All the fun of the fair, but not much else

The Funfair
The Funfair
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The Funfair, HOME, Manchester

Until June 13

Theatre director Water Meierjohann gave the game away when he introduced his first-ever stage production at Manchester’s shiny new £25m arts centre as being “very visual”.

For that’s exactly what it is. And all that it is. A gaudy piece of sub-Brechtian theatre that may well signal a new order of mittel-European performance in the city, but does not bode well for putting itself on a wider cultural map.

Stockport writer Simon Stephens has adapted a 1930s Hungarian play about young love being trampled in a time of economic despair, and tried to drag it towards some contemporary relevance at a moment just after the recent general election.

Trouble is, Meierjohann and Stephens have maybe second-guessed the outcome of that election, and certainly forgotten to take out mention of a Zeppelin overhead.

What remains is a series of predictable alienation techniques that draw nervous audience giggles, but are acted by two-dimensional cartoon characters.

Familiar stage clichés from this type of theatre abound.

A dwarf narrator, check; characters carrying balloons, check; circus or fairground setting, check; mad dancing, check; freak show, check; reptilian capitalists – the list goes on.

By the time one such reptile starts to ply a young girl with drink and lure her to Blackpool in his Bentley there is some current though thoroughly unpleasant relevance.

As a showcase of HOME’s apparatus The Funfair is often eye-catching. A central stage revolve that can also tilt; digital projection techniques on a front gauze or stage backdrop that appear to set the stage spinning; and simultaneous projected replay of stage action on to the set.

The potential for theatre that hits you between the eyes is enormous, but if not coupled with some effect between the ears it’s just shadows without substance.

Manchester’s striking new house of culture is not yet quite at home.

David Upton