If theatre is to shed its stifling old fashioned image of the stage and attract new audiences then Contact Theatre’s current programme of events this year is a shining example of challenging the conventional.
Contact Theatre have made the most of their multi million pound redevelopment programme, which sees their usual home closed for a year. They’ve decided to embrace the city by using a varied range of venues to house their productions. These aren’t just your typical theatre houses that they’ve rocked up to. No sir, these include museums, concert halls and in the case of Handlooms, an actual bona fide working sari shop right bang in the middle of Manchester’s Curry Mile.
Of course, it is not surprising that Contact should have such an out of the box approach to their predicament. They’ve become renowned in recent years for creating pieces of work that diversify the traditional theatre experience.
In Handlooms they have exactly that.
Co-produced with Rasa Theatre and written by Rani Moorthy, Handlooms is a story of a mother and son and that generational gap that highlights the cultural tensions of the past, the present and what the future holds. These are rounded portrayals of asian characters that Moorthy has created, and played with aplomb by Moorthy herself in the role of matriarch Neeta Sharma, and Ashraf Ejjbair as her son Rajesh. The writing is replete with just the right amount of popular cultural references, the frisson of the psychological baggage that adorns most ethnic minorities and the twang of bitter humour that most people will attune to no matter what their ethnic makeup.
It’s actual setting is Alankar House of Sarees, which makes for an intriguing and fascinating spectacle. The small venue dictates that there are no more than a couple of dozen people in the audience. By the end you’re almost all on a first name basis. We are lead into the venue with the principal cast already on their “stage”, and immediately you feel not so much as part of a theatre production but something far more intimate and personal. Headphones are used to add to this total immersive experience. The sight, the sound and the touch of the silks lying around, and even smell of the fabric adds to this viewing pleasure.
To say Handlooms is a rollercoaster of emotions and themes is an understatement. There’s the generation gap between mother and son, the cultural issues that this throws up, how the new generation look at such things as love and marriage and there is even the taboo subject of cross dressing that is put under the spotlight. And that is not all, failing economies, immigration, refugees and globalisation are some of the concepts that are thrown into this melting pot.
That’s a lot to take in an hour.
And that my dear reader is ultimately it’s downfall. The concepts do not have room to breathe and are quickly discarded to make room for the next dramatic segment. It feels all too rushed. One minute the business is flailing, then it isn’t One minute we have a character about to get married, then suddenly the wedding is off. One minute we have a refugee at the back, the next she’s being deported.
Moorthy is clever enough to weave a compelling story, however, there is not enough cloth for her to make clothes that are fit for an emperor. It’s a pity because Handlooms has all the makings of a classic. It reminded me of another famous play set around these parts, also primarily in a shop, where the familial tensions leads the audience to question the changing attitudes of the day.
Shame, because Moorthy could have been a great Hobson.
Verdict: An innovative and immersive production that challenges the traditional stereotypes of theatre. At its heart there is a charming and an intriguing story, but packs too much in too little time for it to make an impact.