The Mysteries is a collection of six plays set across England, from the quaint backdrop of Eskdale, to the buzzing city of Manchester. The full cycle of plays is performed for the first time ever at the Royal Exchange, and the home crowd of writer Chris Thorpe was not disappointed.
The beginning of the cycle sets out with Thorpe introducing his work to the audience and explains the theory behind his creation. The Mysteries is not a set of stories about characters, he explains, but rather a story of what happens “when a place gets big enough to tell itself a story” (which is a constant theme throughout). It is instead a collection of old folk tales and retellings of events that have befallen during the history of that particular place. The stories are told with the people of Eskdale, Staindrop, Whitby, Boston, Stoke and Manchester in mind, being played in their respective towns for their respective residents. This collection of plays run in a way that is marginally different to the standard type of theatre you have come to expect, 40-minute plays with 15-minute intervals all sandwiched together with a different half-time activity.
Eskdale is the location for the first of the six plays, a place you’d be forgiven for not knowing. The small, minimalistic set helps push the reader further out of this place and gives you a feeling of isolation. That, coupled with the tale of a mother and daughter, Amy (Hannah Ringham) and Ginny (Nadia Clifford), returning to a place they are not welcome to mourn a man they barely knew, all work together to make sure the audience feel like they shouldn’t be intruding on what is taking place. Amy and Ginny who are outsiders who have moved out and grown up far away from the sheep rearing community of Eskdale, help the onlookers to connect to that sense of detachment from this community. The natural silences of the scenes carry this performance through to the end with the tales of new love and loss to bring it to a close. This time around, the half-time activity happened to be a raffle with local Eskdale delicacies that left my mouth wanting the Kendall Mint Cake that someone else had won.
After the first interval, we are thrust into the fairy-tale of the castles and lords of Durham. Three Tudor narrators line the outside of the stage, primed and ready to share the story of a lord so obsessed with himself and his title that it completely overtakes his life. Towards the middle of the stage, stands a woman bored, waiting, and ready for work, only to be told that her political beliefs and manner of expressing them are going to stop all of that from happening. This portion of the cycle, for me, doesn’t run as smoothly as it probably should have done and it has almost amateur feel to it. The story arc and the script aren’t the problem; the problem is that I couldn’t get to grips with the fairy tale, as the tellers didn’t know it themselves. Once I realised this was the case, I followed it more intently and I noticed that the actors didn’t know their cues and were interrupting each other and starting before the other had even finished. This could have been staged, but it didn’t feel that way at all. The quality of this scene is undermined by the unpreparedness of the cast.
The interval after the fourth show in the cycle proves to me, and the rest of the audience, that Thorpe does not have a handle on the demographic of his audience. Give or take a few younger theatregoers, the majority of the audience were between the ages of 40-75. However, this changes when 2 gentlemen approach the stage and are formally introduced as the “pride of Boston”. They proceed to put on a 10-15-minute rap performance, during which glow sticks are thrown (quite aggressively) at audience members who clearly aren’t impressed. Now call me biased as a Manchester-based reviewer, but for me this is the best performance of the six. The piece starts out with a song all about Manchester’s people and their culture, which went down well with the United fans among the audience. A feeling of solidarity is created between audience and actor, a theme that would be prominent in the topical conversation about the Manchester Terror Attack; an event still very fresh in the mind of any one from around here. All was going well with this story, then it faltered as they started to describe the attacker as “one of us”. A sentiment that angered many of the audience I spoke to afterwards, and as it was toward the end of the play, it left us leaving the theatre with a sour taste in our mouths.
In The Mysteries, some of the stories work for the place they are performed to while others don’t. The luminaries of the show are the youngest of the cast, Clifford and Benjamin Cawley. These two carry this show from start to finish and hearing Cawley speak to an audience member next to me during one of the intervals, drove home how much he cared about what he was doing, and that he wasn’t just there because it was his job.
The Mysteries is playing at the Royal Exchange until 11 November. For more information and tickets, click here.