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Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom, Imogen Knight, with Daisy Johnson

MAAT, Factory International production

Aviva Studios, Manchester

May 17-26, 2024; 1 hr 10 mins


Maxine Peake in Robin/Red/Breast at Aviva Studios, Manchester
Maxine Peake in Robin/Red/Breast at Aviva Studios, Manchester
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Spare a thought for members of the audience at Robin/Red/Breast who go home to a pretty cottage in the country. My house is in a town and it’s new enough not to have (many) cavities for scrabbling mice or wasps’ and birds’ nests, but I still tiptoed in, wondering what was going to creep out of the walls and invade my body.

The pervasive anxiety at the heart of this powerful horror story starts to rise, of course, before you arrive at your seat. Will you find a car park, how do you pay, whereabouts in this busy cultural complex is the theatre? And why am I being given headphones?

Maxine Peake, who plays Norah, the city dweller “escaping” to the country, is no stranger to horror. Along with co-creators Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight she has a fine track record when it comes to spooky and weird. 

Robin/Red/Breast has been taking shape for about five years, since they first came across the original John Bowen play that was part of the renowned BBC TV drama strand Play for Today. During that period they also collaborated on a part-reading, part-recital of Kay Dick’s novel They, the very definition of Dystopian, which chilled our bones at the cathedral-like John Rylands Library in Manchester.

The Warehouse space at Aviva Studios is well suited to horror (and no, no cheap gags here about building costs or bench seats.) The theatre-in-the-round staging that has been carved out for this production manages to be both intimate and unsettling, with the cavernous black hole that is the roof disappearing into space, allowing composer Gazelle Twin’s music to drift eerily away into the ether.

The constraint of our dark, featureless surroundings was heightened by the ambient sound – the gentle twittering of birds – a stark contrast, recalling sunlit uplands but in fact confirming the surrounding impenetrable woodlands.

The central themes of the play were all there in the opening few minutes. A ten-strong female coven of a village brass band (frankly, scary all by itself) marches implacably to surround the bones of the cottage – a clever design (Lizzy Clachan) whose sparse wooden frame both imprisons and provides windows.

Then Norah awakes to bloodied sheets, her uncontrollable body asserting its power and forcing her to signal her fertility to the world as the bedding dries on the line.

The village has - of course - been raising a sperm bank for this very moment. Tyler Cameron, in his first professional stage role, plays Robin, who skips on to the set wielding an axe, the ripped male equivalent of a vestal virgin wafting ribbons. Tricky to be provocative with an axe, and the imagery is a tad heavy-handed, but we get the message...

The fact that that message arrives in part via headphones may seem like a gimmick, but they fulfil their purpose – a further restraint that adds strangeness, but more importantly puts the audience inside Norah’s head. The control they exercise is starkly epitomised when, like a well-drilled troupe, we removed them simultaneously.

The time-shift that brings this perpetual female dilemma into the 21st Century works less well; perhaps because unwanted pregnancy – self or friend or family – is in every woman’s life and really doesn't suit this kind of therapy group exposition. Afterwards we emerged blinking into the sunshine, wondering where we had put the car keys, whether we would find the car park and... what would be waiting for us when we got home.

More info and tickets here


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