As I understand it, one of the aims of the MIF is to stretch artistic boundaries, to encourage people, both performers and audiences, to move out of their comfort zone, to experiment, take risks and try out new things.
That’s certainly true of Cotton Panic, a unique combination of theatre, music, on-screen projections and sound effects, narrated and performed by Jane Horrocks, created by Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and the electronic band Wrangler. The show was fittingly held inside the decaying Upper Campfield Market hall on Deansgate.
I looked at a few reviews in mainstream newspapers and as usual I found them unhelpful, as they didn’t understand the concept and contained petty criticisms.
I decided to write a review myself to give proper credit to this very powerful and inspiring musical-theatrical creation.
In fact, I was so impressed with Cotton Panic I went to see it twice.
So what was it about the show that grabbed me? There are many reasons, many aspects overlooked and ignored by the reviewers.
One of the most striking things is it is self-contradictory, a merging of opposites. It combines modern electronic music and imagery to tell a story that takes place in the mid-19th century. Folk songs are combined with contemporary techno, produced on stage by the three musicians working behind the semi-transparent screen. It was exciting to see an old computer with glowing lights on the left, and a reel to reel tape recorder on the right. What would the people of 1862 have made of these instruments?
A couple of the reviews describe it as ‘gig-theatre’, a term I find condescending. It’s a mixture of music, drama, dance, on-screen imagery presented on a stage in front of a standing audience.
This is a story that’s an important part of the history of Manchester. It’s our history and it’s still relevant today. The cotton famine came about due to the American Civil War. Southern American ports were blockaded by the north. The supply of cotton was stopped, causing the Lancashire cotton industry to grind to a halt. This caused huge poverty. But the workers of Lancashire remained in solidarity with the American president due to his opposition to slavery. This fact is documented in Manchester’s Abraham Lincoln statue, which appears on screen.
The story is told by Jane Horrocks, sometimes singing in her very high voice, sometimes narrating, and occasionally shrieking, against the loud, techno musical backdrop,
The three huge screens, one behind the performers and two on either side, show images projected by industrial size digital projectors. Cotton dust like a snow storm is a constant feature as well as a ghostly female figure that could be called ‘Queen Cotton’.
At other times, we see quotations by authors describing the events of the time and the terrible poverty. We see a gigantic face of Glenda Jackson, reading a dignified description of terrible poverty that’s still shocking after a century and a half.
Later we see a facial close-up of an African-British actor – I’ve not managed to find out his name – delivering more powerful quotations.
Great review. The name of the very talented actor who recited the Frederick Douglass quote is Fiston Barek.
— Eimear O'Donovan (@EEmur) July 17, 2017
It’s always very interesting when new connections and juxtapositions are made. The deafening roar of the factory machines is echoed in the industrial beats of the electronic music. Could it be that Manchester’s electro sound was inspired by its industrial heritage? Maybe. A woman in factory overalls does a traditional clog dance to a contemporary beat. The clogs looked like they are very good quality, I wonder where they were made.
There were many transatlantic echoes. In the early part of the show, the Lancashire cotton towns are read out in time with the music, and later, towns in the southern US states. Jane Horrocks waves a mid-19th century US flag. Later there are contemporary media images of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, interspersed with glimpses of mayhem on the streets, Donald Trump and Brexit.
Jane Horrocks is the lynchpin of the performance, holding it all together from beginning to end. She is a unique actor, a talented singer and a powerful narrator, her voice often amplified with a megaphone. She can transform herself from an angry agitator into a helpless child beggar, emphasised by her very high voice.
In one section, she wanders into the audience, repeating the words ‘Can you help me a bit?’, over and over again, and then then she is lifted up on the shoulders of fellow performers. It was moving – you could see it in the reactions of audience members.
In the reviews I gather that commentators found this and other sections a bit long and perhaps self-indulgent. I totally reject this criticism. The long sections emphasise drudgery and repetitiveness, whether of a 10-hour working day in a cotton mill, or a long day spent begging in the streets for a few pennies. The architecture of the piece is spread out and not curtailed in order to pander to a short attention span.
I’ve heard people complain films are too long, like 2001 ‘Oh, it was too long’. No, that’s wrong! Its length is the whole point! It’s like complaining that The Cruel Sea has too much sea in it, or Lawrence of Arabia has too much desert. Cotton Panic has long, repetitive sections that help to tell the story. If they are longer than the three second sound bite editing culture of today, so be it.
What other interesting juxtapositions are there? I loved the use of Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones in connection to the rhythm of the cotton spinning machines. In the latter stages of the story, the cotton workers decide to go for a meeting at the Free Trade Hall, which is just around the corner from the venue. She sings the words ‘Anger is an energy’ from the song by Johnny Rotten, co-founder of The Sex Pistols, who performed at an infamous gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976.
I was astonished at the statistics and learned a lot. Whilst there was much poverty, some cotton Lancashire workers earned very high wages, the highest in the country. Seeing Cotton Famine has encouraged me to find out more about this forgotten period in Manchester’s history.
I saw the performance twice – on Thursday 14th and again on Saturday 16th and both times I was captivated. The second time I stood near the front, close to the stage and watched as Jane Horrocks came out into the audience just a few feet away. On both occasions I saw it, it was absorbing and the time flew.
It’s a shame the reviewers failed to appreciate these qualities. I often think that reviews should be mostly written by people who know how to appreciate a piece of music or theatre, rather than those who don’t, or perhaps they were asleep, or thinking about going to the pub afterwards.
This was a show about our city, Manchester, our history, our region, presented using the medium of the music that came out of our city – techno / electronic, presented by artists from around here. It has a clear and simple concept. It was very powerful musically, theatrically and historically and was perfectly in the spirit of the Manchester International Festival. I unreservedly give it a five star rating.
I couldn’t make it to Manchester so I watched it online, it made me want to dance, to cry and it was utterly moving in many ways!
— Jule Sverne (@s_jule) July 16, 2017