Bloody Elle at the Royal Exchange, Manchester – review

The hit venue reopens

Bloody Elle
Bloody Elle
© Pippa Rankin

Unlike other theatres which have teetered between open and closed during the last 15 months, Manchester's Royal Exchange's doors have remained closed to live audiences throughout. Their long-awaited reopening show therefore carries a burden of anticipation. It falls upon one woman, Lauryn Redding, whose spirited solo gig show about love and pride doesn't disappoint.

Playing the eponymous Elle, Redding enters with a swagger. She swigs a beer as she strides across the paint-splattered stage — its Jackson Pollock-style white frosting illustrating her internal landscape of blood rushes and wild desires exploding in her head. It's also reflective of Redding's ambition to "mash up" the two worlds of acting and music, in this semi-autobiographical piece about falling in love for the first time as a young lesbian.

Much more than "mashing them up", Redding and director Bryony Shanahan seamlessly interlace these two styles of performance. Over two hours, Redding creates a gratifying, superbly accomplished display of invention and craft. Loop pedals allow repetition to build and layer, beats and the sound of a gasp reverberating like the cacophony of voices, thoughts and sensations in her mind. Likewise, her script's verbal echoes remind us of the indelible details — the "guacamole green" eyes of her crush — she says you reflect on as life-defining moments.

There's a lucid, easy honesty and transparency to Redding's performance. She moves between different microphones almost like additional members of the audience she confides in — leaning into them or clutching them tightly in front of her scrunched face, precious vessels for the purest expression. Just as she flips between impersonations of the other characters, she's always switching the microphone stands around, retuning the stage to mark off chapters and move on.

She's a performer with a magnetic energy. Sprightly and confident, she embodies a host of family and colleagues, but makes them slowly fall away as her universe becomes increasingly focused on the girl she loves. She tells the story with an unforced, unpretentious spoken word delivery, pleasingly casual and flippant in the way she finds natural rhymes: "Elle and Eve — it's impossible to find the right words, but I've got some up my sleeve."

Equally effortless is her drifting between speech and song, picking up an instrument as though spontaneously reacting to a moment and reconciling them "the only way I know how." Acoustic and electric guitars allow her a versatility to convey the pain and joy, rough and smooth. And the music always has an organic undertow — percussion blends into pulsating heartbeats — like we're wired into her body. There's sometimes a slight disjunct between the mundane settings and the power of her vocals, but it captures the way thumping love rips through.