ThickSkin and Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.
Urging its listener ever onwards, Keep Going Then Vanish journeys down alleyways, side streets and main drags, hurriedly criss-crosses a river, and lingers only to take a breath in historic squares or a rare patch of greenery. Its guiding voices are alert to the city that flits past, but they gaze upon it through weary and disdainful eyes. They also possess a sniffing nose, sharp beak, powerful wings, and a long heavy tail.
This is Manchester (and Salford) as experienced by a rat and a peregrine falcon – peering up from under our feet or looking down from above.
A collaboration between ThickSkin and the Royal Exchange, Keep Going Then Vanish is a location-based audio play, designed to be listened to while walking a designated city centre route.
With headphones on, and current location helpfully flashing on a map on your mobile screen, listeners are invited to follow the story of a rat on a quest for something they’ve forgotten, and a falcon searching for food to feed their young. Directions are given, and tales and titbits are dropped in your ear, as the narrators accompany you through the city.
Technology can be temperamental and, true to form, there is one point where the story jumps ahead to a GPS location confusingly still way out of sight. Trees? Where? However, other than that, the journey is glitch-free. I struggled more with the logistics of navigating crowded pavements and busy roads, while trying to stay focused on the narrators’ voices. Construction work adds to the fun, as a drill digging up Brazenose Street drowns out a contemplative moment in Albert Square.
And yet, it is that interplay between the audio play and the city itself that proves most satisfying. A new story settling lightly upon so many others, both past and present.
At its simplest, the piece encourages you to see Manchester through fresh eyes. Hovering over King Street, the falcon bemoans how few people bother to look up. As I tip my head back to do so, it’s not the blue sky that catches my eye but the rich variety of detailing that adorns the various buildings. Something so often missed, as my focus is drawn to the bland shop frontages at street level.
Even the narrators’ descriptions can encourage a second glance. A rats-eye view brings a unique take on locations – the “wide blank grid” of the paving outside the ABC Building, the “spot on the wall” that is the plaque commemorating Peterloo, and the “huge cage for a human” in Albert Square.
The site-specific nature of it keeps you on your toes. Sometimes stories are given time to unfold, or descriptions often simply encourage you to take in the sights, but occasionally there are subtle allusions to associations with buildings or places, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks.
Random intrusions from city life offer unexpected and entertaining connections, as Manchester refuses to be a mere backdrop to the main narrative. At the exact moment Danielle Henry’s Rat breathlessly instructs me to go “left, left, left”, a workman beats his dusty gloves against the side of his van three times, perfectly in time with the words. On New Cathedral Street, Esme Bayley’s Falcon draws my attention to the bin outside Harvey Nicks, just in time to see a smartly dressed elderly gentleman slip an empty lager can into it at 11am on a Friday morning.
In truth, it’s the stories of place that bring Keep Going Then Vanish to life. Despite Henry and Bayley’s best efforts, (and they are wonderful companions to have on the journey) the main narrative thread about our feathered and furry friends needs more flesh on the bone. Themes about family, and memory, the passing of time, and forgetfulness, flicker away in the background, but the mission that is meant to propel us forward, feels in danger of running out of steam halfway through. Fortunately, it all manages to gather pace again near the end and offers a satisfying final twist.
Jack Nicholls’ writing has a rich descriptive power, (Spinningfields smells of “booze and cream, and sugar and liquid smoke”), and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s subtle sound design soothes and energises.
The adventures of a rat and a falcon might sound quaint, cute even, suitable for a bedtime story. However, this isn’t Wind in the Willows upon Irwell. There’s a darkness present. The bird of prey circling over head is conscious of a place built on death, disease, and decay. Viewed from both the protagonists’ contrasting perpectives, haughtily from on high and furtively at ground level, modern day Manchester feels too much like a tale of two cities – penthouse and pavement.
Nicholls’ dialogue craftily nudges the listener into the gutter, and deep inside the character of Rat. It’s a hard life, “your paws feel tired and tiny”, and lonely too “with a rat brain that can only carry one thing, surviving, eating”. Inhabiting that smallness, and looking out on those limited horizons, gets under my skin.
After experiencing Keep Going Then Vanish, I come away with new memories of Manchester, but am also left with an idea of the city that is hard to shake off. A place of graft, hustle, and ruthlessness, where it’s possible to feel lonely, unseen or shunned. When each day is an endless struggle to make ends meet, it must be easy to “forget feeling loved, being held, fed”. You don’t need paws or a tail to be trapped in the rat race.
Part of the Walk This Play Series by ThickSkin, in association with the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Walk experienced on 23 April 2021. Keep Going Then Vanish starts outside the Royal Exchange Theatre on Cross Street.