Manic Street Creature review – gorgeous tunes and dark times in heartfelt gig theatre

At first, you think this piece of gig theatre is more gig than theatre. From song to song, writer Maimuna Memon switches guitars and takes turns on the keyboard and squeezebox, her voice a simply gorgeous dance of folk-inflected melody. With her on stage are Rachel Barnes, adding harmonies and moody bass textures on the cello, and Yusuf Memon, lending subtle percussive support.

In her baggy scarlet shirt, Memon even counts off the songs like a set list and although she stops to talk in between each one, her semi-autobiographical tale seems like just another London love story. Playing a musician called Ria, she arrives in the capital from Lancashire, trying to make a fresh start in the face of scandalous Camden Town rents and indifference from the pubs where she picks up unpaid gigs. Despite enjoying her single status, she meets a boy called Daniel and one thing leads to another.

So far so sweet and insubstantial. But Memon is playing the long game. If the songs carry her through the early part of the story – and they are strong enough to do exactly that – it is with a view to leading us into an altogether darker place as the show, directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, progresses. Like the 2018 fringe hit Electrolyte, which Memon also scored, it is about mental illness, the theme insinuating itself as unobtrusively as it would in real life.

Like the audience, Ria takes time to discover Daniel’s fragile emotional state, still longer to put a name to it or attribute a cause. Even longer than that is the time she takes to see the damage the relationship has on her own mental wellbeing, her urge to help the vulnerable a symptom of her own troubled past. “Someone else’s trauma can be traumatising,” she concludes, but not before the couple have plunged into crisis.

Always empathic, she describes how mental illness is about not just one person, but a network of friends and family, sometimes across generations. By telling such a story primarily through song, Memon adds extra layers of emotion, the tone never vindictive or indulgent, but plaintive, impassioned and heartfelt.

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