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There Is a Light That Never Goes Out review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘vividly realised’

David Crellin, Reuben Johnson and Katie West in There Is a Light That Never Goes Out: Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What stands out about this arresting retelling of a turbulent period in Manchester’s industrial history is the restraint in its staging. The multi-tasking cast in modern clothes uses little more than mic stands and Pete Malkin’s evocative sound effects to bring to life the story of how Luddite unrest spread to the north in 1812.

The frenetic action is marshalled unfussily by James Yeatman on and around Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby’s sparse, catwalk-like set. But there’s also admirable restraint in Yeatman and Lauren Mooney’s storytelling, which weaves together real testimonies, historical accounts and fictional flourishes to recreate an emotive period in England’s history without ever hectoring its audience.

Despite the obvious connective tissue that links the 19th century’s machine-smashing rebels with today’s protest groups, the production never labours this point, letting events largely speak for themselves. And despite an obvious kinship with the workers – and one protestor remarking that, after burning Bolton’s Westhoughton Mill to the ground, “anything seemed possible” – it never condones the violent acts conducted in the face of technological progress.

Amelda Brown’s villainous Colonel Fletcher, driven to near distraction by the pursuit of mythic adversary Nedd Ludd (cleverly portrayed by various cast members in a huge hat and overcoat coat and with a digitally disguised voice), borders on the pantomimic.

But most of the cast bring empathy and warmth to their roles, with Katie West imbuing struggling mill worker Clem with bucketfuls of heart and Daniel Millar displaying keen comic timing and conveying real menace as a variety of characters.

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Meticulously researched and vividly realised recreation of an explosive period in British history