Manchester is one of those cities where history follows you around in the streets. The vestiges of the Industrial Revolution are everywhere: the old mills, the warehouses, the canals. Most of these spaces, though, have been transformed. The former hubs of industry are now housing developments and cultural spaces, representing a new kind of prosperity (with a new kind of poverty never far away).
Staged in the fading surroundings of Upper Campfield Market Hall, a listed Victorian structure, Cotton Panic! brings together the city’s past and present, though perhaps not in the way it intended. Billed as gig-theatre, the show – conceived by Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler – views the cotton famine of 1861-62 and its cause in the American Civil War through the lens of current UK-US relations. But what the pop-up gig venue and music-video-esque visuals remind me more immediately of is the regeneration and gentrification of these former industrial sites, which have become increasingly aestheticised. (And I’m as guilty as anyone in that process, with my crush on exposed brickwork.)
There’s a huge gulf between Horrocks in a floaty white dress, swaying in slow-mo through a blizzard of cotton, and the workers whose labour built the city we now stand in. There’s none of the dirt and sweat and drudge of the mill here. Much as Horrocks and her collaborators attempt to convey the plight of workers, many of whom became unemployed when cotton imports were disrupted by the American Civil War, that suffering is always at a distance and is frequently in danger of being romanticised.
Director Wils Wilson is known for orchestrating riotous clashes between music and theatre, from The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart to Gruff Rhys’s immersive theatrical gigs, so it’s surprising that Cotton Panic! feels so inert. For much of the time it’s just Horrocks, backed by the band, awkwardly jolting her limbs in movements seemingly intended to evoke the repetitive toil of mill workers. Occasionally, the monotony is broken when she climbs onto a platform at the side of the wide stage or is joined by a clog dancer. To the back and sides of the stage, meanwhile, are huge projection screens across which a series of abstract images swim, adding to the atmosphere but rarely to the content.
The music itself is a clever mix of folk song and industrial noise, welding the sounds of nineteenth-century Lancashire to Wrangler’s electronic beats. The rhythms, though, quickly become repetitive, and it’s often hard to hear the words Horrocks is singing over the heavy bass and reverb. The show never quite takes off into the gig it wants to be, leaving me wondering what’s the point of standing and straining to see over the heads of the crowd – something I never mind at actual gigs.
Between the musical sequences, the substance of the historical narrative is pretty flimsy. At times, it feels as though they’ve raided the displays of the nearby Museum of Science and Industry and just tweaked the language to make it rhyme. Oh, the rhyming. It begins with a hint of genuine lyricism, but as the device repeats it increasingly sounds like a cotton-themed nursery rhyme. Alongside these scraps of poetry, extracts from historical speeches and accounts provide some of the more powerful moments of the evening, from the plea of a former slave to reports of the deprivation faced by unemployed mill workers.
But as Horrocks reads a statement of solidarity from the workers of Manchester addressed to Abraham Lincoln, supporting the effort to end slavery despite its impact on their own livelihoods, the show is over-eager to press contemporary parallels. The screens flicker with images of Donald Trump, boats of refugees and Black Lives Matter placards. The aura of protest, though, feels a tad disingenuous, ignoring the more immediate inequality that is tacitly linked to the regeneration of this old industrial powerhouse for some, but not for all.
Cotton Panic! is at Manchester International Festival until July 15th. For more details, click here.