Review: Angel Meadow, HOME
Published in The Telegraph, 18.06.2014
“We’ve come a long way,” boasts a hoarding in Manchester’s Ancoats district. Once a Victorian slum – the birthplace of the industrial revolution – its streets now the ‘New Islington’. Its streets show gentrification in action: jaunty red-brick workhouses jostle with glassy apartments. Past poverty has been repurposed as “character”.
Irish site-specific specialists ANU have brought an old pub – the Edinburgh Castle, still standing but dearly dilapidated – back to life. That’s the right word for it too: life. In all it’s stinking, sweating, swearing, brawling, bawling, shagging, boozing, overcrowded glory. Yet its “Victorian” locals are wearing shellsuits and diamanté jewellery.
An estate agent escorts our group of eight inside. The pub’s set to become 12 new flats, all individually, industrially chic. There’s commotion downstairs, and in bursts a young Irish girl, bloodied and hysterical. Her brother’s dead; his skull caved in with a hammer. “Will yous help?” she begs. Our toes curl. Eyes drop to the floor. Silence.
Angel Meadow is full of similar requests. “Would you fight?” asks a sweat-soaked prizefighter, pummelling his punchbag. “Would you put up with that?” says a woman, as her husband wrestles her sister into their bed. “Could you tidy me make-up?” – the dead man’s fiancé, sloshed at his wake. “Who’s playing pool wi’ me?” – an abusive husband hands me the cue and I step over his semi-conscious wife on the floor. Every time we acquiesce, polite audience members that we are, and every time we’re made to squirm, either complicit or impotent, usually lost for words.
That discomfort makes this too fierce to dismiss as voyeurism or poverty safari. Angel Meadow is a direct accusation. Gentrification is our doing: our tastes and our lifestyles have ridden roughshod over others. It’s a superb piece of programming from HOME, a new £25 million arts centre due to open next spring.
But Louise Lowe’s production never romanticises or pities the past either. The dreamy, surrealist edge to Owen Boss’s designs slam home the endless, everyday battles: slagheaps of laundry and piles of burnt toast; a pub fridge full of bleach to drink yourself dead. In the corner, the slot machine toots up again, promising riches and escape.
The modernisation is its masterstroke: it re-energises historical violence and squalor, while insisting that both carry on. That slogan – “We’ve come a long way” – is wrong. Ancoats has changed hands: “we” weren’t there and “they” have had to move on elsewhere.