Eddie is dead. It’s not quite clear how or why, but the gangsters who hang about the street corners in this part of Ancoats seem implicated and ready to do it again if they’re crossed. The chic woman who met the eight of us in the Square for a bargain renovation opportunity has gone. And I’m being questioned by a hyped-up thug with his stubbly face six inches from mine. We duck in through a door and up some narrow stairs. Now I’m left in a disheveled bedroom with a girl in a red dress who believes she has seen the devil, with the head of a pig and drinking bleach. I don’t know what to say so she grabs my wrist and I’m downstairs in the pub with someone determined to teach me snooker. There are some others from our group led who were duped in the Square here, and one has decided to stare out our unanticipated companions, expressionless. This seems like a good tactic to me, but Eddie’s girl pulls me onto the gents and opens up her handbag. She wants me to touch up her lipstick. Why I am I doing this? Then we’re back in the pub with the others and the devil really is here, with a formidable pig’s head and a bottle of bleach. He stares us out, one by one, and we are transfixed. Then someone leaps onto the bar and douses himself with paraffin, lighter ready. The bar keeper hurries us out into the street and slams the door closed after us. The eight of us wander off, dazed after 55 minutes in a world we did not anticipate, and still don’t understand.
I don’t do interactive theatre, and try to avoid the front row in case an actor sits on me, or needs to pull a reluctant member of the audience onto the stage for some entertaining humiliation. But Angel Meadow is so immersive and overwhelming that it makes the very concept of “audience” redundant. This is way beyond “site-specific”, more a demolition job on any sense of order or expectation. The eight of us are like the survivors of an air crash, forced to be together in a ghoulish reality show. Within a few minutes of being dragged into this world we are beyond humiliation and embarrassment. I’m glad I went alone, and don’t know the other seven.
This loss of dimension is attenuated by the confusion of time and place – instead of theatre, perspective, positioning this is a kind of free fall. Time veers between the nineteenth century scuttle gangs of this part of Manchester, a juke box and taunts about Facebook. The rooms around the seedy bar are a confusion of narrow stairways and passages, domestic debris and dirty windows. Disorientation is comprehensive. There is no clear narrative and nor should there be. Disorientation is the point.
Participants will take away from Angel Meadow what they want. I understand cities – their creativity and their terrors – as fault-lines, as sets of contradictions that run through the fabric of buildings and spaces and through social relations. Engels was one of the first to write about Manchester in this way and the quality of his prose rings true more than one and half centuries later. Today, life expectancy varies by ten years across the city and there is substantial poverty. Inner city gentrification – the promise of apartment living offered us as we arrived at Angel Meadow – must always work to hide this. Our fifty-five minutes of free fall into the stairwells and corners behind the façade was a sensory experience of a fault line. of its sounds and smells, materiality, and snatches of words and bits of pieces of peoples’ stories. There are suggestive possibilities here, for performance as active intervention, for provoking an awareness of issues in ways that conventional politics can no longer touch.
Angel Meadow. Directed by Louise Lowe, by ANU Productions, Dublin (anuproductions.ie). 10-29 June 2014, as the inaugural production by Theatre HOME, Manchester.