x.trax on the streets Manchester

Feature in Issue 13-2 | Summer 2001

Avanti Display – Hydromania

The x.trax festival opened with an evening spectacular – an amiable mix of circus, samba bands and sculptural installations. I missed most of it, instead enjoying an interesting installation of traffic cones and flashing lights orchestrated along the M1. But I was there in time for the grand finale, Avanti Display's Hydromania. This specially commissioned show was a development of their popular Spurting Man, which features an archetypal Monarch character who wonderfully and ludicrously spurts water from every orifice – a saturnalian king-made-fool in the carnivalesque tradition. It was appropriate, then, that this sad, mad patriarch be placed in front of the seat of city power, the town hall – a Gothic giant with a complement of gargoyles and an imposingly high clock tower. The beauty of Hydromania was the use of this building as a performer in its own right; and in particular the way the sense of a human scale in relation to the building was dealt with so expertly. At the start of the show, a singer appears on a platform in front of the town hall, her head-dress a miniature replica of the building. Later in the show, she appears at the top of the tower, on the clock face itself. The statues to either side that had previously appeared life-size were now seen to be giants, the human figure Lilliputian. Far below, the Monarch spurts and gushes: what first appear as enormous fountains become little sprinkles as the mouths of the gargoyles above gorge out waterfalls of water. The Monarch then moves up a gear and explodes into ever-larger cascades, joined at the end by a whole gang of Spurting Men.

The show is lit beautifully, solo colours travelling down the building bursting into rainbows as they cross the water. The only element that feels a bit short-changed is the sound, it being notoriously difficult to amplify the human voice in the great outdoors. The PA fluctuated and faltered, eventually getting a reasonable mix. But even with this hiccup, this was a wonderful piece of truly site-specific performance.

The Primitives, Wash It

Following on from the international success of Cook It, in which three men cook an omelette, Wash It features three men who wash a shirt. It is the simplicity and predictability that makes this new show an equally sure-fire success. Like all good clowns, from commedia dell'arte to Buster Keaton, they have no need to be anything other than the tried and true. Thus, they exploit the characters they have already developed of master, subordinate and renegade romancer to create another stupendously funny and anarchic street-show that uses every trick in the book to engage and entertain.

From the moment they arrive in the space, we know that we are in the hands of true professionals. Impresario Alan Fairbairn transforms the empty space into stage and auditorium, acquiring an audience and placing them where he wants them. The subsequent demonstration of the company's prowess as launderers is a fast and furious play on the childish love of muck (as expressed by naif subordinate Gordon Wilson) and the parental fear of filth (Impresario-boss to audience: 'You – dirty. We – clean!'). This dynamic is both enhanced and subverted by the capers of gigolo Craig Weston, who sings, beats out a calypso rhythm on the wash-tubs and flirts with the girls and sometimes the boys too.

There is the inevitable audience participation, but as this is The Primitives the right person is always chosen and the outcome is always funny. I saw the show three times and it worked every time. The show ends with a clever little ploy to clear the space, making it a complete theatrical experience: audience gathers, we share a story, the curtain falls. Satisfied customers once more.

Earth, Air, Fire and Water – An x.trax round-up

Street theatre and performance in public spaces takes many forms – but the most abundant example is the two-handed walkabout. An enormous number of these were promenading the streets of Manchester during daylight hours – walking, cycling, stiltdancing and even punting in a boat. Most of these acts provide an entertaining moment or two but occasionally something happens to turn them into something completely different...

My first encounter with Artizani's cherubs on scooters was one of those brief pleasurable moments. Two men painted gold and wearing nappies toy with their bows and arrows then scoot off. I thought no more of it. Later, I came across them again. They were doing the usual flirting and skulking, but then something extraordinary happened. A little boy ran off with one of the scooters; the angel gave chase and recaptured his scooter. The little boy retaliated by shooting the angel with his cap gun – the angel collapsed to the ground writhing in pain. Then it got really interesting: the angel continued to writhe and gasp. With Gaulier-style relentlessness he pushed the moment as far as it would go then pushed some more. The child looked worried, the parents patted his head but as the minutes ticked by looked a little nervous. A crowd had gathered around the angel. Just when we feel that we can't stand any more, the angel leaps up and tears off on his scooter to the cheers of child, parents and onlookers. A perfect example of taking the moment when offered and using it to the full.

Another act by Manchester's own Artizani deserves a mention – a beautifully constructed and executed solo show by James McPherson that combines silent-movie clowning, acrobatics and slack-rope walking to explore one man's ambivalent relationship with everyday objects. Topical Broadcast were a gentle alternative to the brash and breezy approach of most performers. They conjured up a bygone era of wind-up gramophones, gloved ladies and jolly good sports – all from two Tardis-like travelling beach huts. The Bollywood Band proved that you don't need amplification to make a rousing sound in the streets – their bouncing buoyant mix of multi-cultural rhythms played on brass and percussion got the Albert Square crowd dancing – blending in with rather than interfering with other surrounding acts.

In the evening, a very different mood prevailed at the gloriously romantic setting of Castlefield – all cobbled streets, canalways and railway arches. As trams thundered above and spectators swarmed over the swaying footbridge, Walk the Plank animated the canal wharf with their Garden of Luminescence, a luscious bouquet of sculptures and pyrotechnics tended by what looked to be descendants of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. It was a slow and mesmerising event that induced a child-like state of wonder – and I had to be dragged away to see what was happening elsewhere in the Garden of Delights.

This was mostly a mix of old favourites from the new circus scene, such as Mimbre, Heir of Insanity and Feeding the Fish but after ten hours of watching performances, I was by now almost incapable of taking in anything at all. However, I found refuge by the waterside where Green Man Arts had created a wonderful construction of mechanised water-pourers, pumps and pebbles – a little oasis of calm and meditation tucked under the arches by the water's edge and a fitting end to the evening.

This article in the magazine

Issue 13-2
p. 24