The Funfair, HOME, 14th May – 13th June
The Funfair will be memorable for a whole host of reasons. For some audience members, it might be the bizarre but brilliant freak show from just before the interval, when a blue-headed gorilla girl called Juanita (CiCi Howells) serenaded us from the centre of the stage. For others, the band paying Iggy Pop and Nick Cave covers in a corner box may have been the highlight. The narrator Tiny (James Lusted) will also live long in the memory, as much for his Rocky Horror esque dancing as his carnival-inspired oratory. For me, it was one of the more simple and subtle elements. My highlight was actually the colour of a tie. Because the play’s most vile and disgusting character, the one who tries to buy a night in Blackpool with the play’s female protagonist, the one who tells his friend he’ll have to go after the ‘small white arses’ of boys when he gets back to London because there are no white women left there, was wearing a tie that said a lot about him. His name was Billy Smoke (Ian Bartholomew) and his tie was yellow and purple, patterned exactly like the ties that have become synonymous with UKIP.
Some might say this was an accident, but I don’t believe this for a second. The Funfair is a deeply political play, positing the rich and entitled against the working classes whose struggle to earn a living has led to a struggle to lead a life. It’s a play where the rich take what they want and the poor muddle on – making what they do manage to grasp on to all the more worthwhile. Considering it is a rewrite of Odon Von Horvath’s Kasimir and Karoline, a play written in the 1930s and looking at Germany just before the Nazis came to power, it says hell of a lot about the UK today. Especially when you consider the recent election. Writer Simon Stephens has done an incredible job of respecting the original while also making this a play about Manchester and the UK today. The rise of the right wing was a concern in both these eras, and Funfair shows how this will affect the ordinary man. How right wing politics can seep into the everyday and leave so many people despondent.
It does this, in the main part, through the story of Caroline (Katie Moore) and Cash (Ben Batt). Cash has just lost his job, but they have come to the funfair anyway. While Caroline sees it as night of distraction, Cash sees it as her not really caring that he’s suddenly unemployed. When Caroline wants to talk about a passing airship, Cash seems to see this as evidence that she is dreaming of a better life without him and she will leave him now that he can’t provide for her. She is upset when he accuses her of this, and the argument leads to break-up.
The rest of the play follows them as they take opposing paths. As Caroline meets John Chase (Rhodri Meilir), a man with a steady job in the ‘fashion industry’ she sees a possible way out of the tedium and struggle she faces as an office administrator. But Chase works for Billy Storm – and when the latter demonstrates his own attraction for Caroline, we see how even Chase can do little to resist his power. At the same time, Cash is following a different path. Now jobless and single, he turns to drink. Hanging out with dodgy geezer Frankie (Michael Ryan) and his girlfriend Esther (Victoria Gee), it seems that turning to crime could be the most viable alternative. But The Funfair is very clear on where that path could lead you.
At the heart of the play’s power is the fact that both Caroline and Cash prove themselves to be good people. The situations they find themselves in force them into things they struggle to manage, but both have honourable intentions. Behind a comic and spectacular veneer, we have a play that deals with some harsh realities and deals with them extremely well.
But it should definitely be pointed out that this veneer is as crucial to the play as any of the subject matter. The set is among the most impressive I’ve seen, the more raucous and lively scenes live up to those we saw in HOME and Walter Meierjohann’s previous collaboration on Romeo and Juliet, and the comedic elements add to the sense of this as a northern play about northern people. The music, as well, is more crucial, and more enjoyable, than in almost any other play I’ve seen.
It must have been difficult to balance the levels of humour and entertainment with such a depressing political point. Writer Simon Stephens, director Walter Meierjohann, and all of the cast and chorus deserve a lot of respect for the ways in which they achieved this. HOME, too, deserve a lot of credit. After the promise of Romeo and Juliet, The Events, and Spur of the Moment they do not disappoint with the first show since their official opening. If HOME really is to be the new face of theatre in Manchester, there are some exciting times ahead. They’re already putting out more daring and original productions than many of their competitors.