A Very Victorian Scandal

13-15 February
Various Venues

To celebrate its tenth anniversary, LGBT History Month commissioned a new theatre project, A Very Victorian Scandal, which recreates scenes of one of Manchester’s biggest police raids in Victorian England. Manchester’s famous detective Jerome Caminada led the raid on an all-male fancy dress ball in Hulme, which created an international scandal. The production was performed in three parts over Valentine’s weekend.

Pagelight Productions’ three ambitious dramas kick started on Friday at VIA (the sponsor of the project) on Canal Street, with a creative reimagining of the fancy dress ball. The part-promenade performance immersed the audience amongst the fancily dressed attendees, giving them an opportunity to delve into their lives or watch them perform music hall songs. The evening draws to a climax when Caminada and his army of police troops raid the evening’s proceedings.

For those who avoided prison and at worst may be nursing a hangover, the second show of the series took place on Valentine’s Day afternoon as an intimate performance at Central Library. We simultaneously sit as a fly on the wall in the offices of Henry Newman (Gareth Gorge), the head reporter of a national newspaper, and police commissioner Arthur Norton (Joel Parry).

Caminada is instructed by Norton to approach a member of the press to publicise the arranged raid, with intent to shame those involved and as a warning to the country. Switching offices, Newman then accepts Caminada’s story offer without knowing the motive. A spot of dramatic irony is injected when we discover Newman’s love interest, Earnest Parkinson – otherwise known as Kitty Heartstone, a fabulous, brave character by whichever alias – will be attending the ball.

On the following day at the People’s History Museum, the third act depicted the climatic trial. The echoing hall created the right atmosphere, but the unfortunate side-effect was that some of the dialogue was inaudible. Nevertheless, it was a strong close to an ambitious series that tried something different, the highlight of which was John Smeathers as the stick-in-the-mud judge.

Written by Richard Brady and Stephen M Hornby, the collaborators are currently the LGBT History Month’s national writers in residence, but you may know their work from last year’s 24:7 Festival with The Box of Tricks. Their writing style has an innate and beautiful way of producing dialogue that’s powerful, emotive and funny. Better yet, and speaking from experience, they write scripts in which these traits instinctively come out for the actor.

There were some lovely performances, the most memorable of which came from Daniel Wallace in his portrayal of Earnest. Wallace brings sass and flare to the comedic content I’ve come to expect from the writers. Mark Roberts brought a strict and blunt dimension as Caminada, which stood up against Parry’s fierce embodiment of Norton.

Since its earliest stages, A Very Victorian Scandal went from strength to strength and has had a tremendous growth. With funding support from the Arts Council and patrons including TV writer Russell T Davies (Cucumber, Dr Who, Torchwood), mainstream success may not be far off for Pagelight Productions.

Kate Morris and Andrew Anderson


25 February
Royal Exchange Theatre

Yen brings to the stage a disturbing world in which teenagers are left to work out life for themselves with almost no help, a scenario that thousands of young people must be living out every day. Brutally written by Anna Jordan and brilliantly performed by the cast, this play tells their story.

The action takes place in the living room of two brothers, Hench (Alex Austin) and Bobby (Jake Davies). With their mother absent, it is up to them to take care of and amuse themselves. The interplay between the two is fun, with the usual squabbling and sniping of siblings making for plenty of laughs. But while they might be in high spirits, their lives are harsh to a horrific degree – the food is awful, the entertainment is violent pornography and murderous computer games, while the soundtrack is their screaming dog, Taliban.

It is into this perpetual wreckage that fellow teenager Jennifer (Annes Elwy) steps, drawn in by her concern for Taliban who she has seen scratching at a window. What makes her stay, in spite of all the mess, is her recognition that, although the boys might be living in chaos, they are full of care and compassion.

The text doesn't pull any punches, using exactly the sort of crudeness that teenage boys do, especially when it comes to discussing the finer points of porn. The characters and their relationships are well-crafted, particularly the dynamic between the two brothers and their drunken mother (Sian Breckin). My only concern is the character of Jennifer. I found it hard to believe she would really engage with the boys in the way she does – it seems almost too saintly – but without her the play wouldn't work, so it is worth suspending disbelief for the benefit of the story.

It is hard to play characters like these without going into caricature, a mistake none of the actors made. Add to this the excellent direction of Ned Bennett, the enveloping soundtrack from Giles Thomas and the powerful set and lighting designs of Georgia Lowe and Elliot Griggs, and you have a play that draws you totally into a microcosm of empty modernity.

Life can be scary, with many dark paths to go down if there is no-one to guide you. Yen reminds us that there is good in everyone, and that we need to reach out to people who need help. However, if you do you must remember that you might end up getting hurt yourself.

Andrew Anderson