On Corporation Street
"Are our stories big enough?" asks a young man who has been flung across his room by the bomb blast that shook Manchester 20 years ago. The performer Reuben Johnson turns that question into a mantra, in a rhyme that feels like fists pounding against the rubble, but there isn't an easy answer. Instead, this fascinating new work from Anu Productions and the city's arts centre, Home, is wise about how to incorporate them
The IRA’s truck bomb, famously the biggest explosion in Britain since the second World War, may not have killed anyone, but it shattered the city. Each of the people we find during this frazzled promenade through Home’s building may represent a single shard. No individual story is big enough, but put them together and you come closer to the whole picture.
It begins, in what seems like an experimental move for so committed a site-specific company, in an actual theatre space, although the experiment doesn’t quite work. Here, a fastidiously recreated truck pulses with ominous light, against Carl Kennedy’s sound design (taking shivering cues from György Ligeti) while a slowly undulating tableaux of people cluster onstage. Prolonged, indebted and far too obvious, it’s as though Anu had been offered a proscenium stage and were too polite to refuse it. A cascade of broken glass, the shrapnel of a city, signals a much more persuasive form: from the point of detonation, the story must fragment, and the audience disperse through the building.
Even at the distance of two decades (and within a new era of terrorism) we may fret at turning real catastrophe into metaphor. But, as the audience splits into groups that will be further divided, the most affecting and insightful vignettes are those that make smallest mention of the moment, inscribing it instead through evasions. A low-ranking IRA member, who watched the consequence from a Dublin bar, puzzles over his culpability, while the putative architect of the explosion (a bookish and tormented John Cronin) prefers to talk only of the brighter appliance of science.
As in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, the terrorist attack seems to rupture time itself and both director Louise Lowe and designer Owen Boss make jagged work of the past, present and future (in no particular order).
A corridor of shocked survivors feels generic, as though in dutiful service of testimony. But when Sonia Hughes explains the banal bureaucracy of the city's long recovery, in a waiting room that tapers into a galaxy of floating keys for lost homes and businesses, the scene is so surreal, yet so real, that you feel her frustration and despair hot on your cheeks.
Different audiences will have quite different experiences – not everyone sees the same sequences – but that is precisely the point. Just as the wonderful Niamh McCann plays a Mancunian bride who interprets the bomb as a precipitous sign for her own relationship, this vast public event has scattered into innumerable private reflections. That makes the last moment of the show, a simple reveal of the city beyond the venue, more slyly moving: even at some distance from Corporation Street, the jagged outline of Manchester now is that of a city that has put these pieces back together.
Runs until June 25