Do you remember the pure excitement of a power cut when you were little?
In our house, my mum would light all the candles she could find, dad would flash his torch trying to frighten my younger brother and me, and my sister would moan that she was bored. But I wasn’t. I loved that cosy feeling of no heating and only blankets and dressing gowns to keep us warm. That was real excitement to five-year-old me, sitting in the darkness, wondering how we’d ended up without electricity.
But as you get older, they’re not so funny. How are you supposed to straighten your hair? Or make a latte in your state-of-the-art coffee machine? How does anyone wash their pots without a dishwasher? And what about American Horror Story? The new series is on Netflix. How are we supposed to survive without Wifi? But for the people of Lancaster in December 2015, this was the beginning of a nightmare when a life without electricity became a reality.
Prior to the performance of Blackout at The Dukes, I sat in Starbucks browsing the theatre’s website in an attempt to find out more about its latest production. As far as I could see, this was simply a play about Storm Desmond. How can a storm be represented on a stage? I couldn’t see how this would work. But, to my amazement, the team behind Blackout managed to pull it off. I even found myself ducking and diving during the performance as though caught in the rain.
As for the intricate detail of the set, clear marbles, mimicking rainfall, circulated lit drain pipes surrounding a cobbled street in the centre of the stage. The naked bulbs hovering above lit up one by one in a rhythm, representing the rain coming down. As the storm raged, plastic balls were released from the wings as though the rain was battering against the ground. The effects were spectacular as the storm filled the room.
What a unique piece of theatre: during the performance, the audience was given an insight into the sheer devastation caused by Storm Desmond in 2015, framed by three central characters.
Coronation Street actress Christine Mackie plays the role of Angela, a Lancastrian who owns a baby shop in the city centre. Flooding damages her stock and she falls victim to looters seeking to make money from her misery. This is not just a tale of heartbreak, but of determination and courage during a time of great hardship. We’re also given a glimpse into the life of Lancaster University professor Paul and his son as their relationship breaks down. Then there’s Chloe, a teenager trapped in the care system who finds herself stranded in Lancaster along with her friend, Mel, homeless with no money and no food.
Each tale is bound together with an overwhelming sense of community, showing how the people of Lancaster overcame the devastation of Storm Desmond. With a cast of professional actors, amateurs and members of the public, the stories are told with real emotional weight.
During the interval, I become completely immersed in the conversation of a family of three seated behind me. The moment the house lights went up, audience members turned to one another to share personal experiences of the storm. The Round was filled with memories, laughter and sighs. The family behind reminisced about opening up their house to friends whose properties were uninhabitable, and they laughed at how local butchers served up cheap pie and peas for the locals with their defrosted meat.
This is an eye-opening production. Storm Desmond plunged 100,000 people into darkness in and around Lancaster. Watching the performance, it was immediately evident that writer Sarah McDonald-Hughes and director Alex Summers had extensively researched this as well as considering the accounts of residents, the emergency services, and journalists.
Above all, Blackout celebrates the power of community spirit. And we can all do with a bit more of that, whatever the circumstances.
Blackout runs until November 3, 2017 at The Dukes in Lancaster.