Review: The Global Playground, Manchester International Festival
3.0Overall Score

The Global Playground, a vibrant piece of physically engaged theatre, leaves me asking a lot of questions about the production and about myself. The show, less driven by plot and more by spectacle, sees seven performers (Jahmarley Bachelor, Thulani Chauke, Annie Edwards, Sean Garratt, Merlin Jones, Kennedy Junior Muntanga, Charmene Pang) create a night of ‘oos’ and ‘ahhs’ with dance, music, and puppetry. The night was colourful, loud, and brimming with energy. However, I can’t say that oozing energy found its way into my pores. As the lights go down and the beaming cast members take their final bow I’m left mild and unaffected by the overall production. The question is why?

There is a lot going for this creative multi-format foray into the many facets of performance art. Its blending of film, lighting, dance, music, puppetry, and comedy ensures that every audience member will find something new and innovative whilst watching. The show, directed by Sue Buckmaster and Choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, holds many class-act examples of what the imagination is capable of. I still find myself chuckling at the memory of a camera turned dragon sneakily looking for the cast of dancers hidden in light shades. An odd sentence, I know, but a sight to behold.

This may hold the key to my apathetic appraisal of the whole show. Even in its most entertaining of moments, The Global Playground reads like a fever dream connection of disparate moments rather than a larger connected story. Occasionally I wonder whether I have wandered into a Royal Variety Performance. Sure, a production doesn’t need to be connected narratively, but even the Playgrounds thematic story seems to fall by the wayside. The show is interested in our relationship with technology and that’s quite clear from the outset but how does this connect to the talking yellow bear?

It isn’t the absurd nature of this moment, or the fact that it is such a non-sequitur, that felt so odd. No, the show takes a very juvenile approach to children’s theatre. They even throw in school-like benches for good measure. The only reason this is so odd is because it was performed to a room of adults. It’s jarring to have performers talking, very earnestly, to a group of twenty and thirty-somethings without a hint of satire. It’s not that children’s theatre can’t be engaging to adults either — there’s a reason panto is such a Christmas hit — so why lean so hard into a Cbeebies style impairing Compère?

Still, those few children in the room did seem to have a great time. There were some wonderful moments to laugh at, sit in awe at, and generally enjoy. The cast exude an infectious energy that breaks my hard exterior from time to time. The show is good but very much reliant on your ability to accept its childish whimsy and anything-goes attitude. Had the seating been more comfortable and my mind in a different place it might have been a more enjoyable experience. 

With all that said, I’m reminded of a moment in 2019 when, during the screening of Avengers: Endgame, I watched a particularly innocuously put together “#feminism” moment is shoehorned into the film. Despite being logistically impossible, all the female superheroes band together to fight Thanos and I roll my eyes. It was silly and false-wokism and inane and it made a little girl in my row squeal with excitement and it was wonderful. The Global Underground reminded me of this moment because no matter how I felt about this show, the kids seemed to love it AND that’s all that matters.

The Global Playground will be available online later this year. For more information and tickets, see Manchester International Festival online.