Angel Meadows and Sleeping Lions

I lived in London for 11 years and depended on the tube for every single journey I made.  Even now, I can plot a route across the capital in 30 seconds; I relish the challenge of finding the quickest route from A to B.

 

3 years into my Manchester residency (parp) and I still miss the speed and commonality of Tfl.  My  commute to work now feels like a portal into ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.  Trains are slow and they smell, a mixture of pollen, scotch egg and urine.  So I don’t leave the city centre much.  I’ve become a little insular.  But it turns out that it’s okay, because I only needed to walk 5 minutes from my flat to enter a world not dissimilar to how I imagine Hells Kitchen once was, a world of more than just spit and sawdust.

 

On Friday I went to see Angel Meadow, the inaugural project from HOME, delivered by the acclaimed ANU Productions.  We were told to meet in a square on the other side of the Oldham Road and I guess, await further instructions.  Curiosity piqued, I had a look online.  One reviewer had found it too much and had to leave.  Great.  I’d had a jangly week at work and would take ‘too little’ over ‘too much’ any day.  The pull of the sofa and a bland world cup tie between whosit and the other team was very strong.

 

Thank God I ignored this urge, because Angel Meadow was without doubt the finest bit of theatre that I have ever experienced.  And I mean experienced in the most literal sense of the word.

 

Angel Meadow takes place in and around the Edinburgh Castle, a derelict pub which called time 10 years ago after a particularly nasty riot of Oldham and Wrexham fans.  The Castle itself is slap bang in the middle of Ancoats, an area not unfamiliar with blood grudges.  Ancoats is the home of the industrial revolution and subsequently home to some seriously messy gang wars between rival factions who moved there to work, notably Irish and Italian communities.  Apparently the cast and creative team had arrived in Manchester without a space in mind and having discovered the castle, they moulded the piece from the lives and histories that the pub and surrounding area revealed to them; times when women believed in the devil and drank bleach for their sins, where men formed allegiances and rivalries at remarkable speed, where children were cheap and life was very fucking quick.

 

I’m not going to describe the show in detail, because I wouldn’t do it justice (I’ve wrestled with how to write this since seeing the performance 2 days ago) but also on the offchance that the company may perform it again, in which case I urge you to sell your least favourite body organ to procure a ticket.  Truth be told, I couldn’t speak of the full experience if I wanted to, as I only caught a fragment of it.  Each performance is for eight people at a time and we were picked off, reassembled and reformed many times over the course of an hour, but always made privy to performances of such heart-breaking conviction that it felt like a gift and a blessing to bear witness.

 

Angel Meadow is totally immersive  I’ve seen companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt and never felt truly touched – how could I with 50 other people in the room?  And then, for the inhibited amongst us, there’s always the nagging anxiety: ‘Don’t pick on me, please don’t single me out’.  Involving the audience can be enthralling, but it isn’t the same as making them perform.  When this happens, encounters become forced, uncomfortable and leave Sue the office manager feeling exposed, like she’s fallen short all at the same time.  Angel Meadow avoided this by not turning us into performers, but by taking away the audience.  We fell through the space in this funny old run-down pub, sometimes landing together, sometimes alone.  I might grease up a boxer for a fight or have a chat in the kitchen about flowers.  Either way it’s just me (and maybe one other) and the performer, no-one to mediate or judge.  We were free to play.

 

And if this still sounds eggy and uncomfortable, it isn’t.  The performers are so extraordinarily committed that you allow them to pull you through this sordid wormhole without resistance.  You move from watching a play, to watching people, to being part of the group.  The final event was delivered with such energy and conviction that I came out shaking.  And I know that sounds like a shitty theatre critic thing to say, but I’m not wearing a top hat, I’m not arsed about the fourth wall and I don’t cry at soliloquies.  I don’t care for a lot of the stuff that I’m supposed to, stuff that’s  ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘ award-winning’.  I’m a human being who thought she wanted to spend the night on the sofa and ended up having an earth-shattering experience in Angel Meadow.

 

Spanish Castle Magic

I’m puzzled by the parts of my childhood home that I can remember in detail; I would have no idea on what colour the walls were, or the bathroom even (though it was probably avocado, let’s face it), but I remember certain parts very very clearly.  Our house was a converted telephone exchange, but few of the original features remained.  Thank God for the ambition of the architect though; where many may have seen a functional bungalow type thing, she saw …. a Spanish villa.  So the walls were white, the patio was red tiled, and running across the facade were a series of arches which continued over the driveway.  I loved how it looked.

The stairs were awesome.  They were big wooden slabs driven horizontally into the wall with a balustrade of wrought iron.  What magic could I create here? Would I scale the underneath of each step? Would i wriggle straight through between the slats and enter a world of intrigue and mystery? No: I would spend most of my time wedged between two slats, my legs dangling freely and preted to be in an office. At a desk.  You see, I also had a little typewriter in a briefcase, which featured a series of images guiding me through what people did in an office and at what time.  At 9.30, according to the pictures I would arrive at work.  11 meant time for a black coffee, 1 oçlock was a ham sandwich.  I was supposed to down tools at 5 pm, but hey, sometimes I finished a little earlier to beat the rush home.

 

What I did during these hours is anyone’s guess. This was pre-internet, so I couldn’t even access real online information through my office space.  I wasn’t building an app empire, and there was no-one to email.  So I think I spent most of the time … pretending.  Pretending to do things that I associated with offices; like typing letters, making up imaginary data, sighing and musing on lunch.  Turns out I was scarily accurate on what office life was like!

 

Granted, there was probably a hella lot more engaging things that I could have been doing, like building dens, bike-riding, dancing in my pants, but hey, it’s not what i was pretending, it was how I was pretending.  I could pretend, quite happily, to be in an office for entire days, so much so that my mum and dad became adept at walking right over my little head if they needed to go upstairs.  I was part of the furniture (buh-bum-cha).  

 

It turns out that my husband was similarly fascinated by the stairs in his house, but his big challenge was seeing from how high he could jump down and not slam into the wall at the bottom.  He’s a bit like that.

 

My niece and nephew live there now (with my sister and brother-in-law, thankfully) and the house has adapted into a new home.  Fashions change: the arches are still there, but the inside is much sleeker and spacier.  Regardless, they’ve found their own pretend adventures.  In spite of their myriad toys, one of their favourite games involves sliding off the back of the sofa, pretending to be innocent fairies in the thrall of the wicked witch, my mother.  They can play this game for hours, something which takes a year of the wicked witch’s life each time they do.  The stairs have gone, but the sofa remains.  Space is adaptable, as are we, but what is re-assuring is that we still have the guaranteed imagination to find joy in pretending. 

 

 

The joys of hypocrisy

Secret number one: I judge you through your living room windows.

 

Walking home gives me a great opportunity to assess you through those sturdy 2 by 4 panes of glass that beckon me into your front room.

 

I see people in their dressing gowns at 5 o clock in the afternoon.

 

I see children transfixed by a plasma 4 billion inch rendering of Jake and the Neverland Pirates, their hair upended by a static charge from the TV screen.

 

I see christmas lights, still up.

 

I see people in the dark, temporarily lit up by tablets, laptops, mobile phones, sometimes all at once, their faces moving greedily in and out of the blue glare as they dart between devices, like underwater swimmers in a murky pond.

 

I see you eating a pot noodle.

 

I see laundry in piles, like monuments in Greenland.

 

I see dead velvet stretched over cushions, unwashed and unloved.

 

I see terrible family photos.

 

And then I get back to my flat, slip into my pyjamas, put the kettle on for a cuppa soup, switch on my computer, check my phone and cuddle up close to the fairylights and TV screen, ignoring the pile of laundry prone on the floor.  I nod with familiarity at the grinning bozos in the photo frame, pull a tattered cushion under my bum and thank God that I’m home.