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.

Culture Guides

Cinema

Black and white classics and a Tarantino-scripted pop-thriller are amongst our Valentine’s themed picks for February.

Exhibitions

The world of art and exhibitions never quite stops, so we have lots of new shows to look forward to at the start of 2023.

Cardboard Carnival at The Edge

Families

New year, new start, and what better way to welcome in 2023 than by planning and experiencing all sorts of exciting family events in Manchester and the North?

Gwendoline Riley. Photo by Adrian Lourie

Literature

Live literature land welcomes in 2023 with lots lined up in Manchester and beyond, from book launches and bookshop openings to prize-winning poets and award-laden authors sharing their secrets and stories.

Music

More brilliant gigs appear on the horizon as we inch further into 2023.

Theatre in Manchester and the North

Theatre

Queer Contact Festival, stunning physical theatre and intimate in-the-round performance top our eclectic list of drama, comedy and dance this month.

Classical Music

We preview the standout classical music events and venues in Manchester and the north.

Food and Drink

Start 2023 as you mean to go on, with the best restaurants and bars in Manchester and the North.

Tours and Activities

New years are for new experiences, and we have a whole lot of ideas to inspire you as 2023 gets underway.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
The Nature of Forgetting at The Lowry
Theatre Until 31 January 2023, from £16.00

The Nature of Forgetting at The Lowry

Activity Until 3 February 2023, from £30.00

Baumka Conscious Clubbing at Victoria Warehouse

Activity Until 8 February 2023, from £170.00

Drawing course with Nina Hunter

Music Until 16 February 2023, from £9.50

Donna Candy at SOUP

vegan super club
Activity Until 17 February 2023, from £50

Supper Club at the Vegetarian Society Cookery School

Exhibitions Until 18 February 2023, FREE

The Confessional at HOME

PUSH Festival 2023 at HOME
Festivals Until 18 February 2023,

PUSH Festival 2023 at HOME

The Singing Mermaid at Waterside
Families Until 19 February 2023, from £14.00

The Singing Mermaid at Waterside CANCELLED

Activity Until 23 February 2023, from £59.99

Write Like A Grrrl: Ignite

Activity Until 25 February 2023, from £13

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Tour