Incoming Festival 2019 is a celebration of the best emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond and is currently showcasing a week of shows at Home Manchester. If anything sums up the spirit of this festival then it would be Strictly Arts – a young, black-led theatre company – and their production of Freeman, which examines the unspoken link between mental health and systemic racism. It was an evening of brutality intertwined with beauty that left the audience totally and utterly blown away.
Many of you that are familiar with this blog or my twitter feed will no doubt have heard me rant about the elitism that sometimes one can find in the land of theatre. It is not that theatres up and down the country aren’t trying to do something about it, trying to entice a different audience through their doors, but it still remains a place where a certain demographic dominates. Class and colour often becomes the casualty, especially when the price of a ticket becomes a barrier.
So when events like Incoming Festival 2019 come along, they should be cheered to the rafters. Not only is the programme of work diverse, which should try to entice in more than the usual folk that turn up at these things, but the price of a ticket for each show is also a mere fiver! And if you are going to get productions such as Strictly Arts’ Freeman then it is well worth every penny that you spend!
I already knew that I was going to be in for a treat. Freeman had already received rave reviews, five star ratings and was the winner of a Spirit of the Fringe Award. Moreover, Strictly Arts has a burgeoning reputation of acclaim, devising thought-provoking productions using physical theatre to create a greater connection between the audience and the subject matter.
That almost always focuses on stories from black culture and history, and in this instance we get to see how systemic racism and mental health have had an impact. Six lives and six true stories, some notorious, some not, all woven together, from William Freeman to Sarah Reed, told through physical theatre, spoken word, gospel singing and a bit of shadow puppetry.
It was an explosive beginning. Without a word being uttered we are subjected to an intense portrayal of physical performance meshed with the exasperation of the characters that show the tortured souls on stage. It is gripping from the get go and does not let go until the final act of denouement.
Writer Camilla Whitehill has cleverly chosen the stories in question starting with William Freeman in the 19th century, the son of a freed slave, wrongly convicted, severely brain-damaged from prison beatings that he barbarically kills a family and dies behind bars. We meet others in different points in history all highlighting how times may not have changed as much as we would like to think.
Whilst Whitehall’s script is utterly compelling what brings it to life is the sensational performance of the company on stage. They have barely a pair of props to rub between them, leaving nothing but their acting skills to bring to life the cornucopia of characters. They do so with aplomb. Utilizing every sinew to contort themselves into the variety of people, conjuring every deft nuance in accents to have you transported to different eras and different parts of the world and using just a little bit of showmanship through some clever lighting to captivate a bewildered audience.
Verdict: A stunning show that highlights the link between systemic racism and mental health. The performances from the cast were simply phenomenal and had the audience totally and utterly gripped from the very start. It deserved every minute of its standing ovation!