James Yeatman, Lauren Mooney and company members
Royal Exchange Theatre and Kandinsky
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
25 July 2019 – 10 August 2019; 2hr 20min
So were the Luddites like just, er, Luddites? This slice of dramatised sort-of history – subtitled ‘Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion’ – attempts to say there was more to them than that.
Kandinsky, joining forces with the Royal Exchange itself to create it, are used to pooling ideas and using improvisation rather than starting with an inviolable text. We all know what can happen when you want to be positive in a collective attempt at doing something new: Who’s going to scrap the bad suggestions? Do you finish up with something different from the concept you thought you started out with?
The 200th anniversary of Peterloo is a good time to explore some of what went on around a decade earlier, and though Luddism wasn’t a purely North West phenomenon it had its effects here, and there is some documented data to go on. Not a lot, though.
There is a Light That Never Goes Out digs up bits of information about a group of disgruntled weavers in Westhoughton in 1812, a near-disaster of an attempted Tory public meeting in Manchester’s Royal Exchange (where else?) and the later execution of Northern Luddite suspects, to make a semi-historical tale that grips the imagination, even if there are loose ends (the sort of loose ends they tell you about in any guided tour of Quarry Bank Mill where, mainly in a later period, the workers could lose limbs if they were caught in the giant machinery).
We get to know a father and daughter, Thomas and Clem Kerfoot, who personify the conflicting pressures of pride and poverty that drove some to oppose mechanisation and others to get work where they could. Two very effective performances here, by David Crellin and Katie West respectively.
Colonel Ralph Fletcher is the magistrate desperate to keep the masses in order (Amelda Brown, keeping the right side of caricature most of the time), using informer John Stones (Reuben Johnson), who turns out to be an evil stirrer himself. There are multiple roles for everyone, especially where the louche world of the Prince Regent is evoked, in a dance episode, as a bit of national political background, or when the ‘demon of mischief’ is personified to bring contemporary Manchester to life. Daniel Millar and Nisa Cole work extremely hard, and his portrayal of the Liberal-minded but conflicted mill-owner Emanuel Burton becomes a moving one.
The show also tries to put a gloss on the history, suggesting the early frame-smashers were a kind of pioneer socialists with a vision that lives on despite their defeat at the time – hence the title. That’s as may be. As drama, it picks up pace after the interval, when I suspect it feels less need to follow facts, and describes a plan to smash machines in a mill, which nearly happens – though near the climactic moment the cast goes into radio-play mode instead of living what happened.
Before that, there’s a mixture of approaches, sometimes trying to be authentic to the time and its language, at others seeking to make the events happen as if to us now, with voluble f-ing and blinding to represent the working class (always a patronising thing to do).
The set is almost non-existent – a red, rectangular sloping platform – and the stand microphones placed around it (apart from providing something for the actors to knock over by accident) are the only objects that represent anything – whether machines, the outdoors, lump hammers or weapons; a tactic that still puzzles me. The sound (Pete Malkin and Dan Balfour), however, is the scenery.