I’ve met Nishla Smith before. More coincidentally it is in the exact place that I’ve encountered her majestic voice doing the same festival. Smith is back, once more taking her place in HOME Manchester’s much vaunted PUSH Festival. This time round its another personal retelling, in What Happened to Agnes, she recounts a family secret, through song and animation and her own unique way of telling a simple story.
PUSH 2020 is an opportunity to showcase the best the region has to offer. Their blurb is here, so that you can all get inspired by and a programme of events that transcends most of its art forms, through cinema right through to a comprehensive schedule of theatre offerings!
What Happened to Agnes is a personal journey so to speak.
“When my grandmother’s sister Agnes was nine years old, she disappeared…”
That’s the kind of opening line that leaves most of us completely hooked. Simplicity is the key here. A disappearance is met with Nishla’s own vivid imagination as she tries to piece together the story of Agnes, involving her grandmother’s Malaysian childhood memories and forging them into a mystical place where there are talking tigers, infinite staircases and as you’d expect from such tales and yarns, creepy woodland settings and creatures.
There is, in the background, Luca Shaw’s hand-painted projections and Nishla is aided and abetted by the “stunning piano score from Tom Harris”. And of course there is Nishla, right bang in the heart of it. Her smooth, silky vocals are completely betwixting and beguiling. She draws you into this world of hers, reflective and contemplative in its construction, all downbeat and full of wonderment.
Yet, it is not just her singing voice that encaptures you. She tells the story with such drama that you don’t just listen to her sing. You watch her every movement. And it’s those dramatic moments that you are left with at the end, in which she moves and more importantly entices you into her gaze, whilst she melodiously hypnotises you with her story.
There’s much love gone into this production. The set is completely fascinating with an off skew frame adorning the stage and a screen backdrop. The lighting is moodful and a solitary chair sits on stage, like we are to be transported to that magical place of Bagpuss, where Madeleine the rag doll would sit in her chair and charm the audience with a tale of awe. Indeed, theres a lot of elements that are quite childlike here, evocative of Alice in Wonderland, with Nishla almost resembling that fantastical girl in her dress, or conjuring up the same feelings you would have of Red Riding Hood and frightfulness of the woods. It’s completely evocative of that genre of fables that would have you cowering underneath the blankets in your youth!
Nishla completely owns the stage. However, I recall from our previous meeting that I was left hoping she would break the shackles of her tightly confined narrative. Once more she dazzles but you’re left wondering what might have been, if only she had just ventured out from that moodful reflection to let her hair down just a little and provide a more uptempo and upbeat to the story when it was merited.
Verdict: Nishla Smith once again gives an enchanting and evocative performance. She is more than just a songstress, weaving a magical hour of haunting tales through her beguiling singing voice and her melodious meanderings.