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Review | THEY | John Rylands Library | 03/07/2023

It isn’t very often you get the opportunity to see theatre in such a beautiful neo-gothic setting. Less a ‘show’ and more of a reading, the spectacular reading room at John Ryland’s Library was the perfect setting for ‘They’ in more ways than one.

The narrative follows a near future where creativity and artistry are completely forbidden. Creatives are harshly persecuted and their work entirely destroyed. You would be forgiven for thinking this is the synopsis for an episode of Black Mirror, as it feels as relevant now as when the story was written. Kay Dick’s 1977 novel has been adapted for Manchester International Festival by Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight.

The beautifully imposing slim room is lined either side by three long rows of chairs, creating a central aisle. Shortly after 10pm without announcement, Peake paces down the aisle to a wooden chair to begin the reading. Dressed in a navy ensemble over a white blouse, Peake is almost in uniform, a sign of a time where compliance is expected.

Reading from notes, what starts off almost as ‘Storytime with Maxine’ soon takes dramatic and horrifying turns. Peake pulls the audience in completely, in a way only she can. Although it is always a pleasure to see her on stage, this performance feels particularly breathtaking. Slowly and delicately dropping each page of the script to the floor, utilising the full length of the room, her careful actions mirror the dystopia of ‘They.’ There is a beautiful irony of being performed in the awe-inspiring John Rylands Libray, full to brim with historic books, manuscripts and art.

As the piece continues, script pages are no longer used as the darkness intensifies. We can almost see the horrors of which Peake speaks, which is testament to the formidable force that she is. Telling us of how painters have been blinded and writers have had their hands chopped off, the audience hang onto her every word, almost believing the story to be our reality. With Peake shyly tiptoeing out after delivering a plea for hope, the show closes. The stained glass windows and imposing arches of the room are beautifully lit, further reinforcing that plea. There are no bows, not even a word hushed by front of house staff, the audience file out in haunting silence. A powerful and fitting finale.

In a world where extremism, cancel culture and persecution of various minorities is rife, the performance feels hauntingly timely. It is no surprise when this was pitched as a late addition to the festival by Sarah Frankcom, that it was done so with a feeling of urgency. 'They' is on at John Rylands Library until Sunday 09 July 2023, see below for booking information:

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Note: My ticket was gifted. Irrespective of whether a show is gifted or bought, I always ensure that my reviews are fair and based on my honest opinion alone.


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