Nothing quite provides for a longing of the heart than creating a piece of theatre about what you love. A Manchester Anthem is a love letter to Manchester, a love letter to an upbringing, and a love letter to Anthem by N Joi. Performer Tom Claxton springs into life from the very moment he enters the stage, and the story which he unleashes is full of passion, class consciousness and joie de vivre. It starts as laying plans for just a regular night out for Tommy, who often hits the town (just Wetherspoons) with his mates Trooper and Billy, where not long after they’ll retire for a kebab and chips. The night, and Tommy’s life, soon spin into madness. Tommy has been accepted into Oxford, which he’s already feeling a great deal of imposter syndrome about as a working class lad, and he gets invited to join his fellow acceptees from school for a night to remember (or maybe forget).
The piece is a sensory tour de force, with creative design to die for. We’re treated to a mesmerising unity of storytelling across all of the mediums on the stage. Claxton sprints up and down the stage, occupying it in its entirety despite its breadth, and makes it his absolute playground over the hour. He dashes, dips and dives around, engaging with the audience on all three sides of the stage and creating spaces – the coffee shop, the night club, the mansion, the streets of Manchester – as he goes. His physicality is electrifying, and entrancing, as we witness his limbs flail and extend in character as the central figure Tommy.
It is really the ability of Claxton to bend and snap his body into different characters and positions that captures your attention, however. Tommy is our narrator and central lens for exploring the city and its class divide, but we meet over a dozen different people from all walks of life – Claxton embodies them all astutely and with intention in every move. Best representing this is the scene in the Nightclub, in which Tommy introduces each of the characters by the way they choose to dance and their relationship to the space. In seeing him move across the dance floor, he slips and slides into each character through his body language, his limbs and body language popping into place to present their personalities – from the confident jock, to the schmoozing posh boy, the timid bookworm. It’s such a kaleidoscopic, joyous thing to watch unfold, and Claxton carries you there all the way.
The production design not only compliments but completely synthesizes with the performance ethos of the piece. Stacks of blank cardboard boxes which dot the back of the stage soon rotate to become strobe lights, street signs and iconic Manchester landmarks. This is a piece in symbiosis with its surroundings – Manchester is not just a setting but a calling – and every element of Nick Dawkins’ impassioned and connected script harks back to home. The lighting design and soundscaping creates vivid and visceral spaces for the audience to fall into. The stage is a portal to the city, with the settings evoking the feeling that you’re really there and really a part of this huge, seminal night out for Tommy.
The latter part of the story sees Tommy crash and burn after an incredible high, and Claxton handles the transition sensitively. You feel genuinely very upset to see Tommy flail and make horrific decisions, because of how invested we have become. This section unleashes the realities of class divide without raging entirely on the point, meaning we feel completely sympathetic to Tommy’s feelings of imposter syndrome without feeling like the piece is campaigning on the theme of class. Rather than seeking to agitate the class divide, the piece is expressive in the way it espouses how the divide operates the city, how the upper classes seek to exclude Tommy from their spaces in their behaviour, and Claxton acts as a mirror in his multi-roling performance to deliver this conscious, breathing piece of theatre.
We connect with pieces of essential Manchester culture early on, as Oasis tunes play in the distance in the early scenes and we bleed into techno, club culture in the latter sections. The ending is absolutely gut-wrenching, heartfelt and liberating. No wonder it got the entire audience on their feet in the applause. A Manchester Anthem is a burgeoning, fresh and utterly captivating story, with some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen on a Fringe Theatre stage. Upbeat, upstart and up-and-coming, this is a story that will find its way deep into your soul.
Recommended Drink: 5 Tequila Shots – just what you asked for.
Performances of A Manchester Anthem have now concluded at VAULT Festival. Keep up with the company on social media for future showings.