David Thacker’s debut season for the Bolton venue starts with a real coup. Legendary director Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint’s previous ventures with writer Robin Soans have produced thought-provoking and passionate blasts of political theatre. This world premiere examines the divisions and fissures in contemporary Burnley at ground level, and (a recurring theme of Stafford-Clark’s work) celebrates the redemptive power of art.

Social worker Trish (Celia Imrie, sharing the role with Judith Amsenga) and youth theatre director Bella (Kathryn O’Reilly) are hosting the debut performance of the StreetYY theatre company, a community project focused on social and racial integration. The least of their problems is reluctant leading man Javed (Tyrone Lopez), erratic lighting operator Colin (Matthew Wait) or stroppy Kylie’s (Lisa Kerr) mouthy outbursts. With we, the audience, as guest visitors for the evening, there are doubts as to whether the play will go ahead at all.

Soans’ verbatim work is always focused, sharp and elegant, and this brilliant piece of writing asks some difficult questions, and refuses to answer them with cliché or pat solutions. Rather, this is an urgent protest howl, presenting an audience with a raft of ideas for debate. Jonathan Fensom’s brilliant design places us immediately in a bare community centre, and makes ingenious and full use of the Octagon space.  

Stafford-Clark’s work is, as always, intelligent, accessible and rigourous. He skillfully marshals a dozen principle characters in fast-moving scenes, and expertly choreographs the complex action. Never losing sight of the roots of the project, this feels more like an admiring fan letter to the town of Burnley, than a worthy piece of agit-prop.  

The acting is, for the most part, superb, and it’s a credit to the company that the individual characters’ voices aren’t lost in the mix. Stephanie Street is superlative as the angry and passionate Aneesa. Matthew Wait is brilliantly matter-of-fact as Colin, and presents an impressively complex vision of bureaucracy in social worker Roy. There’s good work, too, from Kashif and Asif Khan.

As for star name, Celia Imrie (who played Trish on the night I attended), she has a plum role and is a commanding stage presence with her expected wry comic timing, though her accent and demeanour suggest someone altogether more prissy. Shades of her previous creations also seem to creep into her body language and facial expressions.

Structurally, Mixed Up North is a little uneven, as the second act seems to belong to a separate play altogether, and the audience’s empathy for the protagonists of the first half ebbs away. Also, some of the acting seems to smack of working class youths filtered through a middle class vision, and can, at times, appear a little shrill.

Overall, though, this is a brilliant evening’s entertainment, and a triumph for both the Octagon and Out of Joint.  If you fancy being challenged and uplifted, as well as being asked to think about problems that exist on all of our doorsteps, then a visit to this gem of play is a must.

-Matthew Nichols