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Tao of Glass review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘a love letter to a pioneering composer’

Phelim McDermott, Sarah Wright and Janet Etuk in Tao of Glass. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There’s a point during Tao of Glass, Phelim McDermott’s heartfelt collaboration with Philip Glass, when the Improbable co-founder explains the Japanese art of kintsugi. It’s a technique where broken pots are repaired with gold lacquer to create a new piece of art that also visibly demonstrates the journey the object has taken.

It neatly sums up this visually arresting Manchester International Festival show, which was born out of another aborted theatrical project. McDermott uses storytelling and artfully realised puppetry techniques to ruminate on this while also drawing on Eastern philosophy to explore the origins of creativity and tell the story of their working relationship.

Soundtracked by 10 new Glass compositions, performed with delicate precision by a four-piece band, it really is manna from heaven for fans of the composer, maximised by the fact that Glass himself appears to accompany the musicians in the final section.

For non-devotees, it is more a curio. There are moments when the visuals and music, fluidly orchestrated by directors McDermott and Kirsty Housley and designer Fly Davis, work in perfect harmony. But overall it ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

We get a tantalising glimpse of what the show could have been when McDermott talks about meeting children’s author Maurice Sendak to discuss a stage adaptation of his picture book In the Night Kitchen.

This culminates in a beautifully rendered, dream-like re-enactment of its hero’s fantastical night-time journey. The section also features Glass’ most compelling composition, Maurice, an insistent piece that starts in characteristically minimalist fashion before building to an intoxicating climax.

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Absorbingly realised, playfully performed but occasionally indulgent love letter to a pioneering composer