Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange, Manchester
24 October - 16 November, 2019; 2hr 20min
In the programme notes for his new play, Simon Stephens recalls director Sarah Frankcom suggesting how much the Royal Exchange space is an actors' theatre. This could not be better illustrated than in the work of the 10 excellent actors Frankcom has assembled for Stephens' unusual and technically demanding play. Their style is at once convincingly naturalistic in its northern idiom and vividly expressive, even expressionistic.
It begins boldly with a 10 minute soliloquy from Rebecca Manley as Christine. This centres on the moment when, returning to her old habit, she reaches for a bottle of vodka in the Co-op and drops dead. After that she moves from the first to the third person and narrates her life: the early loss of her mother, baby and marriage at 17 to someone she thought she loved, remarriage at 19 to someone she knew she did not, two further children and alcoholism.
The play then shows us the grown-up lives of the three children, their tribulations and relationships, and of Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson) her second husband at or near to the moment of Christine's death. This is done in series of intense and funny scenes that frequently overlap, and is very skilfully managed by Frankcom and her actors.
There is Jess (Witney White) slowly discovering love with Michael (Tachia Newall). Both actors develop the relationship from fierce uncertainty to genuine affection with great sensitivity. Steven (David Moorst) is gay and also deeply uncertain – "I hate my life!" – only slowly coming to accept Andy's firm, unselfish kindness (a witty performance from Jamie Samuel). Ashe is the most anguished of the trio, unconvinced by the claims of her baby's father Joe (Freddie Gaminara) to be a reformed addict and suspecting that his mother's offer to look after baby Leighton is an effort to buy him. As Ashe, Katie West, wildly aggressive in the first half, finds real pragmatic strength at Christine's funeral at the evening's end.
Bernard, father and unfaithful husband, has somehow inveigled his mistress Michaela (Carla Henry) into setting up a threesome with her friend Emma (Mercedes Assad). In fact Bernard is obviously more exercised by ordering a gargantuan Chinese meal. In Lloyd Hutchinson's fine portrayal, Bernard shows a northern inflection of someone self-deceived by the generous, expansive man he thinks himself to be.
At some moment Jess, Steven, Ashe and Bernard all let out visceral howls of paIn.
None of these lives are easy, shot through as they might be with sardonic wit. But, as Jarvis Cocker's Hymn to the North – written for the play and appearing sporadically throughout before its full-blown choral rendition at the end – says, "Life still needs to be filled none the less. So go and find something to love". This is what Stephens' characters do, surviving the ravages of a "contactless society" and the rain that falls from a cloudless sky, with straightforward "northern love", from saying thank you to bus drivers to devoting themselves to the future of baby Leighton. In Cocker's evocative lyric they "stay in sight of the mainland" and if they risk sentimentality, they do escape it and show again the truth of what the poet Tony Harrison wrote years ago: "[UZ} can be loving as well as funny".