Immersive theatre is at its most effective when the audience has stage fright. In the normal scheme of theatrical things, it’s the actors who are terrified before a performance while the paying public sit in their comfortable seats, safe in the knowledge that they can enjoy their sweets and ice cream in peace.
In recent years, this barrier between the stalls and the stage has been gradually eroded, most famously by Punchdrunk, the London-based pioneers of immersive theatre who are responsible for bringing the idea of roaming audiences and individual narratives to the masses. I’ll never forget being separated from my then-boyfriend in an abandoned Wapping office building during a production of Faust, only to discover later that a female member of the Punchdrunk cast had locked him in a room, stood him on a chair and stroked his hair for 15 minutes. Yeah, that still rankles.
Punchdrunk usually affords its public the anonymity of a beaked mask during its site-specific spectacles. That white plastic may be unbearably sweaty but it serves to make even the most nervous of participants a little happier in their disguise. It also makes it easier to adopt a mute persona; you can dip into the story without really having to engage.
ANU, the Dublin-based theatre company commissioned by what was the Library Theatre to stage its first production as HOME, does not subscribe to the anonymity school of immersive theatre. It really, really doesn’t – something I am absolutely sure of given my experience at Angel Meadow last night.
I’ve done audience participation before. There was that time the entire cast of the Reduced Shakespeare Company jumped on me and snuggled (OK, there were only three of them but I was a lot littler then), not to mention the occasion during Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death when I seemed to be the only audience member left in Battersea Arts Centre and narrowly avoided having a panic attack. And who could forget the schoolgirl error of sitting on the front row of a studio performance of Robert Maxwell’s life.
Despite these theatre traumas, I was game for Angel Meadow. I knew it was only an hour long, it was confined to a smallish building in Manchester’s Ancoats (the former Edinburgh Castle pub) and, hell, the sun was shining. What I didn’t discover until, oh, about five minutes before kick-off were these salient facts: the Castle bar was the scene of a mass pitched battle between Wrexham and Oldham football fans in 2002 and was subsequently closed, and the total audience count for each show was just eight (never a good sign for immersive theatre). Suffice to say, I was bricking it.
This is where my ‘review’ becomes less of a run-through of what happened and more of a ‘if I tell you anything it will totally spoil it for you’. It’s a bit tricky to summarise a theatre production without mentioning the plot, the characters or the set. So, what can I say? Snapshots, that’s what I can give you, simple descriptions, emotions.
There’s the fact that I oiled down a bloody boxer, mingled his sweat with my palm, and wondered what the etiquette was for wiping it off. The memory of a troubled girl with crimped hair looking at me all wide-eyed and asking if I feared death. The nightmarish recollection of a stocky bloke, visage veiled by a pig mask with a bloody snout, offering me a shot of bleach. A young guy, grabbing my hand and clasping me to him, whispering in my ear that my hair smells nice and they are out to get him. This happened and, if you’re anything like me, you won’t forget it in a hurry.
Angel Meadow is powerful stuff. As director Louise Lowe puts it, “I think that the fundamental difference is that we place the audience at the centre of the experience”. ANU does that alright. But like all truly successful interactive theatre, the nuances of the play get lost along the way. Some Mancunians may know that Ancoats was home to a large Irish population who lived cheek by jowl with Italian immigrants; few may be aware Ancoats was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution – and that’s before we even get onto all the Roman Catholic references. It seems a shame that the best bits of the script are barely noticed. But praps that’s the price you pay for something truly innovative, something truly scary.
And Angel Meadow is frightening. A combination of the direction, the perfectly-balanced set design and the incredible performances by the ensemble cast make it so. I’d normally single out a few souls for special mention but they were all bluddy brilliant. They knew their roles even if I wasn’t sure of mine. And if this production is any indication of how Manchester’s HOME is going to progress, it’s a frickin’ good omen.
Where: Ancoats, Manchester
When: until June 29, 2014
More info: http://homemcr.org/production/angel-meadow/