Manchester’s newest arts venue, Home – a merging of the Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre, still smelling of new paint – officially opens its doors with the world premiere of a new work by Simon Stephens, a version of Kasimir and Karoline, written by Odon von Horvath in 1932 during a time of economic and social upheaval.
It’s easy to see why Stephens and artistic director Walter Meierjohann were drawn to this particular play – it’s about the trap of poverty and the hardness of life in a world where you are deemed to have no value.
It’s a kind of inverted romance, beginning with two young lovers, Ben Batt’s Cash and Katie Moore’s Caroline, falling out and going their separate ways. He has lost his job as a driver and is certain his fiancee will leave him as a result, believing that pessimism is the only sane approach to life.
While he descends into a pit of petty crime and unfocused anger, Caroline tries to find a way up and out only to become entangled with two aging sleazes in suits, one a QC, the other an “expert in tax evasion”.
Their stories play out against the backdrop of the funfair, with its carousels and rollercoasters, beer halls and ice cream stalls, and its freak shows. Designer Ti Green has painted the curved back wall of the stage a murky grey and the set is fairly bare except for flickering fairground lights and a curtain of ruched red velvet hanging from above, though video projections occasionally turn the circular space into a funfair wall of death.
Music is also central to the mood, with a band playing 1950s hits from a box on one side of the set, while choreographer Imogen Knight creates some of the production’s most striking images: the stop-start of bodies in the beer hall, pouring drink down their necks; a group of people united in a brief moment of wonder by a passing zeppelin, all clutching balloons.
The characters inhabit a place of despair where the women have it hardest, constantly subjected to lechery and bile and violence – it’s uncomfortable to watch. The men, high on power or shorn of status, lash out at them. But it all comes to feel a bit blunt and unrelenting, the production lacking effect despite some unexpectedly surreal moments such as the parade of distorted ‘freaks’ sporting vast paper mache heads.
There are tiny glimmers of tenderness and warmth, mainly from Victoria Gee’s much abused Esther, the girlfriend of the volatile Frankie, but they arrive late. The production deftly shows how brutality and hopelessness are often cyclical – an ever-turning carousel – but while there’s palpable anger here, it makes heavy work of it.