Jane Horrocks, her live band and an ensemble of skilled dancers explore the theme of love through prominent songs of the post-punk era with surprising and unexpected results.
A long stage, protrudes into the audience, framed with black speakers, amps and microphones stacked either side of the stage. All lighting hangs visible to the audience, seeming to suggest a gig. The entire set is white; the stage, the back wall where a gigantic plug is slotted into a socket, and the sliding curtain used throughout the piece. The black and white appear to be a cultural nod to the Buzzcocks ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP where every artistic element was black and white; from the album cover to the musical structure. This imagery is a stark contrast when compared to the Manchester gigs of late 70s/ early 80s where these songs found their home. Spatially the set serves the performers well, but it is hard to shake the feeling that if we were hearing these songs in their original home, we would be surrounded by the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke, shuffling around in an attempt to dance in a sweaty, confined space. I'm certainly not saying the production failed in this respect, more that it is clear a conscious decision has been made by Horrocks and Collins, to mount a theatrical production exploring the theme of ‘love’ in a more abstract artistic form.
The white stage gives a base for projections to be used to create atmosphere and add meaning to lyrics. Static crackling across the floor in the early songs hints at the internal stress building within the relationships we are about to discover in an abstract fashion, compared to a more literal use in ‘My New House’ where what looks like a floor plan of the house being sung about, crawls across the stage, perfectly juxtaposing the chaotic emotions depicted by the performers.
The lead singer and her live band capture the angst and grit of the music with aggression and an attitude well suited to the era. Despite their unquestionable energy and commitment, they seem to provide a soundtrack which when you close your eyes, lacks emotional impact. Jane Horrocks knows how to command a stage and does so with charisma and intensity when she is presented as the focal point of a song. To take to the stage alone, within a production so alive with movement, and deliver a song with total stillness relies on presence which, in songs like ‘I Know It's Over’, Horrocks shines, holding the audience in her hand. The band is brimming with superb instrumentalists, and the vocals are well delivered with a husky tone and the Yorkshire accent which immediately places us in the correct social and historical territory, but the true exploration of theme and meaning are most successfully conveyed by the dancers. Their stories, frustrations and passion are a visual feast embodying both the troubled nature and ironic humour of love, which seem to be at the core of the production.
There are several memorable numbers which not only held tremendous dramatic intensity, but also demonstrate the outstanding technical ability of the performers. Despite the complexity of the choreography, (a collaboration between Aletta Collins and performers Daniel Hay-Gordon, Lorena Randi, Michael Walters and the extraordinary Conor Doyle), each moment was delivered with complete clarity, giving the songs a context, and creating characters through whose eyes we experienced these emotions. In ‘Fiction Romance’ for example, comedic gestures and facial expressions conveyed a sense of irony, whilst in ‘Isolation’, the familiar gestures of the ‘Macarena’ were used to unify the ensemble whilst on the other side of the stage, Conor Doyle physicalised the lyrics more literally, with a deep sense of meaning and intensity. When he eventually joined the ensemble, the pace of the repeated movement changed, as he was no longer a figure in isolation. ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ began with one of few moments when it felt as though vocalist connected with the story. Horrocks, enveloped in the arms of Doyle, engages in a relationship which is clearly breaking down due to the man’s perception of his nagging partner. In these more intimate moments when singer fused with dancer, her most emotional moments emerged. This perhaps suggests that the most successful exploration of love takes place when performers communicate with each other. The song developed through the use of everyday gestures and repetition, the breakdown of communication and patience in a fractured relationship are conveyed with gut wrenching irony; yapping hands, hands over ears, the tension carried in the body painfully familiar.
Whilst deconstructing the nature of love, the notion of power and control is returned to several times. The first time, we see two members of the ensemble standing behind a table, the other sitting in a chair facing. The man overpowering the woman, both table and chair manipulated to lean, legs off the floor in an intimidating fashion. This tableaux with the table and chairs is returned to several times, both reinforcing the power struggle and punctuating each relationship by using it as a device to move onto another ‘couple’. In Human League’s ‘Empire State Human’ the idea of power and control is readdressed in a number of ways. Horrocks appears at the opening of the song, sitting astride the enormous plug, with the ensemble lifting the microphone stand for her to sing into, “I wanna be tall, tall, tall, as big as a wall, wall, wall”. She wears an orange bomber jacket, the first time a colour has been worn so far, giving her the most prominence on the stage, and the ensemble support this idea visually with one peeping over the edge of the stage from audience level, whilst others dance around microphones all secured at different heights. If memory serves, this number ends with the ultimate image of power, evolution. We see Michael Waters turning a microphone stand into a dumbbell, representing the macho nature of ‘man’, ending with an upstage image of the tableaux of evolution, with Horrocks in the fully standing position…”tall, tall, tall”. In direct opposition to this visual use of height, the image of a beetle on its back is often returned to during the piece. I felt it suggested complete vulnerability, and was used both at the start of a relationship, and at the very end. The awkward physicality of movement in this position initiated a style used throughout the piece; twitchy, isolated convulsions which developed from the beetle position into a number contortions in various songs. The detail and precision of the choreography throughout the production created an extremely emotional insight into these character’s lives.
Towards the end of the piece, Horrocks quotes poignantly, “Charles Aznavour may or may not have said, ‘I don't think what happens in people's romantic lives should be processed through language’”. This fascinating production seems to wholly support this. Musically the production cannot be faulted, but there is something lacking in its impact. The musicians are excellent, with a strong vocal performance from the leading lady, however, it is the love and romantic lives presented through the dancer’s characters and their emotions that take centre stage in “If You Kiss Me Kiss Me”. Perhaps in this instance Aznavour is right: people’s romantic lives are best expressed through dance.