Aidan’s review of Cotton Panic by Jane Horrocks – Why mainstream reviewers got it wrong

Jane Horrocks performing in Cotton Panic

Jane Horrocks performing in Cotton Panic


5-stars

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.

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.

Hall of the Upper Campfield Market

Hall of the Upper Campfield Market before its conversion for ‘Cotton Panic’

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.

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Why Manchester should be called: ‘City of Libraries’

They incorrectly call Manchester the city of rain, but I think it should be called City of Libraries, as there four major historic libraries in the city centre. They are open to visitors and I went to all four libraries in one day in order to research this feature and take the photos.

John Rylands Library Manchester

At first sight, the John Rylands Library looks like an ancient cathedral but it is a relatively modern building.

in the first year of the twentieth century and was one of the first buildings in Manchester to be fitted with electric lights. After John Rylands died in 1888, Enriqueta Rylands founded the library in memory of her husband.

A modern extension was added to the rear and as you walk from the entrance up the stairs and into the original building, there is an interesting transition from bright modern to dark neo-Gothic. Many exhibitions are held at the John Rylands Library and anyone can go in and work there, I sometimes do.

It’s part of the University of Manchester Library. One of the locations in my Anglo-Chinese novel Stargirl of the Edge is a library inspired by the John Rylands.

There is unfortunately one negative aspect: The modern low energy light bulbs are less photogenic and atmospheric than the clear light bulbs that were used from the early years of the library until around 2013.

www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/

John Rylands Library facade

Interior of Chethams Library, Manchester

Chethams Library is the oldest public library in the English speaking world and is housed in a 15th century building that’s part of Chethams School.

The library is a perfectly preserved time capsule from centuries ago, and is full of the atmosphere of the past, with its dark wooden walls and corridors. It’s not difficult to imagine Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sitting in one of the alcoves by the window.

The Chethams website showcases many of the hidden treasures of Chethams Library. It is a remarkable place. Anyone can visit during opening hours. You just need to go to the main entrance to Chethams school. It’s best to check the opening times on the website and to phone up to make sure there are no events happening.

Go to www.chethams.org.uk

Chethams Library 2004

Interior of the Portico Library Manchester

The Portico Library is located on Mosley Street in a building with a Greek style portico which gives the library its name.

I’m impressed with its mission statement ‘The Portico Library is open to all and aims to enhance and develop life-long learning by providing and promoting access to knowledge and education in Art, History, Literature and Science.’

The Portico Library is located on the corner of Mosley Street and Charlotte Street. To enter, just ring the bell on Charlotte Street. You go up the stairs and when you get to the top, you will be amazed at the beauty of the interior. It’s virtually unchanged since the early 19th century.

The Portico Library has a friendly, homely atmosphere. The staff are welcoming and very helpful. It’s possible to become a member, and support the work of this institution, that has been a part of Manchester for over 200 years.

www.theportico.org.uk

The Portico Library on the corner of Mosley Street, Manchester

Restored reading room in Manchester Central Library

The Central Library is my favourite building in Manchester and like many, I used it during my schooldays.

It was opened in 1934 and apart from the cleaning of the exterior, remained mostly unchanged until the renovation of 2011-2014, which transformed the interior. The magnificent main reading room was restored but the book stacks below it were taken out to make way for a circular reception area with a cafe which is now a regular haunt of mine.

The Archives+ area is a high tech facility combining the local history collection with the North West Film Archive and other resources. The reading room has been restored and looks almost exactly as it did before the renovation.

The new Central Library has lost some of its 1930s character and eccentricity, its distinctive smell and the tiny lift. Now there are fast lifts housed in a glazed lift shaft. The building meets present day standards and is a striking mixture of old and new. The floorspace is much bigger than it was, extending under Library Walk into the neighbouring town hall extension. There are meeting rooms and spaces for events.

The only negative aspect of the renovation is the controversial modernist-style glass link building, which in spring 2015 is not yet open.

Apart from that, the Central Library is in my opinion the best public library in the UK and remains my favourite building in Manchester.

www.manchester.gov.uk/centrallibrary

Manchester Central Library exterior

So there we are, four major, historic libraries in one city centre, all open to the public and free for everyone to use. Definitely a reason to visit Manchester.
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Forgotten mansions of Manchester and Salford

Clayton Hall Manchester in sunshine

Clayton Hall Manchester in sunshine

 
In the Manchester area, Tatton Hall, Bramall Hall, Lyme Hall and Heaton Hall are the most famous local mansions or houses that were once the homes of the rich and influential families. But there are smaller and less famous halls that are often forgotten and overlooked. Each one has a unique appearance and a fascinating history.

Clayton Hall is a suprisingly well preserved 15th century house in Clayton east  Manchester. It’s a Grade II* listed building, one of six ancient monuments in the City of Manchester. I was very impressed with the exterior which is remarkably photogenic. What makes it unique is its moat and the stone bridge across it. I understand there are plans to fill the moat with water. Clayton Hall functions as a Living History Museum and there are events throughout the year. Now that there is a Metrolink stop named after it, there’s no excuse not to visit!

Hough End Hall in the shadow of an office block.

Hough End Hall in the shadow of an office block.


 
Hough End Hall is a medieval hall in south Manchester. It was built at the end of the 16th century and is also Grade 2* listed. It was the home of the wealthy and influential Mosley family. Mosley Street in Manchester City Centre was named after them. Sadly two modern office buildngs were constructed on both sides of Hough End Hall, blocking the sun from falling on its façade. It is currently up for sale. The Metrolink line to Manchester Airport passes close by.

Baguley Hall, a medieval house in Wythenshawe Manchester

Medieval building Baguley Hall with front garden


 
Baguley Hall is a medieval house that was built in the 14th century about two miles south of the river Mersey in Cheshire. In 1931 this area became part of the City of Manchester and the surrounding area became known as Wythenshawe. It’s a Grade 1 listed building and is owned by English Heritage. As I was taking the photograph, a local resident told me it has an impressive wood ceiling inside. It’s one of Manchester’s Ancient Monuments and is on the ‘buildings at risk’ register.

Baguley Hall Manchester 1999 image from Eyewitness in Manchester
 
Longford Hall was the home of the cotton magnate and philanthropist John Rylands. His wife Enriqueta gave Manchester the John Rylands Library in his memory. The hall was built in 1857 and was run on a lavish scale. Later the hall passed to Stretford, then Trafford and was in use until quite recently. Due to unfortunate circumstances the house was lost and only the entrance portal remains. We can only imagine its former magnificence. There are plenty of photos available online. Longford Park has an enthusiastic friends group.

Longford Hall entrance portico

Longford Hall entrance portico


 
Let’s not forget Agecroft Hall, which was bought by a wealthy American in the 1920s, shipped across the Atlantic and reconstructed in Richmond Virginia where it is a tourist attraction today. Search for Agecroft Hall to find the official website.

Agecroft Hall, Richmond, Virginia (photo from Wikipedia0

Agecroft Hall, Richmond, Virginia (photo from Wikipedia)


 

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