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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Theatre - Mixed Up North – Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

Star rating – 7/10

This thought provoking and energising play is being staged in London at Wilton’s Music Hall after a spell at the Bolton Octagon, under the umbrella of the National Theatre, by Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre. Being a contrary sort of Mancunian who would rather walk through the fires of hell than go to Bolton, I saw it in London. And before we get to the play itself, mention must be made of the splendid venue, whose existence is a very well kept secret.

Wilton’s Music Hall is a part derelict, part renovated gem of a nineteenth century music hall on the borders of the East End, which is now a flourishing arts centre, albeit still badly in need of more funds to complete the restoration. It was a delight to discover it – and I encourage you to do likewise (

Mixed Up North, the creation of director Max Stafford- Clark and writer Robin Soans, is based on the quotes and lives of real people in the former Lancashire mill town of Burnley. (Former because there are no mills left.) And if you hadn’t been to Burnley before seeing this play, it is very doubtful if it will inspire you to venture there afterwards. It is centered on the work of a youth street theatre group run by an inspired and dedicated woman called Trish. After the 2001 ‘disturbances’ – no-one is allowed to call them riots anymore in case it gives the town a bad name – much effort is now going into bridging the gulf between the Asian and white communities via enticing their youth into drama.

Celia Imrie is fabulous as the irrepressible Trish, the born again Christian who felt called to work with the young people of Burnley, and who does seem to have developed a tremendous amount of mutual respect with the drama group members. The first half of the play is in turns very, very funny, and then hits the audience in the stomach with some very punchy messages about how the everyday reality of Burnley existence really is for the group. Some of the messages do seem a little like hand grenades though, thrown into the mix with the odd rape or childhood sexual abuse tale for good measure, but without obvious purpose. The cast is largely made up of newly qualified actors, and they are on the whole very impressive indeed. We see them rehearsing for a community production involving Bollywood dancing and lots of gags, but which is fated not to go to plan.

The second half of the play does seem a bit bolted onto the first. It doesn’t flow very smoothly, and makes very uncomfortable viewing at times, as the audience takes part in a question and answer session, allegedly supposed to be about mixed race relationships, but going onto a wider debate about grooming of girls and other such thoroughly depressing topics. The council official who encourages politically correct language and opinions from the audience is very well played by Matthew Wait, although some of his contributions are truly cringe worthy – particularly from the perspective of someone like myself involved in the regeneration game which is so pilloried in this production.

We were also treated to an after show question and answer session with some of the cast, together with Stafford- Clark and Soans. Whilst being mainly aimed at the trillions of young drama students in the audience, it did give the opportunity for yours truly to ask about what the central message of the play was. In seems it was trying to get across to the audience how complex a place Burnley is, and to give a voice to the people of the town – nothing more, nothing less. And in the end I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. Just throwing all the issues in the town from racial tensions, unemployment, lack of hope for the future, rapes, sexual abuse (need I go on?) into the mix does not necessarily achieve a great deal. They also revealed that the play was originally just the first half – with the second added on later – which goes some way to explaining the disjointed feel it has.

But nevertheless this was a hugely enjoyable, if a bit disjointed production, which is to be applauded for its great acting, its bold aim of giving voice to the people of Burnley, its exhilarating involvement of the audience in the proceedings, and its general bringing of Northern 'in your face' culture to the good folk of London town – which can never be a bad thing in my book.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I could have been there sitting next to you, it was so close to how I might have reviewed it. Oh yes, I was.