The paint’s still drying at Manchester’s shiny new arts venue HOME. Mickey Noonan headed over to see opening show, The Funfair.
Cash is a man down on his luck. He’s lost his job and it doesn’t look like there’s another in the pipeline. He’s stuck on the capitalist not-so-merry-go-round, having not much fun at the fair with his keen to better herself fiancee, Caroline or “Cazza”. And boy, is he angry about it. She wants an ice cream and several goes on the roller coaster; he wants to bang on about the state of the world. Seems their love is not meant to be. And that’s just the opening five minutes of this dramatic rollercoaster that goes in just one direction: down.
Enter Johnny Chase (Rhodri Meiler), a seemingly sweet shop worker who might just show Cazza the good time she feels she deserves. Except, he’s just another canny coward. In fact, Johnny Chase is the only winner in this capitalist playground and that’s mainly because he’s a prick who knows how to play the game.
Cazza (Katie Moore) gets hammered and plays Chase, then his boss, Billy Smoke, for all she can get; Cash (Ben Batt) gets hammered and plays the bitterness card, dallying in petty crime with his pal Frankie (Michael Ryan), a misogynist clown as vile as his leather suit.
For Manchester HOME’s first big production in the new venue (there were two site-specific productions last autumn), artistic director Walter Meierjohann has collaborated with man of the moment Simon Stephens on an adaptation of a little-known 1932 play, Kasimir and Karoline, by Ödön von Horváth. The idea is clearly that its pessimism doesn’t look out of place today, but instead this political pot-banging dulls the glittering menace of Meierjohann’s production.
In a new venue, with a massive stage and a truckful of creative ideas, Simon Stephens’ script was surely the safest bet, but it doesn’t work. The dialogue is clunky, a bit sixth-form even, and the morality tale feels crowbarred in. Said crowbar then repeatedly clonks you on the head. It all feels a bit like a Ben Elton set from the 1980s without any of the jokes. Agit-prop for 2015. No thanks, we’re full.
People are commodities and no one gives a shit about anyone else. Apart from poor punchbag Esther (Victoria Gee, utterly wonderful) who sees a sensitivity in Cash that must be buried very deep, as it’s never made apparent to the audience.
“The band of demonic clowns play rockabilly versions of 1950s love songs, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave.”
There’s a freak show that doesn’t quite work. It’s there to highlight how all the characters are freaks, grotesques, but the weird blue puppet heads are too distracting.
That’s not to say there’s not plenty to keep you interested amid the carnival’s seedy shadows and gaudy lights. Factory owner Billy Smoke (Ian Bartholomew) and London lawyer David Spear (Christopher Wright) are deliciously odious: fat cats writ large as pantomime villains, their sense of entitlement gobbling up everything around them. Designer Ti Green’s set is splendid and captivating, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the carousel when the sheer curtain becomes a zoetrope.
Choreographer Imogen Knight almost steals the show with several terrific ensemble pieces, including a brilliant stop-start scene where everyone drinks themselves daft in the beer tent – because what else is there to do when the world isn’t on your side, but try to forget? Just pipping her to first prize is the band of demonic clowns, led by Max Runham and playing rockabilly versions of 1950s love songs, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave.
In the end, it’s all just too damn grim. Everyone’s grasping for something with little thought for anyone else: sex, money, power, a buzz, or simply more. Only Esther is looking for hope, identifying the stars as she reaches for them – but you don’t much fancy her chances in this bleak as fuck landscape.
Fairly major niggles aside, The Funfair is an excellent jumping-off point for HOME, exactly because it will divide opinion and get people talking. It demonstrates that HOME is willing to take a risk and go large when it comes to ambition. Don’t just watch this space – visit it.
The Funfair is on until Sat 13 June, HOME, Tony Wilson Place, First Street, Manchester. Tel: 0161 200 1500; http://homemcr.org3872 Views
Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.