Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review: Wake Up, Maggie! (All Things Considered, GM Fringe)

Sunday 7th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July. The fourth show I saw this year was Wake Up, Maggie! by All Things Considered Theatre, which was staged at the King’s Arms Theatre on Sunday 7th July. I’ll be playing my radio review of the show on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Promising a show about ‘class, confusion and karaoke’, and about growing up in the 80s and early 90s, Wake Up, Maggie! is a lively and energetic two-hander by All Things Considered’s artistic director Emma Bramley and associate artist Stuart Crowther. And – this seems to be turning into a bit of a theme for this year’s Fringe – it’s not quite what I expected. Or rather, it was so much more than I expected.

Wake Up, Maggie! begins at the door, with audience members being offered a choice of stickers: Margo Leadbetter, Hyacinth Bucket or Ethel Skinner (I chose Ethel, by the way). Bramley and Crowther are already in the theatre space, dressed in tabards and carrying feather dusters, wandering round the stage and seating area. If you weren’t sure that the show was going to look at aspects of class (specifically working-class life), then this pre-show welcome nails the colours to the mast. However, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the full complexity of the performance.

The show is, on the whole, a duologue, peppered with short bursts of pop songs (some ironic, some illustrative), based on life experiences of the two performers (who are playing themselves on stage). Specifically, it considers and contrasts the two performers’ experiences of class. Crowther introduces himself as coming from Rochdale, and being solidly – and securely – working class, despite the fact that a number of the other personal characteristics he mentions – university lecturer, yoga practitioner, queer, vegan – aren’t immediately associated with the stereotype of the working-class northern bloke.

Bramley’s introduction is more confused. In fact, this is explicitly stated early in the show. Crowther isn’t confused about class, but Bramley is. She grew up poor, with a working-class father and a middle-class mother. She went to a ‘posh’ school, but was on free school dinners and had no money for clothes. Much of the show’s focus is on examining what this conflicted background means about Bramley’s class identity – does she fit in any of the boxes?

Touching on an array of characteristics usually used to categorize class identities, Bramley and Crowther work through anecdotes that reveal the limitations of these categories. Is university education a marker of class? Or financial circumstances? Or what you call your evening meal? This is undercut with jokey comments about the north/south divide, with Londoner Bramley asking at one point: ‘Have I not heard of this because I’m a southerner? Or because I’m middle class?’

I enjoyed this original and nuanced approach to the well-worn subject of class identity. It’s unexpected and a bit in-your-face at times, but it’s also genuinely moving in places and definitely thought-provoking. Bramley presents and examines her confusion through monologue and flashback, in which she conjures up versions of herself during childhood, including a memorable scene where she roots through a bag of cast-off clothes, desperate to find something, anything from Tammy Girl. Of course, her performance also relies on interaction with Crowther, which is consistently warm, funny and playful.

The dynamic between the two is undeniably comical, but it also offers an intriguing perspective on the question of class. In this relationship, the ‘solid’ working-class identity acts as a sort of guide to the system, with the ostensibly middle-class identity being revealed as a fragile and uncertain pretence. Bramley performs vignettes of her past experiences, but she also frequently fires questions at Crowther, apparently expecting him to have all the answers.

Crowther’s performance is an absolute joy. Where Bramley oozes discomfort, awkwardness and – in places – desperation in her story about trying to find a ‘place’ in the world, Crowther shines with the confidence and security of someone who knows exactly where his place is. His side of the performance is mostly delivered through poetic spoken word – with some cracking lines like ‘The world is full of curtains in the North’ – that serves as an unashamed love letter to northern working-class culture.

This steps up a gear as Crowther evokes a very specific ‘hub’ of this culture – the Castleton Moor Conservative Club. Not only is Crowther’s verbal portrait so beautifully descriptive you can almost smell the Lynx and lager tops, but it also situates the club as a potent metaphor for the security (and tribalism) that class identity offers. Awkwardly pulling at her t-shirt, class-confused Bramley asks Crowther if she can go with him. ‘It’s members only where I’m going,’ he says, ‘I’ll have to sign you in.’

My one criticism of Wake Up, Maggie! is that it was a bit too short. There is a lot going on here – Bramley’s exploration of her own conflicted relationship to class, Crowther’s affectionate evocation of working class Rochdale, brief background snippets of political context and pop culture from the 80s and 90s, the identity and fate of the Castleton Moor Con Club, the North/South divide – and the show’s focus occasionally feels a bit dissipated. Allowing a little more time to explore things would have helped with this, and some of the complexities would have withstood a little further analysis.

But I guess this criticism is also a compliment: I’m also saying that I would have happily watched more, and I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that Crowther’s glittering, climactic number was, literally, the show-stopper.

All in all, Wake Up, Maggie! is a delight of a show. It’s funny, authentic, affectionate, and one of the most nuanced takes on class identity I’ve seen for a long while. There was only one thing that didn’t ring true for me – I can’t believe Emma Bramley has never heard of Fray Bentos pies!

Wake Up, Maggie! was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on Sunday 7th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

No comments:

Post a Comment