Making its London premier Maimuna Memon’s multi-award-winning Manic Street Creature is now showing at the Southwark Playhouse, Borough, following its barnstorming, sell-out world premiere run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022,
A daringly deep musical exploration that bravely confronts mental health issues head-on
This is another production I was talked into seeing, believing it not to be my cup of tea. My misgivings were potentially confirmed at the sight of six guitars, a cello, an electronic drum set and keyboard and a harmonium, the latter creating some intrigue as to how it might fit in. The mix of instruments had all the makings of a cacophonous head-banging nightmare, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort. I was enthralled enthralled by the music, the story and the performances.
I found out afterwards that the volume for all instruments is controlled from the sound deck, the noise level being my main concern. Full marks to Sound Operator Max Alexander-Taylor for fully appreciating what constitutes a pleasant listening level and sustaining it throughout while still managing variations in volume. Harley Johnston (Raz) on percussion could bang his drums as hard as he liked, it would make no difference. He looked completely chilled for being relieved of the responsibility, clearly enjoying the chance to perform with the occasional harmonising vocal. Although she had her back to me during the in-the-round performance, the same could be said for Rachel Barnes (Heidi), whose contribution on that most melancholy of instruments, the cello, was movingly enhancing to so much of the narrative.
Dominating the show, of course, is Olivier nominee Maimuna Memon. Her musical and storytelling artistry, voice and presence are all-pervasive. The tale she has is straightforward. Ria is a Lancashire lass who moves to London, searches for somewhere to live and is thrilled with the prospect of a new life when she finds a place in Camden. She gets a job in a pub and soon she is working with her band to complete a new album of songs that charts the rise and fall of a recent relationship. It proves to be an effective framing device and she calls out the number of each track as its about to be recorded. Each song relates to a specific memory and as events unfold she is drawn into the darker aspects of her own past and the agonies of being in love with a man with bipolar disorder. She points out that before the condition assumed that name he would have been known as manic depressive. That sounds far more hard-hitting, which is why she doesn’t shy away from it. She goes on to unflinchingly describe the highs and lows of their relationship in the rawest terms to chilling effect, creating an air of incredulity wrapped around the thought, “Did she really just say that?
As a stand-alone narrative it would be demanding enough to perform, but she proclaims this to be ‘unashamedly musical theatre’ so in between the spoken words and some dry humour, the songs flow from one to the next, not just as musical interludes but as vocal arrangements that are deeply integrated into the emotions and events that transpire. It’s a classic of love, lust and late nights, with the added dimension of mental health issues that are starkly confronted, making it deeply routed in our own times.
Memon started writing this show during the pandemic as a’ form of release and catharsis.’ During that time she learned about ‘secondary traumatic stress, which means ingesting someone else's trauma and making it your own’. She writes that by understanding this she was better able to process why she was drawn to a certain way of being. “Most importantly,” she says, “it helped me to realise I wasn't on my own”. Her hope now is that the show will help others in a similar position and those who love and work with them to also not feel alone.
There is clearly a strong team behind this production who collectively contribute to the effective styling of the show. Memon is clearly aware of how changes in sound affect the mood. She works her way back and forth between the six different guitars and using a range of style that include Indie, Rock, Pop and Folk amongst others. She and Raz also squeeze that mysterious harmonium to create some really haunting moments. Additional sound by Sam Clarkson for Sound Quiet Time provides effects that relate to various locations for the story. To heighten the moods further, Lighting Designer Jamie Platt frequently bathes areas in warm amber but contrasts with profile spots to give a concert effect, reminding us of how the songs might be heard in another setting. His eight strings of hanging bare-bulb lights similarly brighten and dim for effect. Designer Libby Watson, apart from locating the instruments, has homely rugs covering the floor that no doubt help with sound absorption, while Movement Director Ira Mandela Siobhan has managed to find enough space on the crowded floor to keep Memon on the go, establishing various locations. Finally, Director Kirsty Patrick Ward has brought all the elements together to form a tightly knit show that is powerful and easy to follow.
Manic Street Creature is a remarkable creation; a daringly deep musical exploration that bravely confronts mental health issues head-on. I am so pleased I was persuaded to see this stunning piece of theatre.