Review of ‘While We Were Waiting… Something Changed’ at Contact, Manchester.
On Oxford Road, a young woman repeatedly emerges from a phone box opposite McDonalds, changing each time into a mind-blowing array of outfits. It’s not a catwalk moment, more a process of development, or in her words “a pilgrimage to find myself”.
Although she exclaims “Don’t look at me, I’m changing”, it’s a bit late for that. I’m in a group of four audience members and we are very much looking – glued to our screens, headphones on, watching that moment playback, while stood in the very spot where it was filmed.
Just to press Pause for a moment, this is all part of ‘While We Were Waiting… Something Changed’, an audio-visual pod walk created by Contact Young Company (CYC) and arts collective Gob Squad.
After downloading a collection of videos to our phones, a small group of us are led out of the Contact Theatre building by a guide. Over an hour or so we’ll be taken to various locations, where the videos’ backdrops will match those in front of us. Phones are lined up to the view, there’s a quick countdown from our guide before we press Play, and then each pre-filmed segment unfolds on our handheld screens.
The show sets out to explore the rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood, so it’s no surprise it is more mood board than linear narrative. Each video might be relatively short but there can a lot going on. Day can shift to night, groups of performers suddenly change mid-way, and the vibe is up and then down. The view will suddenly swerve, and off we go to follow it – moving, but still looking at the phones in our hand.
As we do a circuit of the old Manchester Eye Hospital building, we move from pastoral bird song to Victorian red brick, through birth and death, and then back again. Here, and elsewhere on the walk, there’s an artfully evoked sense of the passing of time, the transitory nature of existence, and all that is solid seems to melt away.
Some of the videos encourage us to shift perspective, not just physically but also in terms of the ideas being presented. After watching an upbeat and playful sequence of movement across the top of some bike racks, we are drawn to the side to look down through their arch-like frames. Performers struggle desperately through them as if crammed within a tunnel, only for the lens to move upwards again to show a cleverly constructed critique of social inequality and privilege.
Oxford Road may be conveniently sited next to Contact, but as a location it also offers ample opportunity to reinforce that sense of the performers’ being on a journey. Each crossing point is navigated with heavily telegraphed care by our guide. Traffic flows past, people head this way and that – there is constant movement.
It can get chaotic. Staying focused on one thing can be difficult, but a lot of that feels deliberate, creating a sense of the confusing push and pull experienced in the transition into adulthood.
So many ideas and feelings, thoughtfully woven into the elaborate staging and carefully captured in immaculate videography are held there like something precious in the palm of your hand, while all around a seemingly more mundane life carries on.
Appearances can of course be deceptive, and one of the show’s strengths is its ability to blur the lines so evocatively between artifice and reality. Even randomly generated juxtapositions can stick with you – as a dream-like carnival parade gets into its stride in front of me, the number 18 bus to Langley jarringly skims the corner of my peripheral vision.
There’s something else going on too while we walk. Another pull on our attention. A lot of passers-by can’t take their eyes off us. Or more specifically, our guide.
I should have mentioned that not only is she wearing her shirt back to front (as if somehow looking backwards while still heading forward), but she is also made up as a clown – with bright slashes of face paint and two extra (googly) eyes stuck on her forehead. And to top it all, she appears to be a graduate of the Miranda Hart School of Funny Walks.
While this keeps us mildly entertained in between stops, the appearance of our young guide (and her fellow clownish colleagues) on this bustling main road is surprisingly disruptive. Reactions range from friendly bemusement to wide-eyed amazement – and it is as if we have become bit-players in another show viewed through those many curious eyes.
Disconcertingly, for all their complexity, those videos start to feel like a calmer place to be – a temporary respite from an unfiltered reality. It helps that they are rather gorgeous to look at. For me, that hits its peak in a section in front of the Holy Name Church. Pomegranate juice arrestingly drips all over the performers’ white clothing as some sort of ritual takes place. There’s insistent music, hypnotic swaying, and then fleeting stillness. Suddenly the stone steps have become a debating chamber, and a blistering and vividly articulate discussion about the existence of God takes place between two passionately engaged performers (Rosa Brooks and Jordan Skelly). The whole thing is transporting.
Overall, the show benefits from that thoughtful layering of elements – with words, movement, sound, staging and Alex Hewitt’s video editing all coming together to create a beautifully realised visual (& aural) experience.
However, Gob Squad’s Sarah Thom, along with CYC Assistant Director Scarlett-Rose Summers, engage in some brave creative juggling – introducing messy and unpredictable real-life edges around that carefully curated online content.
It’s as it should be. This is not about neatly packaged conclusions. As the show’s young creators contemplate where they are heading next, can anything be certain? As a clown says so wisely, before tripping up some stairs, “I believe we’re on the brink of something… brinky”.
Performance seen on 28 July 2022.
Director: Sarah Thom (Gob Squad)
Assistant Director: Scarlett-Rose Summers
Producer: Lauren Banks
Assistant Producer: Scarlett-Rose Summers
Sound Engineer: Jonathan Hamer
Video Editor: Alex Hewitt
Production Manager: Adam Steed
Music: Sophie Fishwick
Full Cast: Bethan Wyllis, Rosa Brooks, Lauren Lees, Nina Mccarron, Jordan Skelly, Shakira Samms-Alcott, Yarrow Spillane, Chiedza Muchauraya, Tyrese-Jerome Engena, Demitria Shonett, Holly Gibson, Niamh Willow, Rochá Dawkin