Review: Cotton Panic! (Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester International Festival)

Jane Horrocks stars in this clumsily put together but engrossing story of Manchester’s industrial past

Jane-Horricks in Cotton Panic
Jane Horricks in Cotton Panic!
(© Charl Marais)

It's hard to know whether it's affection for Lancashire lass Jane Horrocks or an interest in Manchester's industrial past that is gathering such crowds to this gig-cum-theatre experiment. Either way, this Manchester International Festival show is pulling in the punters.

It's a shame then that the result is ambitious but half-baked, squandering some of its impact in a lack of focused writing and a meandering structure.

The mouldering Victorian Market Hall, with its mildewed glass roof, provides a magnificent setting for a musical exploration of the suffering and starvation endured by Manchester's cotton workers during the American Civil War. When the North imposed a blockade to stop cotton being harvested in the slave fields of the South, Manchester was transformed from the boom town of Cottonopolis, to a place reliant on interfering philanthropists to ease starvation.

But in an act of solidarity from one exploited class to their enslaved brethren across the Atlantic, the Manchester mill workers held a meeting at the Free Trade Hall to express their ongoing support for the North, earning themselves a letter of gratitude from Abraham Lincoln for their pains.

Horrocks has collaborated on the piece with her partner Nick Vivian and the band Wrangler (composed of Phil Winter, Benge, and Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen "Mal" Mallinder). It's a rousing and riveting story that they tell through an assemblage (directed, lightly, by Wils Wilson) of songs (some of them traditional), film, memoir and clog dancing.

Horrocks forms the centre point, appearing at first like a ghost from the past trailing clouds of cotton from her white shift, and talking of the soft hands that built Manchester’s wealth at considerable expense to their health, even before the mills fell silent. She's initially accompanied by the noisy clatter of the looms and by images (visuals by Chris Turner) on the screens surrounding the stage of lint floating in the air like a choking fog.

Later the same screens show her running around, and then Glenda Jackson suddenly appears in the picture, reciting with dignity and restrained emotion the poet Edwin Waugh’s accounts of families living in squalor and wiped out by hunger. Horrocks waves a flag, and plunges into the audience (standing as at a concert) to beg for help. More letters are read and then we suddenly see footage of President Trump and Black Lives Matter. Everything is accompanied by an electronic pulse, but there's not much melody and the words often clog.

In short, it's all a bit of a mess but what saves it is the pure interest of the story and the clarity and bite of Horrocks' idiosyncratic voice.

Cotton Panic! runs until 15 July at Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester as part of Manchester International Festival.