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‘If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all’

Grrr. How this aphoristic bleat sets my teeth on edge. As if criticism has to be balanced to be valid.

No it doesn’t.

But, having returned last night from watching The Funfair at Manchester’s new arts super-venue, Home, I am overwhelmed by such extreme feelings of distress about pretty much every aspect of the production, that demanding some kind of positive, constructive response from myself seems essential for my own mental well being.

Ok… so the new theatre space is good. Sitting in the upper circle, it feels satisfyingly intimate. Acoustics are excellent. Sight lines aren’t bad. It’s nice to see a new theatre with a good high proscenium – and a balanced thrust that draws the proscenium playing space into the auditorium. All of these will be used to imaginative effect by designers in future productions. Great work WILL be done in this exciting new theatre.

The music is well executed. The sound is clear and well balanced… But what it has to with anything in the production, I really couldn’t say. Plus they’re dressed as clowns which seems to be confusing the fair with the circus, but, hey, what do I know?

Sad Clown

My theatrical alarm bells always start ringing when enigmatic clowns appear…

The design – set and costumes – is occasionally clever but alienatingly unattractive (whoops, starting to slip…) BUT on a positive note… both elements are well executed. There is a good standard of finish, and it sets the bar high for the presentation of future shows. A lot of people worked their socks off to make this look good.

And the cast….

Oh bollox. Now I’m really struggling. I absolutely don’t want to criticise a gang of actors, who, after all, are only doing what they’re told, but my merry ship of positivity has just run aground, holed below the waterline….

The thing is, who knows what this cast are capable of? I’ve no reason to think they are anything other than highly competent actors in their own right – but the play is so bloody dreary they are scuppered before they even set sail. And it’s the choice of material which is at the core of everything that dismays me about this show.

The Funfair is a new adaptation of a play called Kasimir and Karoline by Ödön Von Horváth, dating from 1929, which the programme and Home’s publicity repeatedly tells us is a twentieth century masterpiece.

No it isn’t.

The programme also tells us that Ödön Von Horváth is a truly great writer, on a par with – if not better than – Bertolt Brecht, and the only reason we haven’t heard of him is because he died when he was 37.

No he isn’t, and no, it isn’t. Although admittedly the age thing might explain why no one has ever heard of Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Christopher Marlowe, Joe Orton….  Director Walter Meierjohann insists in the programme that Horváth is funnier than Brecht, which, judging by the awful tumbleweed moments that greeted every gag last night, is a bit like saying that Myra Hindley was kinder to children than King Herod.

Actually, hands up, I am being unfair. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and as I don’t speak German, and have never encountered the original, I suppose it is just possible that the brilliant humour and general ‘masterpiece-ness’ has somehow got lost in translation. And when I say lost, I’m talking major solar-storm-knocking-out-the-whole-GPS-system-the-day-after-every-ordnance-survey-map-has-been-burned-by-a-mad-map-burning-despot. That kind of lost.

However I normally like Simon Stephens – his adaptation of Curious Incident is superb, so I’m afraid I’m still eyeing the source material with suspicion.

What’s it about?

Ehm…. Well there’s a northern bloke in a string vest called Cash (Geddit???) who’s lost his job as a driver two days before the start of the play. The idea of looking for a new job seems to have eluded him, and instead he has been thrown into an existential crisis. Ok… so I’m not endorsing the Norman Tebbit ‘on your bike’ philosophy, but losing a driving job – when driving jobs, by their very nature, are rarely permanent anyway – hardly seems to be emblematic of mass unemployment. Are we supposed to take it as read that this man will never work again? He seems to have given up on page one. It’s hard to sympathise with such a useless self pitying git. But he is wearing a string vest, which makes him working class, and therefore some kind of hero.

Anyway, string vest northern bloke is at the fair with Caroline. I can’t tell you anything about her except that she wears a translucent frock and we can see her underwear. I have no idea who she actually is, what she does for a living, what class she is, what her dreams and aspirations are… She doesn’t appear to have any character whatsoever, apart from being Cash’s fiancée. However the change in his employment status seems to be jeopardising their relationship.

So clearly not much of a relationship.

Add to this a shouty sweary scouser in leather trousers and a leather pork pie hat. I have no idea who this guy is – apart from being an annoying stereotype. So, shouty scouser (who says ‘fuck’ – or ‘fochhhhh’ – a lot) has some kind of relationship with a miserable tall girl in silver hot pants. But he throws beer in her face randomly so that doesn’t seem to be going too well either.

Then there’s a nerdy Welsh bloke who looks a bit like Steven Merchant who gets involved with Caroline for a bit and eats ice creams. I say Welsh… for one whole scene he adopted a strong Liverpool accent. I have absolutely no idea whether this was deliberate or not.

Enter two more stereotypes – a middle aged comb-over northern capitalist, complete with cigar (straight out of a George Grosz cartoon), and a posh southern type. They eat fried chicken and letch over the women.

Once these characters, such as they are, are established, there is much shouting, and gurning, and chasing around; some stuff about a Zeppelin; some tin cans – a LOT of tin cans – fall from the flies; there’s a freak show introduced by a Baron Samedi figure where a blue gorilla woman with a giant Where-The-Wild-Things-Are head sings a song; theres a LOT of extremely bad ‘drunk’ acting: there’s some plot about Caroline going to Blackpool in the Bentley belonging to the Northern Capitalist; and then there’s some kind of fight where people get injured and sing Buddy Holly; and finally string-vest gets off with silver-hot-pants.

And did I mention the MC/ringmaster (Again with the circus/fair confusion???) who is a short actor and who occasionally narrates (and is actually the best thing in it)? Oh yes, and there are those musicians in their clown make-up…

Sad Clown

The clown guitarist kept wandering round the stage being sinister

…who play from a glass box and occasionally wander on stage for no particular reason.

And while I’m at it… The Funfair? Why are they at a funfair? What kind of fair is it supposed to be? It’s nothing I recognise – apart from being a really shit funfair no one would ever go to. Oh? What’s that you say?
It’s symbolic.
Symbolic of what? When you’ve got a moment…. In your own time….
Listen sunshine, for a symbol – a metaphor – an allegory – to work, it has to convince in its own right. We have to believe in the funfair as a real place in order for its symbolic meaning to have any traction. Otherwise it’s just a ham fisted device.

And where is this bloody awful funfair anyway? Germany with its Zeppelins and George Grosz caricatures, or Platt Fields in Manchester (as Stephens suggests in the programme) where the most aspirational thing the female lead can dream of is a trip to Blackpool in a Bentley?

We don’t aspire to much in t’north.

Finally…. It’s written in 1929, but it’s sort of set now with plastic beer cups, and a rock band playing Iggy Pop numbers (Did I mention the clown make-up? Oh God, did no one say lose the clown make-up?).

Sad Clown

Do you sense I have a problem with clowns?

Oh? What’s that you say? It’s timeless? It’s purposefully non specific and non realistic in its setting so as to draw together the financial and political instability of the 1920s with the social climate in the UK in 2015?

I beg to differ. I put it to you that its locational abstraction renders it incoherent, without relevance to anything in our time, and probably stripping it of its original relevance to 1920s Germany into the bargain.

The programme tells us that the recent UK election was decided by nationalism, which is a parallel to Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Ehm….. So are we supposed to compare the SNP with the Nazi party? Or are we selectively talking about UKIP and just bandying terms around randomly in the vague hope that something will make sense eventually. And are we really comparing the moderate successes of UKIP to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s? There are vague topological similarities, but to go further than that is to be simplistic and ahistorical in the extreme.

Stephens pronounces that the play demonstrates ‘a compassion for the poor and [is] a celebration of their capacity for poetry and wonder’. Not that he’s being patronising or anything. Nor did I spot much ‘poetry and wonder’ amid the gaggle of shouting stereotypes that populated the stage last night. But no, he insists that it’s ‘a working class play that examines the lives of ordinary people’; it’s ‘Manchester’s great undiscovered play’.  No it isn’t.  It may be a lot of things, but, objectively, neither of those descriptions are applicable.  Everything about this show is middle class – Ödön Von Horváth was the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat; Stephens is from Stockport originally but hasn’t lived here for a very long time; the production is artsy, knowing and oblique in its staging. I should add that as a fully paid up member of the middle classes myself I have no issue with my own roots, but I really object to people making bogus class claims to give their work added “credibility”.

I could bang on and on and on about this, but I’ll stop now and try to draw some meaning out of the whole uncomfortable mess.

The key issue is that the play itself is really very poor. And this frustrates me because this is the inaugural production of what ought to be an amazing new Manchester venue that speaks to the whole of the city….

It’s called Home remember!!

But what does it offer us? A German play from the 1920s, which may or may not be a masterpiece, crudely anglicised by transposing the characters to shouty northern stereotypes and presenting it as a piece of incoherent quasi expressionist pretentious misrerabilism.

Somewhere at the very heart of this artistic enterprise – which should be beating in time to the heart of the community who are paying for it – something has gone very wrong indeed.

I remember Ken Campbell once describing BBC Director General John Birt as: ‘…an alien, inadequately briefed’.

That’s how I feel about director Walter Meierjohann. His appointment is a piece of bold internationalism. I love Europe. I love European art, music, theatre, cinema. I will be voting to stay in the EU at the referendum. But the cultural Babelfish in Meierjohann’s ear is seriously taking the piss.

But hey, don’t listen to me, it’s garnered some wonderful reviews – five stars from The Times, four from the Observer…. And I can understand that national reviewers would want to look favourably at the opening production of a new venue, when we stand on the edge of what are likely to be horrifically lean times for publicly funded live performance. In that respect, I absolutely understand those who will no doubt balk at what appears to be the vociferous negativity of this blog. But art never got anywhere by developing a laager mentality, or pulling up the drawbridge on the fundamentals of its own standards.

I want Home to be better than this. I want coherence, content, excitement – and more than anything, I want it to be a palace of dramatic stories that actually illuminate the community where I live. You can’t just throw material at us and hope that a few northern accents, some tenuous historical cross-referencing, and a bit of tricksy video projection will make it “relevant”.

It won’t. No amount of clown make-up, or maniacally laughing grotesques, or posing super-numeries can paper over the worryingly hollow artifice of this production. The Emperor not only has no clothes, on this showing he is staggering around, punch drunk, in a pair of somewhat threadbare Y-fronts.

So – in the spirit of saying something constructive or shutting up – how to find him some nicer threads to put on…? I’m not a Mancunian, I’m an outsider of sorts, but I’ve spent more than half my life here, so maybe I have something positive to share with Mr Meierjohann.

What I love about this city is that, yes, it has its problems, but the reason it is spearheading initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and is always changing and growing and leading the way is because it doesn’t waste much time sitting around feeling sorry for itself, or wallowing in simplistic political/class narratives. Manchester is steeped in extraordinary history – much of which has resonated around the planet. It’s not a city of victims. The meanings to be drawn from this history and the way its communities are constantly evolving, are complex and nuanced.

There’s a dry humour – driven by plain speaking, and a contempt for anything that smacks of pretension. It’s a humour that expects the worst – but is underpinned by pride, passion, ambition, self assurance and hope.

My plea to you Walter… take the dodgy Babelfish out of your ear…. and listen. You obviously know how to polish up a nifty bit of stage craft. Listen to the heart of the place you’re calling Home. Listen to it beating. And put that on your fantastic new stage.

If you don’t, you’ll drive us away, and it won’t be ‘Home’ to anyone. Please make it somewhere a lot of people are going to want to be, because if this is a taster of what’s to come, I’m genuinely worried that it won’t be.

Oh yes…. And lose the clown make-up. Please lose the clown make-up.

Sad Clown