Review of This Town at Contact Theatre, Manchester.
With its alleyways, cobbled streets, chippies, and pubs – Rory Aaron’s This Town could be one of many places in post-industrial northern England. Take your pick from “the far-off towns that nobody’s heard of”.
Aaron succinctly sets the scene, while also referencing the ghosts of the past – “old families” whose names can be found on the gravestones in the local churchyard, or those who made up the workforce of the former mills. Opportunities have dried up, but the people remain – leaving isn’t an option for many of them.
Largely focused on a generation of young people who call This Town their town, the writing curates their relationships, struggles, stories and emotions into a dynamic and free flowing narrative. It’s described as a modern-day epic narrative poem, but in its current form, with Aaron joined on stage by fellow performer Kate Ireland, it is very much a piece of theatre.
Parked up at the centre of the action is Ella Barraclough’s rough-hewn pub set – a forlorn looking community hub, its walls crying out for a lick of fresh paint. A wheeled base allows the whole thing to be spun around, leaving only outside walls and windows on display, creating a backdrop for other scenes.
Local lad Dean’s return to the area after seven years away acts a catalyst for him to reflect on his teenage years in the town. Oddly perhaps, the show never returns to reconnect with grown-up Dean – once it heads back in time, it stays there until its end.
Episodic in nature, the play alights on moments in people’s days, or focuses in on a specific issue or incident. Ireland and Aaron pass the many stories back and forth, shifting between characters and events with skilful ease. Things are enlivened by quickly shifting perspectives, with the performers acting not just as narrators or observers but also seamlessly slipping into character to speak directly, or powerfully inhabit emotions.
We encounter Dean’s brother Liam, traumatised by his time in the army; his girlfriend Sarah who is nursing a secret; and his friend Joe, who finds an outlet for his frustrations in boxing.
Aaron can capture much in a few sentences, like the affectionate routine of young Joe, making a cup of tea for his mum before his regular morning run, she still in bed, exhausted after working double-shifts, troubled by her constant cough.
Such telling moments flicker throughout. Dean thinking how he can only be himself with Sarah, while she laments how she can’t trust him with her deepest feelings. Joe intensely, almost desperately, jabbing and crossing at the gym while thinking of his dad who he hasn’t seen for six years.
There are hints of the hard-scrabble life that many experience in the town, and Aaron notes how men who would have been muscle for industry in the past, are now too often viewed as easy pickings for the armed forces.
Contact have assembled an experienced team of theatre-makers to help bring Aaron’s poem to life, and the fluid structure of the writing lends itself to the show’s bold visual approach.
Movement director Chris Brown brings a strong physical language to the piece – especially in its representation of pain or distress. Characters will tightly clutch and bunch up the fabric of their clothing at stomach level, evoking anxious knots of emotion. Splayed hands smear themselves forcefully across a face as fear grips, covering the mouth as if smothering a scream, or even breath itself.
Most powerfully, the effects of PTSD are depicted as a battle between two forces – with Aaron (as squaddie Liam) trying in vain to fight off increasing panic, as Ireland is seen remorselessly attacking and tormenting his body from behind.
Music and dance are used to good effect – and not just to quicken the pulse. Pub landlady Clara’s partner Conor succumbs to dementia, and their favourite songs continue to act as a bond. The uncomplicated exuberance of their first dance together (seen in flashback), is in marked contrast to one of their last – when, as they sway together, he held tight by her, almost but not quite carried in her arms, his head slumps passively over her shoulder.
As Conor fades away, the lighting ever so slowly dims, and director Cheryl Martin’s smart and thoughtful production is full of such subtle touches – deftly fleshing out stories, creating mood, and letting Aaron’s heartfelt words sing.
Performance seen on 23 March 2023.
This Town runs at Contact from 22 March to 30 March 2023. Then at Derby Theatre on 1 April 2023.
Images by Max Stone