Waking up in Manchester, I’m looking through my notes to figure out if my memories are true. I’m not hungover, at least not from drinking. No, this morning-after-the-night-before feeling is coming from a giddy enjoyment of Lauryn Redding’s debut play Bloody Elle: A Gig Musical. Whilst not a complex story by any stretch of the word, the emotive storytelling, splendidly real characters and haunting music are all immensely intoxicating.
The story follows Elle’s first experience of love and all that follows. The highs and lows of teenage romance isn’t the most original topic of exploration. Indeed, the story, despite what Redding says, is your average love story. Even gig theatre is pushing into the mainstream and has lost its innovative edge. The twist, which is not insignificant, is that Elle is not your average theatre goer. She’s a working-class queer woman. Now, whilst representation is not in itself cause for applause, Bloody Elle does a magnificent job at translating the experiences of being young, working class, newly openly queer and scared as hell.
It is representation in a way that doesn’t isolate or humiliate, but revels and educates. For those, like myself, familiar with the Lion King like view of a city-landscape a la council estate, you laugh at fond memories. If, also like myself, you’ve never experienced a lesbian kiss, well then you can sit quietly and get closer to understanding the nuances of same-sex love. Indeed, this is what makes the production brilliant. Moments which remind you of the characters’ humanity and diversity. What’s interesting is these moments come in the forms of very universal feelings. Love. Fear. Longing.
Redding’s work sits so cosily at the heart of The Royal Exchange’s guiding principles, it’s no wonder Bloody Elle is the head of their latest season. Artistic Directors Bryony Shanahan (who also directs this piece) and Roy Alexander Weise are certainly successful in their endeavour to produce “work for and by the Manchester people”. Shanahan and the rest of the creative team use all the tools in the toolbox to hold firm the performer-audience relationship.
Now Redding takes a lot of credit for that, her raucous-at-one-moment-haunting-the-next music keeps the audience on tenterhooks. Her masterful control of voice and accent creates and recreates characters at the drop of the hat. Who knew one person could go through so much development in such a short time. Who knew someone could exude that much energy for so long, keep the audience on the edge of their seat for such time. There was a moment towards the climax of the play where everyone in my eyesight leant forward at the exact same moment and I was left speechless.
Of course, her music (which needs to be released on Spotify soon) and her performance are supported by the impeccable staging of the Royal Exchange team. Mark Distin Webster’s lighting design works wonderfully to turn a chippy into a dancehall and turn your eyes to the action with such ease. It’s never flashy or overly distracting but instead, like the show, it treads the line between simplicity and complexity with masterful ease.
The only issue I have with the show is something felt at one time by most audience members when watching a production in the round. Unfortunately, you aren’t always the centre of attention. Despite occasionally being shown Redding’s back she always makes sure to really engage with the audience. Even when faced away, I never felt distanced, never outside.
If you go to watch Bloody Elle, which you bloody well should, then you’ll be delighted by the story, the music, and by Redding’s introspective and often comedic take on life and love. There are lines of song and dialogue which will play around your skull for days on end. Redding roars: “You know those moments in your life? Those moments you didn’t realise were a moment, until you look back and go ‘ohhh that was a moment’”. Well, sitting to watch Lauryn Redding’s debut play is one of those moments.
Bloody Elle is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 17 July. For more information and tickets, see Royal Exchange Theatre’s website.