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The Nico Project review at Stoller Hall, Manchester – ‘part concert, part haunting’

Maxine Peake in The Nico Project at Manchester International Festival. Photo: Joseph Lynn

Clad in a long, black coat and heavy wig, Maxine Peake looks agitated and uneasy in her skin. “I’m so hot,” she says repeatedly, as she hunches over her harmonium. Then her voice changes, abruptly deepening and darkening. It sounds liked something has taken hold of her. It sounds like she’s possessed.

Part concert, part haunting, Peake’s latest project sees her inhabit and be inhabited by Nico, the German model, actress, sometime front-woman of the Velvet Underground, influential solo artist and icon.

Working once more with Sarah Frankcom – theirs is one of the most exciting  creative partnerships in theatre – she’s accompanied by a group of young, female musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms. Anna Clyne’s arrangements of tracks from Nico’s 1968 album The Marble Index are eerie and striking; allowing the audience to appreciate the doomy beauty of the music. The overall effect is uncanny; the girls end up veiled in hair and shoeless, their bodies quivering with terror – and potential.

Towards the end, the girls disappear and Nico/Peake is left alone. She seems to lose the sense of connection. She can no longer feel it, whatever it was, and she is bereft.

EV Crowe’s fragmented, intentionally elusive text resists providing much in the way of context about Nico’s life. It resists placing her in relation to the men she knew and worked with. It’s a mood piece, or more accurately, a feeling piece – intense and unnerving. Frankcom directs as if it were a horror story. Doors open of their own accord and she plunges the audience into blackness.

This feels at times like a reflection on how all creative acts to some extent involve the opening of an inner valve and letting things in, not all of which are welcome.

Maxine Peake: ‘Acting is a hard business to be brave in – you have to hang in there’

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Maxine Peake inhabits Nico in an uncanny and atmospheric performance of her music