Manchester theatre review: fire starters, body bags & cannibals

Alex Saint

The Royal Exchange debuts a new play – but don’t expect an easy ride of it.

At just 25, Rory Mullarkey is the youngest ever dramatist to have a play produced on the Royal Exchange’s iconic main stage – a space that is as compelling and intense as it is unforgiving. But the playwright appears undaunted with Cannibals, a play that runs until the end of the month and kicks off with one hell of a punch. In it, we meet Lizaveta, whose life is plunged into a heart-thumping state of fear and instinct when a brutal militia storms her family farm and guns down her husband.  And so Lizaveta goes on the run across Europe, and for the most part we go with her, tuned into Ony Uhiara’s urgent physical portrayal of her, every nerve-ending in her body alert to danger, and spurred on by audacious staging where setting fire to the set, pelting the audience with vegetables and dropping putrid body bags from the sky is part of the squeamish, disorienting journey.

The action is spurred on by an audacious set: stage set on fire, the audience pelted with rotting veg

Mullarkey’s vision of an isolated, war-torn Eastern Europe is uncompromisingly bloody and grubby – one where soldiers kill only in cold blood and never in mercy; where hungry neighbours eat each other; good Samaritans take more than they give; children stone the village idiot; mothers are denied their babies; and where, ultimately, women are trafficked across borders into slavery in our very own contemporary Manchester (albeit one a bit on acid).

Unsurprisingly, Mullarkey is keen to impress us with his virtuosity as a storyteller – and for the bulk of the 90 minutes he really does, with some genuinely prodigious moments of poetry and drama. This is high-energy playwriting, fresh off the page, packed with the ideas of a quick-fire mind, and helped out by strong collaboration across the director/designer team. Some of the ideas might have been better saved for another play, though, and in the very final stages this self-consciously clever writing pops the empathy bubble, sending us out into the same Manchester night confused about how we should feel.

“Death, love and consumerism in the 21st century”: the subtitle of Cannibals underlines that this is a play that hasn’t quite decided what it’s really about. But that’s exactly as it should be. This is a new play by a new writer and it’s to the Royal Exchange’s credit (and Manchester’s theatrical gain) that it is, despite such straitened economic times, still willing to take a risk by staging this sort of unproven work. This debut is far from perfect but it’s fresh, fast and worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

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