This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub and published here.
Written by Nick Vivian
Directed by Wils Wilson
Music by Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler
8th-15th July 2017
A show with ‘cotton’ in the title is clearly rooted in the history of Manchester and Lancashire’s mill-towns. The panic referred to is the Cotton Famine of the 1860s, when the American Civil War halted supply, devastating whole communities. Huddled in the post-industrial shell of Upper Campfield Market Hall, we’re told this story in a blend of music, clog dancing and video projection.
Jane Horrocks is our guide, first through the industry boom, clacking her heels in clogs alongside a boiler-suited dancer. Then she shows us the quieting of the mills, and the horrifying poverty that follows. Glenda Jackson appears on film to read a heartrending account of starving families in Preston.
Throughout, Horrocks is magnetic, weaving it all together with a repetitive loom-working dance. Singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she is strident and strong. Hobbling through the crowd in the rags of a starving child, she is heartbreaking. She has to carry the show, as the video and dance elements soon get repetitive, and she does so comfortably.
Music underpins everything – three men at sound decks onstage create a meandering soundscape that combines modern and traditional elements. Clacking looms blend into ambient tones, with Horrocks’ vocals often forming a clashing layer over the top. We skip from genre to genre as Cotton Panic! tells of the solidarity between the mill-workers of Lancashire and the American slaves. This is represented repeatedly by the music: Lancashire folk ballad changes to gospel refrain, and at one point the Lancastrians’ pain and anger explodes into a hip-hop riot.
Unfortunately, this musical ‘solidarity’ looks rather like cultural theft. Despite the extensive use of black music, Fiston Barek as abolitionist Frederick Douglass (appearing on video) is the only black voice heard all night. We get a fully-fleshed-out portrait of the Northern workers, heroically writing to Abraham Lincoln to encourage the abolitionist cause. Meanwhile, the American slaves are seen only in a montage of expressionless black faces. Over this, we hear Strange Fruit, the visceral depiction of white violence on black bodies – sung by Horrocks.
The effect is to objectify the slaves and remove their voices from the story: surely the opposite of what was intended. While the show closes with a barrage of modern-day equivalencies on the projection screens – taking in Black Lives Matter, refugees, and sweatshop workers – the solidarity showcased here is flawed and uncomfortable at times. Horrocks’ performance, though powerful and exuberant, doesn’t quite redeem the problem.
Star rating: **.5 “Mixed messages”