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Angels With Manky Faces (Manchester)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The lights dim, a sepia-tinged black and white film starts to roll, and two fingers hit the keys of an old fashioned typewriter to the opening rhythm of New Order's "Blue Monday." This might be a play about fighting gangs in Victorian Manchester, but it is not going to be an ordinary ride. This is the MaD Theatre Company doing what they do best.

Angels with Manky Faces, adapted from Andrew Davies's book The Gangs of Manchester, follows the lives and loves of a gang of Manchester 'Scuttlers' from the end of the 19th century. It focuses on one such gang, The Bengal Tigers - made up of members of the Johnson family -  and their feud with the Meadow Lads. Much of the action takes place in the pub/brothel where Biddy Flanagan and her daughters hold court, and the story alternates between the violent, the funny and the downright rude, reflecting the nature of life at that time in that place.

Carol Bradley performs wonderfully as the madam/landlady Biddy, with Jack Williamson as Jimmy Johnson, Rosie Phillips as Ann-Marie O'Donnell and Abi Gunning as Fanny Flanagan providing a nice sub-plot in the form of a love triangle.

As with last years Les Puddings Noir, Alana Thornton, Lauren Lennon and Charlie Nield also provide memorable comic performances. The cast is too large to mention them all by name, but while their acting skills are variable, their enthusiasm is always watchable and completely infectious.

The use of professional-looking music videos featuring the cast plus a range of other actors (including Corrie's Graeme Hawley) and local Manchester bands enhances the performance and extends the story beyond the confines of the stage, and gives an energy to the play which keeps it rattling along to its powerful ending. The use of the stage is simple but effective and Rob Lees' direction manages to keep the large cast under control without them ever becoming overbearing on such a small stage.

MaD Theatre Company has made its name with innovative multi-media performances which make strong use of their location, references to modern social issues, and an energetic and willing cast, and this is no exception.

It is not the most polished play you will see this year, but it can't be topped for entertainment value: slapstick, fighting, good songs, bad jokes and our very own Terry Christian dressed as a priest. What more could you want?

-Calum Kerr

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