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Cotton Panic! review at Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester – ‘lacks an overall concept’

Jane Horrocks in Cotton Panic! at Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester. Photo: Tristram Kenton Jane Horrocks in Cotton Panic! at Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The concept behind Jane Horrocks’ latest gig-theatre project is an excellent one. In 1861, due to the American Civil War, the supply of slave-produced cotton from the United States – woven into fabric by the wage-slaves of Manchester’s cotton mills – dried up and the English working class began being starved to death. Nevertheless, Manchester’s artisans held a meeting in the Free Trade Hall and issued a letter supporting Lincoln’s northern states.

Cotton Panic! attempts to evoke the progress of these events through, well, essentially a concert of newly written (or re-conceived) electronic songs. There are occasional bits of dancing and bits of relevant text spoken by actors on video screens. There are also added theatrics (at one point Horrocks wades into the crowd asking “Will you help me?” over and over again), and some slightly rhyming, spoken-word segments, too. These are delivered in the manner of one of those potty Galactic Empresses that they sometimes have on Doctor Who – sinister-little-girl-voice alternating with plaintive, sing-song howling, complete with a lot of Radiophonic effects.

Apparently the piece does have a director (Wils Wilson), but entirely lacks an overall concept or visual dramaturgy. This feels like a particularly strange problem to have with a gig, where usually even the most random assemblage of songs seems to manage to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Here, where more explanatory elements have been added to aid cohesion and comprehension, it feels like their effect is the complete opposite. Still, the project is a courageous attempt to do something worth doing.

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Industrial revolution Manchester explored through the medium of industrial music, with mixed results