6 December 2019.
Offering audiences a chance to explore a “theatrical map of Manchester at Christmas“, Monkeywood’s new show is a 70 minute-long collection of 14 new micro-plays from locally-based writers. It’s a format that the company first showcased to acclaim back in January 2018, although this time the mini Mancunian dramas come with a festive twist.
As in the first Manchester Project, a series of hexagonal platforms and seats are scattered across the stage, like a dissected honeycomb. A Santa hat is passed back and forward between the company of six actors, to be worn or used as a prop, as they each take turns telling stories from across the conurbation.
A large screen to the side of the stage announces the location of each piece before it begins, but it all starts closer to home – or to be exact, in the space where the audience are all sitting. HOME is based upon the story of Colin who sells the Big Issue at the entrance to the building, someone who will be a familiar face to regular visitors. Carefully creating a sense of connection without feeling intrusive, Ian Kershaw’s writing nimbly assembles a touching thumbnail portrait of one man and his life. Pointedly, the piece also highlights how the money received from selling the Big Issue can make a real difference – allowing people to access and keep a roof over their head.
From HOME, the plays travel out across the city region calling in at places as diverse as Shaw, Little Hulton, Whalley Range and Timperley. For the majority of them, you won’t need an in-depth knowledge of Manchester, and a lot of the writing tells stories that transcend location. Tales of kindness and hope, as well as struggle and pain.
It may seem unlikely that the “second coming is going to take place in Crumpsall“, especially if Mary is relying on getting a bed in North Manchester General Hospital, but Chanje Kunde’s punchy and good-humoured tall tale merrily carries you along with the premise – the Angel of the North in a dream, a woke Joseph, and all.
There’s another crowd-pleasing shot of comedy with Punam Ramchurn’s Cheetham Hill. As a smooth-talking garment salesman, Zoe Iqbal steps down from the stage to charm the crowd of potential customers. The sales patter flows thick and fast, the clothes on offer become not just mere bargains but unlikely passports to a glossy celebrity-filled high life, and Iqbal is right on it, delivering a hilarious performance.
Small details are springboards for more multi-layered stories in some of the other plays. So a Little Mermaid costume is the gift from Santa’s Grotto that keeps on giving in Chris Hoyle’s clever and moreish Middleton. While, a bag of forbidden sweets is at the heart of Furquan Akhtar’s affecting tale of motherly love in Old Trafford, which is beautifully brought to life by Gurjeet Singh.
A couple of the plays are firmly rooted in the wider backstories of the places they inhabit. Louise Wallwein’s tale of sanctuary at Christmas feels like a very personal account of involvement in the campaign to save Viraj Mendis from deportation in 1980s Hulme. As well as highlighting the plight of those seeking asylum, it also focuses on the main character’s growing politicisation and the power of simple acts of kindness. Set in the boarded-up Nello James Centre, Keisha Thompson’s Whalley Range foregrounds an elderly Caribbean woman’s memories and experiences of growing old. It also alludes to Windrush, the neglect of communities and the sidelining of their heritage. Both pieces cry out for a broader canvas to say more about their context and let the stories they are telling breathe more freely.
Christmas can be a bittersweet time for some, and two of the most successful plays home in on that tension. In Chorlton, Chris Thorpe reunites an estranged couple, sensitively revealing how something precious and fragile is still carefully preserved by both of them amidst feelings of bitterness, pain and anger. Meticulously-constructed, it’s a spiky and charged Christmas miracle. Eve Steele’s Strangeways depicts a mother visiting her son in prison, skilfully unpeeling their problematic relationship. Steele can powerfully convey so much with so few words, and there’s a rawness and realness that runs right through her story-telling. As the son with a difficult decision to make, Reuben Johnson is heartbreakingly good.
The stories increasingly focus on hope, community and connection as our collective journey through Manchester and Christmas heads to its conclusion. Especially Curtis Cole’s Moss Side and Sarah McDonald-Hughes’s Wythenshawe. In Cole’s play an Eastern European man, in search of some legendary patties, melts the frosty welcome in a Jamaican takeaway. Further south, McDonald-Hughes’ piece documents a pregnant young woman’s thoughts as she looks out from Wythenshawe Hospital’s maternity ward across the neighbourhood where she grew up and nervously reflects on what life has in store for her. Cynthia Emeagi is excellent as the confused but self-aware mother-to-be who through the kindness and care of her midwife, discovers strength and resilience within herself.
A tussle over the best spot to do a bit of Christmas singing in Timperley seems an unlikely place to end, but Monkeywood aficionados will recognise the feuding double act of Albion and Eileen from their appearance in the company’s 2015 football-focused production By Far the Greatest Team. This time the duo are a bit less fractious than you might expect, it is the season of goodwill after all. It’s also a handy reminder that this is just the latest in a long line of Monkeywood shows championing stories that shine a light on the diversity of Manchester life.
Creating a piece of theatre that will hold together and make an impact within just a few minutes is a tough ask, but the writers and performers behind The Manchester Project at Christmas manage to do that successfully not just once but many times throughout the evening.
It’s especially cheering that the city that inspired this flurry of new writing can find the space among all the glitzy musicals and family-friendly pantos to share these glimpses of ordinary lives, meaningful moments and flights of fancy. A lively, engaging and refreshing alternative to the usual festive fare.
Special mention to producer Sarah McDonald-Hughes who stepped in on opening night to cover for an ill cast member and delivered some amazing performances at short notice and with script in hand.
The Manchester Project at Christmas is presented as a double-bill with either HOME’s Ho Ho Holiday Comedy Hour or Miss Blair’s Christmas TV Special after each performance of the show.
Images by Jason Lock