What defines a city? Its places? Its people? Its history? In The Manchester Project, local theatre company Monkeywood turn that question over and over, seeking to capture something uniquely Mancunian. Across 19 micro-plays crammed into a fast-moving hour, writers from the city offer snapshots of Manchester’s varied neighbourhoods, from Moss Side to Didsbury, Old Trafford to Chorlton.
Some plays freeze a single aspect of the city: the startling calm of Heaton Park (in Becky Prestwich’s quiet, self-contained Prestwich), Didsbury’s apparent lack of Mancunian “authenticity” (Anna McDonald-Hughes) or the middle-of-nowhere feeling of a small suburb (Sarah McDonald-Hughes’s Flixton). Others skitter across the surface of a place, prowling restlessly from boozers to betting shops to leafy, aspirational avenues. In James Quinn’s Withington, for instance, we fleetingly meet a range of local types: the student, the substance abuser, the well-heeled woman flirting with the thrill of urban grit. Here, as in all the best offerings, the city writhes with contradictions.
These vignettes, although separate, converge around similar ideas. Several of the speakers are returning to old haunts, only to find – in the words of Reuben Johnson’s protagonist in Little Hulton – “the same old me beneath the blue sky”. Belonging, leaving and homecoming are recurring themes across the 19 playlets, as are change and nostalgia. In most areas, gentrification is a creeping presence, whether archly represented by artists moving into the neighbourhood (Gareth George’s Levenshulme) or lightly suggested by a background of new shops, cafes and gleaming luxury flats.
Under the dialogue thuds the familiar pulse of Manchester’s music: Buzzcocks, Joy Division, the Smiths, Oasis. Martin Gibbons’ production is spare and simple, wisely letting the words paint the locations. The only props are a series of white, hexagonal stools, alluding to the honeycomb design on the bins that line the streets outside and a nod to the worker bee image so associated with the city.
As in any mixed programme of new writing, the quality across the 19 plays varies. The time constraints, meanwhile, are unforgiving, promoting directness over nuance. But viewed as a cumulative whole, The Manchester Project is an engaging – if partial – portrait of an ever-changing city.