Review by Sam Waite
“If music be the food of love, play on,” as a lesser-known (you wouldn’t have heard of him) playwright once wrote – his show was a comedy about a young woman disguised as a young man, and this one’s a one-man show about the struggle to maintain one’s identity during a major change… But there’s a connection between emotion and music, so close enough!
Tommy, the protagonist of A Manchester Anthem, is a soon-to-be Oxford student from a poor, unstable upbringing in Manchester. After his last shift at his dead-end job, he finds himself invited to a night out with his fellow future Oxfordians and is surprised by the encouragement from his more down to earth mates to take the chance. What follows is an often hilarious and periodically gut-wrenching depiction of the evening that follows.
Tom Claxton narrates in the present tense throughout, aiding in the sense of urgency that develops throughout the quickfire hour he is on stage. Claxton elevates the ongoing narration to more than an elevated audiobook by quickly creating a fully realised character and be using his vocal tone and mannerisms to easily introduce us to an array of characters. From breezy trust-fund babies to hard-knocked addicts, he ensures we always know what kind of person Tommy is faced with.
Of course, credit for this must also be given to Nick Dawkins’ script. So naturalistic and believable are Tommy, his mates, and the future scholars he finds himself amongst that I initially assumed this must have been written by Claxton himself as a memoir of sorts. Dawkins also has a firm handle on his themes of identity, or the potential for it to be erased, and the impact a song can have on how we remember a moment years later. Tommy is horrified and determined to flee when a song he loves starts to play during a particularly grim moment of the night, and later it is revealed that a song he begins the evening enthused about is closely linked with his happier childhood memories.
Charlie Norburn, the play’s director, has none of the push to needlessly exaggerate a moment or overwork a scene that could overpower such a simple piece of work. He trusts Claxton to portray, and his audience to understand Tommy’s slow unravelling and desperation to keep his connection to his ordinary roots. Movement is kept to what is necessary, with Claxton acting out the gestures or actions he describes, but with a clear faith that the performer and the work are compelling enough that we don’t need out eyes forcefully drawn to him.
Set design by Anna Niamh Gorman is simple but effective in transitioning from our two major locations – piles of crudely stacked cardboard boxes indicate quite how soon Tommy will be miles away from anything he knows, and later they are rotated to reveal illustrations of Mancunian signs and landmarks. This seamlessly moves us into the streets and bars of the city without any need for a major change of set.
Likewise, Sam Baxter’s work on the evening’s sound keeps the music in focus where needed and relegated to background noise where it isn’t of interest to anyone in the story. Music loves by Tommy blares louder, making its being linked to the moments abundantly clear, but songs he doesn’t take notice of are quiet and go by without notice. Impressively, they are still never quite overpowered by the passing trains and shouts of performers in other Vaults spaces.
Deeply human and with a touching emotional climax, this short play is also very funny in its assessment of its assortment of characters. Anchored by such a winning and genuinely likable performance, this is something I would very much like to see developed further and to see what further riches this small creative team can mine from the material.
A Manchester Anthem plays as part of VAULT festival until 3rd February.
The festival continues until March. Tickets from www.vaultfestival.com