Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind (Gare du Nord Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 11th July 2019
Stockport Train Station

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from the 1st-31st July, and I’m continuing my journey through a selection of the many shows on the programme for this blog and North Manchester FM. The next show I’m reviewing is The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind by Gare du Nord Theatre, which I saw in Stockport on Thursday 11th July. The radio version of this review aired on today’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but – as always – here’s the blog version…

The Fringe is a multi-venue festival that takes place across Greater Manchester. One of the benefits of this is that the festival encourages people to travel to different boroughs and to visit theatres and studios that they haven’t been to before – already this year, for instance, I’ve been introduced to Twenty Twenty Two in Manchester and the Whitefield Garrick. However, another benefit of the Fringe’s multi-venue ethos is that some companies stage performances in non-theatre spaces as well. Step up: The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind… which was performed in a disused waiting room between the platforms at Stockport Train Station.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is a production by Gare du Nord Theatre. You may remember that my first review this year was of Gare du Nord’s Underwater, so it was a pleasure to have the chance to see another of the company’s three productions on this year’s programme. It was also great to experience some site-specific theatre – the unconventional performance space for The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind isn’t just a gimmick, but rather a part of the show itself.

The play is a reprisal of their award-winning 2017 show, though with a slightly different cast. It’s an immersive (though light-touch immersive) show that offers a somewhat wistful and poetic meditation on journeying, adventuring and passing-by.

When you arrive at Platform 3 at the station for the show, everything feels fairly normal. Evening travellers are waiting for trains, and station staff are going about their business. However, you then spot a few unconventional travellers on the platform. Smiling and interacting with audience members and commuters, these travellers are dressed in quirky, slightly old-fashioned clothing. They look like they might’ve dropped in from a different time.

This is what I mean by ‘light-touch immersive’. The audience doesn’t participate in the action of the play, but the way the company use and inhabit the site transforms the way we look at the otherwise ordinary train station. For an hour or so, the ordinary becomes a little bit extraordinary.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is a lyrical and whimsical tale – with a slight Gallic inflection – of connections and journeys. As a man (the eponymous beggars) sits and strums a guitar, another man (played by Geoff Baker) walks hurriedly in front of us, from one door of the room to the other. He drops a coin into the beggar’s guitar case, but he has no time to stop, because he’s just ‘passing by’. A married couple (played by Emma Yates and James Boucher) arrive to wait for a train. They speak at cross purposes to one another and are repeatedly interrupted by the passer-by. Eventually, the wife is distracted enough to talk to the stranger, and they discover a deep and significant sense of connection.

The play dispenses with naturalistic performance and dialogue to instead offer eccentric and poetic flights of fancy that conjure up romanticized vistas that can only be reached by train. The wife and the passer-by describe a wondrous and rather off-beat journey, imagining the incredible sights they could see together – only to have to their fantastical scenario shattered by the arrival of the last train. Is their brief interlude real? Or is it a dream? It feels as though we might be suspended between the two.

To add to the otherworldly feel, the dialogue of the first half is mirrored in the second. This time, as the couple fail to communicate with one another (with lines switched around from their earlier conversation, and the dynamic of the married couple reversed), it is the husband who is distracted by a passer-by – played by Martine Anson – and who begins an imagined adventure.

While their roles mirror and echo one another, I very much enjoyed the differences between Anson and Baker’s performances. Anson exudes a wistful optimism, combined with a neat glamour, that lends a hopefulness to her daydreams of adventure. Baker, on the other hand, projects a sense of sadness. His character seems isolated and awkward, giving his brief connection with a stranger at the station a real poignancy. Anson carries a barometer – wondering at one point whether the instrument describes the present or predicts the future – whereas Baker carries a clock, marking time. Interestingly, while Yates and Boucher’s married couple are an anchor to the story, it is the people who are just passing by that steal our (and their) attention.

Of course, the other star of the show is Stockport Train Station itself. While the performance is going on, trains come and go as though carefully choreographed. And as the heavy door to the waiting room is slid back and forth to allow the characters to ‘pass by’, the room becomes briefly filled with the sounds of the platform, creating a truly unique atmosphere.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind is an unusual and captivating show, with a little drop of magic in the way the play interacts with its venue. As I exited the show, I really did feel that I was looking at the station through slightly different eyes. A quirky, off-beat and rather sweet experience, this show is well worth going to see.

The Suitcase, the Beggar and the Wind was on at Stockport Train Station on the 11th and 12th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Buxton Fringe on 13th and 14th July, and the Edinburgh Fringe on 17th and 18th August. For the full programme of shows on at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival website.

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