Review by Raphael Kohn
It’s always exciting to see new theatre, especially when written by someone who is bringing their own family story to life on stage. New to the auditorium of JW3, a centre for Jewish life in North London, A Manchester Girlhood continues its tour of the UK from Blackpool through Manchester and now making a stop in London.
Following the writer’s own family, A Manchester Girlhood traces the family’s roots in Romania and subsequent relocation to Manchester, and the eventual dispersal of one character into New Orleans. It’s a deeply personal work for Pascal, telling her personal history through the medium of theatre, and it’s clear right from the beginning how much passion Pascal has for her storytelling. Mixing theatre, spoken word, and even a good deal of A Capella singing, A Manchester Girlhood is a true labour of love from Pascal.
Written as a 5-person play in which every actor plays multiple roles spanning multiple time periods, A Manchester Girlhood instantly strikes as a very modern play, despite its historical storyline. Characters speak in non-sequitur sequences, announcing each scene with the scene number and location. While this helps greatly to orient the audience to the time and place for each moment, which play out in a non-linear order, it occasionally comes across as overly abstract and distracting, and I found myself wanting the action to show me what was going on rather than telling me.
Yet, the development of its strong female characters is a real strength for Pascal, who develops her women with lively, vivid ideas, and it was impressive to see Jewish women being portrayed so vigorously. I’m sure every Jew in the audience will know women in their lives who they can relate deeply with the characters onstage.
Similarly, the production as a whole very much follows an expressionistic style. Clearly conceived with this in mind from the very start, daring movement and melodramatic acting are used frequently to highlight particular moments and emotions. It’s a bold choice, but I found myself wondering why such a personal, true story was forgoing naturalistic choices so frequently to accentuate itself with overly expressionistic theatrical ideas. I’m sure many will be deeply taken by its passionate production choices, but I at times struggled to follow some of the ideas being developed on stage.
With a cast of only five, the ensemble is greatly challenged by Pascal’s script, calling for each performer to inhabit multiple characters, and briskly snap between characters to allow the story to continue. Rosie Yadid, who primarily plays Esther, the mother of the family, delivers a standout performance, demonstrating exceptional talent in her accent work as she becomes the Romanian matriarch, a British army officer and a Mancunian in quick succession. Likewise, Eoin O’Dubhghaill, the only male performer in the ensemble, is a real ray of light in his characterful portrayals of every male character in the play.
It’s undoubtedly a challenging piece for the ensemble, with Pascal’s opaque script giving the performers a great deal to work with. All five performers put their all into their performance with great passion, but I couldn’t help but wish an approach that slightly more resembled ‘less is more’ could have been taken to allow some more subtlety into the production, which could have allowed us to see even more of the cast’s talents.
I really was impressed, however, with the inclusion of music into A Manchester Girlhood. All songs are sung entirely A Capella, with no cue notes to be heard in the auditorium. Sung to perfection, directed onstage by Yadid in her role of Esther, her character’s matriarchal control extending into her personal control of the music, I was incredibly impressed by the ability of the performers to remain completely in tune and together despite challenges posed by the staging of the piece.
I left not quite fully grasping all of A Manchester Girlhood, but it is certainly a passion project from Julia Pascal, who is bringing her family’s story to life on stage around the country. It’s certainly an expressionistic work, igniting some fascinating theatrical ideas on stage, which more or less pay off most of the time. At only 60 minutes, it manages to tell so much of Pascal’s family history; it is a whirlwind tour halfway across the globe, performed well by its small cast.
A Manchester Girlhood plays at JW3 until the 23rd of May.
Tickets available at https://www.jw3.org.uk/whats-on/manchester-girlhood#
Photos by Claire Griffiths