Saturday, 6 July 2019

Review: The Yank is a Manc! My Ancestors and Me (Hopwood DePree, GM Fringe)

Friday 5th July 2019
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-31st July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows on this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. My second show of the festival was on Friday 5th July, when I saw Hopwood DePree perform his one-man comedy storytelling show, The Yank is a Manc!: My Ancestors and Me. I’ll be playing my radio review of the show on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf. But here’s the blog version…

The Yank is a Manc! is the true story of Hopwood DePree’s relocation from Los Angeles to Middleton, to save the Grade II*-listed Hopwood Hall. I’ve been following the story with interest for a while, and Hopwood was actually the first guest I had on my local history show on North Manchester (A Helping of History), back in November 2017, shortly after the show began. I also caught up with Hopwood again for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. So I’ve heard a bit of the background to the show’s backstory. It’s certainly an unusual tale, but it’s also been a great boost for the historic building, which has been at serious risk for some time.

This Summer, Hopwood is touring a one-man show (part stand-up comedy, part storytelling) about his decision to move to the UK, his experiences at the hall (and in Manchester and Middleton generally), and the challenges faced by what he amiably describes as the ‘home restoration from Hell’. The show opens with a short video montage to fill in the background for the uninitiated, and further pictures appear occasionally to illustrate the story. These are a nice mixture of jokey images and genuine pictures of the hall and its current condition.

The one-hour show is funny, affectionate and occasionally absurd (but always on just the right side of believable). Much of the humour comes from the fish-out-of-water situation of the ‘Yank’ arriving in ‘Manc’. As you might expect, there are plenty of jokes about cultural misunderstandings, on the ‘two countries separated by a common language’ lines. An early bit about trying to buy a sweater sets the tone – minor vocabulary differences tumble into a bigger mix-up, with Hopwood presenting himself as the wide-eyed, baffled stranger in a strange land. The show is less ‘you people are crazy’, than a self-deprecating wander through the little absurdities of Hopwood’s unorthodox relocation.

The Yank is a Manc! is a very funny show – I particularly enjoyed the description of Hopwood’s first Bonfire Night – but it is also suffused with an engaging affection and openness. While Hopwood makes his passion for saving the historic building clear, what really comes through is a fondness for the building’s idiosyncrasies – and the idiosyncrasies of the other people involved in the project, and of Middleton/Manchester/Rochdale as a whole. Frequently laughing at himself – there are a number of jokes about spray tans and teeth whitening – Hopwood leaves the audience with the feeling that, mad as his project is, he wouldn’t actually want to be anywhere else.

Watching the show in Manchester, with an audience including a number of people from Middleton, there was a pleasing familiarity to the story and the humour. A couple of jokes seem to revolve around particularly Manc or Northern expressions and characteristics (and Hopwood’s occasional switches between calling his new home ‘Manchester’ and calling it ‘Rochdale’ will make perfect sense to people from Middleton). However, the show was actually first performed at Brighton Fringe, and it will be going on to Camden and Edinburgh next month. It’d be interesting to know what audiences from slightly further afield make of the story – I suspect the humour will still hit home, as I don’t believe you need to know Midd to enjoy the comedy of the situations described. Still, I think Middletonians (and North Mancs generally) will feel a particular possessiveness.

As well as tales of linguistic confusion, heritage architecture, and local history, The Yank is a Manc! also conjures up some of the slightly larger-than-life characters that have played a part in the story of Hopwood Hall. We get a glimpse of Hopwood’s LA agent Sheila (and her sound-a-like assistant Ken) and her bemusement at her client’s new career direction, as well as small nuggets of motherly advice and wisdom from a parent who believes her son is having a mid-life crisis. And we get to meet Geoff (a local historian) and Bob (the long-time caretaker of the hall), who flit between looking after Hopwood and tormenting him for being a ‘Yank’.

I have enough inside knowledge – like most people involved in local history in the North Manchester area – to know that Geoff and Bob are real people. In fact, I’ve met Geoff, and he is indeed an incredible local historian, and I have no doubt that he did indeed furnish all the in-depth information about the hall that Hopwood references throughout the show. However, it would also be fair to say that the ‘Geoff’ and ‘Bob’ we are treated to on stage are also characters, based on real people but with a pinch of poetic licence for the show. This is done very well, as Hopwood avoids lazy caricature throughout his presentation of the two Middleton men – again, there is a real sense of affection and warmth – and show a good talent for character construction and dialogue, as well as great comic timing.

Overall, The Yank is a Manc! is an uplifting show that is both funny and sweet. It’s a great story, told with humour and charm. I defy anyone not to be rooting for the historic manor house and its unconventional guardian by the end.

The Yank is a Manc! My Ancestors and Me is on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, on 3rd-6th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It also will be on in August at the Camden and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. To see the full programme for this year’s GM Fringe, visit the festival website.

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