done, but its joyful energy and uplifting words send you on your way with a spring in your step.
Image by Jacob Andrews