The middle classes don’t have to explain themselves. Accustomed to seeing their lives faithfully reflected back in culture’s mirror, for them it’s as though theirs was the natural state of things.
In telling contrast, more often than not, the lot of the working class is to be shunted into the sidings, alternately marginalised and exoticised, as though they’re the exception that will certainly never be given the opportunity to rule.
Catalysed by a question that was put to them when they were fledgling participants in Manchester’s Contact Young Company (“At the age of 14, what was the occupation of the primary bread-winner in your family?”), the latest production by Chloe Barlow and Josh Wilkinson under the shared umbrella of the Malandra Jacks theatre company not only answers the presumptuous query with punning lightness and guile, but in the process it offers their fellow residents of Moston a looking glass through which their lives can be magnified.
Their stall is set up to confound expectations, opening with a sequence of digital talking heads that at first suggests the soothing banalities of a television advert for a building society, but, as the piece develops, becomes something far richer, lending the somewhat leaden phrase ‘lived experience’ a lustre as vivid as the personalities they have given screen time to.
The pair’s opening piece, a breezy bit of stand-up on the subject of buses, performs much the same function, inviting the audience into the suburb through a literal vehicle of familiarity, before going further off route from stop to stop; the observational humour arising from the ‘window wars’ of the winter months on public transport gradually giving way to something just as observant, but more purposeful in its intent.
Even so, the pair neatly side-step the dead weight of didacticism, leaving the spaces for the audience to join up the dots as they see fit. Indeed, there’s a real delight in the inventiveness with which they upset the apple cart of the comedy turn or the bingo caller, using the most familiar of tropes to more surprising ends.
There’s an equal measure of glee in the way that they rattle through a selection of characters from a book from the turn of the last century, John Ward’s Moston Characters At Play. In the figure of Mary Taylor, who conducted a census to marry up the local population with compatible botany through a ‘private census’, they found a title for their own work. In the likes of Billy Fly, who “made sad havoc of the wine”, they located spiritual predecessors to the present day inhabitants, musing that the non-Mostonians “just don’t get it”.
Rightly, it’s the residents themselves whose voices cut through, be they at odds with the tabloid-style headlines that blacken their suburb’s name, or undercutting them with a sharpness whetted on Moston Lane: “Generally speaking, no-one had anything…and yet people still got robbed.”
Credit should also go to David Hall, who, as the projection visual designer, conjures a music hall variety of effects from his box of tricks, whether conveying gossip over the washing line or the sombre statistics of comparative indices of deprivation.
It’s the coda, however, that really hits home, with the unscripted gut-punch that Whitemoss Youth Club, in many respects Moston’s equivalent to Salford’s better known Lads’ Club, has been forced to close through lack of funds. The heartbreaking news brings a note of mourning to the celebration, and the anger, too, that comes with needless grief. There’s also the reminder that, where life has already been cut back to the bone, there’s nothing left for austerity policies to pare away.
All photos: David Hall, Modify Productions
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