The Funfair, an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s 1932 play, Kasimir und Karoline, by Simon Stephens is debut theatre production of new Manchestertheatre/cinema/gallery/bookshop HOME. A lot of this production’s context makes sense. Script by Stockport’s Stephens, Mancunian/North west actors, a show not too avant-garde to scare folk away, not too traditional to bore folk away, a dose of politics but in a way which isn’t didactic. Makes sense. You’ve opened a big new theatre in Manchester, you want to prove it wasn’t a wasted effort, you don’t want to make people angry.
And I think the majority of what HOME have set out to do they’ve managed. Inasmuch as this is a bid to prove Manchester’s more than capable of doing big contemporary theatre, it’s done that. I’m aware I’ve been writing about this play as if it’s a sensible business proposal. Sense-making isn’t necessarily all this production does but I think proving a point is a big part of how it’s here.
In Horváth’s original, the play’s epigraph reads: Und die Liebe höret nimmer auf (And love never ends). There is love in The Funfair, but it’s a cynic’s love: a love like a thin blanket that’s only good for clinging to for a semblance of stability. Fairground metaphor: the lives of the characters lurch in circles like a broken carousel, pieces and people dropping off as it spins. The night the plot plays out through is a long one, and full of decay. Cash is poor, has lost his job, ‘sgonna get poorer, gets upset, is a dick to his girlfriend, they break up.
From here, the play becomes a parade of the subjugated and oppressed, getting subjugated and oppressed. Women in particular are repeatedly abused in the piece, and often the pattern these instances take is an unsubtle instance made even less subtle by someone pointing it out. I’m sure these flashes of verfremdungseffekt are deliberate; there’s a lot of comparisons of Horváth to Brecht in the literature around the play. My issue is the lack of any danger in the politics that are being expressed. Coming back to how I began, the play avoids making people angry by turning its political moments homogenous.
The narrative plays out through a string of unequal power balances but despite there being an obvious left-wing anti social inequality push, power-holding abusers’ opinions are voiced and highlighted with the same weight as those being abused. The effect is a move towards journalistic neutrality: ‘other ideologies are available’. Walter Meierjohann’s direction here feels non-committal; the power dynamics are shown, but I want to watch a show that takes a side, especially if it upsets people. This was theatre to make people sad, I want theatre to make me angry. We’re in Manchester, guys: it’s OK to encourage people to get angry about poverty.
Ti Green’s design was great, by the way. There was a gorgeous moment near the end, using some tin cans that I loved and I wanted far more curveballs like that. The circus freaks were wasted and needed more stage time, the whole moment of ‘freaks’ presented by a black Mancunian faking a Caribbean accent, could have shook us up a lot more. Again, a power dynamic that wasn’t sold hard enough to be unsettling, just familiar. The music was good, performed well by a solid band. James Lusted as the Narrator was proper good.
So The Funfair presented itself stylishly. It was a tidy piece of theatre. I can get behind the politics being sold us, but they needed a harder sell. All of this said, this production could have been a lot safer – but it also could have been a lot more dangerous. Or not even dangerous, just more exciting. As is, it’s reassuring in a way, but I’m far from satisfied that I’ve come away simply pleased they didn’t do a worse job.