In the centre of Manchester, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It looks random, but it isn’t; engraved on the pedestal are excerpts from a letter Lincoln wrote to to the cotton workers of Manchester in 1863 thanking them for their solidarity during the Union blockade in the American Civil War. Manchester, like much of the north, developed very rapidly during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and cotton was the main local industry; when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, the supply of cotton to Lancashire’s mills dried up, and millworkers whose living conditions were barely adequate to begin with suddenly found themselves living in desperate poverty – and yet at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862, cotton workers gave their support to the blockade, and to Lincoln’s drive to end slavery.
That’s a (very) simplified version, obviously, but it’s a chapter of history that has been half-forgotten, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Cotton Panic is Jane Horrocks‘s tribute to those cotton workers, and it’s the kind of production that could probably only exist as part of something like the Manchester International Festival. Presented – because of course it’s the obvious choice – as a music gig rather than a more formal theatrical performance, incorporating some period folk songs, a couple of recognisable minor pop classics, and Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, all glued together by industrial/electronic music from Stephen Mallinder‘s band Wrangler, the show is a breathless, sometimes breathtaking, deeply idiosyncratic theatrical collage. It really shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s thrilling.
With anyone other than Horrocks at the centre, the performance might very well collapse. Despite the rich potential of the historical source, in one sense the writing here (shared between Horrocks, her partner Nick Vivian, and the three members of Wrangler) is thin. The most powerful passages are excerpts from period texts – accounts of the horrible conditions endured by the destitute cotton workers during the famine (movingly read by Glenda Jackson, and delivered via three large projection screens), the letter from the Free Trade Hall, the response from Lincoln, a speech by Frederick Douglass (played, again on video, by Fiston Barek, who should be credited for this reading in the programme and isn’t). Some of the linking material is less persuasive, and the idea of writing the opening narration in twee rhyming couplets should really have been dropped in the first draft – although perhaps this is the first draft, because at times it plays like one.
Sit down and analyse the performance, actually, and it becomes very easy indeed to pick holes. A lot of it has the air of the kind of very, very precious devised piece you’d see created by undergraduates as an end-of-term project. It’s politically simplistic – we really don’t need the tacked-on epilogue drawing parallels to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a link we’re all capable of making for ourselves – and sometimes far too pretentious, as in the sequence where Horrocks, behind a screen, sings Strange Fruit through some kind of synthetic processed effect to an electro/industrial backing. You can see what they’re trying to do, but it might have been more theatrically effective to let the (astonishing, devastating) lyrics speak for themselves. Worse, in that sequence, is the use of the projected faces of black actors – credited only in tiny, difficult-to-read print in the amateurish-looking programme distributed after the performance – as little more than set-dressing. To use a series of images of silent black faces during a sequence in which a white woman sings a song that is powerfully associated with black performers – a song that, moreover, describes and responds to the cruellest, most vicious form of racism – sends a complicated message, and perhaps not precisely the one the show’s creators intended.
But having said all that, the performance is absolutely compelling, and that’s mostly thanks to Horrocks. She’s always been a somewhat eccentric performer, and – unlike some actors – she’s never been afraid of the big gesture, and those two qualities serve her very well indeed here. She performs – ‘acting’ isn’t always quite the right word – with absolute conviction, whether she’s giving us a tour through the noise and heat of a pre-1860 cotton mill, playing a destitute millworker begging from the audience, intoning Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm with the doomed air of Claudia Brücken circa 1985, or belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She’s sometimes joined by dancer Lorena Randi, who offers a kind of Jed Hoile to Horrocks’s Howard Jones, bringing us closer to the tribulations of Lancashire’s millworkers via the interpretive medium of clog-dancing. It’s a combination that teeters right on the edge of the most gruesomely self-indulgent kind of self-parody, but they always stop just short of crossing the line. Despite the perfectly-appropriate almost wall-to-wall music from Wrangler, who stand dourly behind a projection screen at the back of the stage, Horrocks’s voice is the lynchpin holding everything together. It’s an unusually pliable instrument – she can sing just about anything convincingly, she can place her voice anywhere between a pitiful whisper and an exultant roar, and that voice, when she wants it to, lends her an authority which is somewhat at odds with her rather slight physical presence. For all that some elements of this production are misguided, you can’t take your eyes off her.
The result, frustrating as it can sometimes be, is utterly sui generis and surprisingly moving. The historical texts are well-chosen and extremely effective, Chris Turner’s ‘visuals’ – that’s the word they use in the programme, and they mostly mean projections – provide a thoughtful, sometimes spectacular counterpoint to the live performers, and the show more than holds your attention throughout the 70-minute running time. You may find yourself contemplating a more traditional theatrical treatment of the events Horrocks portrays here – it’s a rich seam of material, and this chapter of local history, as I said, has been all but forgotten – but even if parts of it could have been thought through a little more clearly, there’s a lot to admire. Cotton Panic takes big risks, and not all of them pay off, but enough works that it’s a memorable experience. MIF’s productions, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be hit and miss, and sometimes really miss. As off-the-wall, even misguided, as some of this event is, it’s saved and indeed elevated by Horrocks’s blazing sincerity. It’s obvious from the moment she walks onstage that she feels a deep connection to this material, she carries the show, and her performance makes it worth looking past the production’s occasional missteps. I can’t say the production is an absolute triumph, and parts of it are completely bonkers, but it isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year – and that’s exactly what festivals like MIF are for.