Angel Meadow (Ancoats, Manchester)

The first production from a HOME is an absolute winner, says David Cunningham.

Angel Heart
Angel Meadow
© Graeme Cooper

HOME is Manchester’s newest theatre company formed from a merger of The Library Theatre Company and the Cornerhouse Cinema. Ironically, pending completion of a £25m purpose-built venue, the company is currently homeless.

During this interim period HOME is hosting a series of shows at a variety of locations. The first, Angel Meadow, is by guest artists and site-specific specialists ANU. Appropriately for a currently itinerant company it is a promenade production.

During the industrial revolution Ancoats had a large Irish emigrant community in which, due to the harsh working conditions and rampant gang violence, life expectancy was just 17 years. Nowadays the area is being gentrified and an effusive estate agent promises an audience gathered in Cutting Room Square a tour of bespoke apartments.

But Angel Meadow does not surrender its ghosts lightly and the presentation is interrupted by a blood-splattered character (a ferociously unhinged Caitriona Ennis) who announces that gang violence has broken out again and Eddie is dead. An attempt to lead the audience to safety results in us being divided into groups and individuals and taken on a nightmarish journey.

The physical location of the play is largely irrelevant as it is more a trip through the state of mind of people who have little to lose and are on the verge of losing it anyway. Owen Boss superbly captures this lack of hope in his designs and installation. The rooms in a derelict public house are set out so that you might find yourself back in a 19th Century flophouse or illegitimate boxing ring.

There is a disturbing surreal atmosphere that eerily demonstrates the futile lives of the inhabitants. The drinks cabinet in the pub is full of litres of bleach, which the characters swig with a life-hating disregard, the head of a butchered pig hangs over the pool table. Fascinatingly at one point you pass a room in which the floor is made of turf and the walls full of butterflies – perhaps a promise of a better life.

Rather than take the lazy way of many promenade productions, and just allow the audience to wander through the set, Louise Lowe’s ingenious direction channels them towards particular events and scenes. The manner in which the audience is divided ensures no two experiences will be the same.

It is an intense and intimate event during which you may find yourself eyeball to eyeball with the burning physical presence of Thomas Reilly’s deranged tough guy or holding the punching bag for bare knuckles boxer Eric O’Brien. There is also a deeply discomforting chance to share a whiskey with a grieving mother who begs you to take on the role of Sin Eater and allow her late child to ascend to heaven (the soul of the child is superbly represented). A bestial and squalid orgy and a bleak Christmas dinner also feature before the audience re-groups in the aftermath of Eddie’s wake.

Impressively Louise Lowe and dramaturg Petra Tauscher build a cohesive storyline rather than simply overwhelm the audience with sensation. Even if you join a scene halfway through the construction is so skilful that it is easy to grasp the point. The drawing together of plot points, of which the audience may only have been vaguely aware, at the conclusion is a marvellous piece of storytelling.

Angel Meadow is an experience that is hard to forget and a show that should not be missed. If HOME can fulfil the promise of its initial production it is going to be a hell of a company.

Angel Meadow is on until 29 June.

Dave Cunningham