Review: Light Falls @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

“Factories lie empty, manufacturing emptiness. Life still needs to be filled nonetheless, so go and find something to love.”

We live in fractured times in the North of England. It is a part of the world, politically at least, as divided as ever.

In Simon Stephens’ thoughtfully written Light Falls, a mother’s death is what is required to bring four lives back together. This is not a play about division; rather, its main theme is unity in the face of adversity.

Stephens makes real efforts to emphasise the mundanity of normal life, even following an event as significant as the death of a mother.

Christine – played by the incredible Rebecca Manley, who meets her end during a shopping trip – is quick to point out that she is just one of thousands who would perish at the exact moment she too slipped of her proverbial mortal coil.

Her convincing portrayal of Christine is moving; Stephens achieves the difficult feat of creating a character who is just like any other Northern mother.

The play begins with a monologue from Manley which is as gripping as it is poignant – it strikes as a stream of consciousness in effect and is a winding road of her life’s trials and tribulations.

Her character, just minutes from death, is able to view her past as well as her future. Her ghost will come to visit her three children, all of whom are facing their own set of issues, which will soon be thrown into relative insignificance with the death of somebody so central in their lives.

This is the great triumph of this play – like much of life itself there are tender moments counterbalanced by the inalienable tragedy of a mother’s passing.

Spread across the north as far afield as Blackpool and Durham, this play meanders its way through many outposts of the north while maintaining a commonality of Stephens’ exquisitely-crafted characters.

The performance of Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson), the awkward philandering husband of Christine, proves an unlikely source of comic relief during a play that at times is hard-hitting.

Their children, Jess (Witney White), Ashe (Katie West) and Steven (David Moorst) all are easy to identify with; one finds oneself recognising traits in all three that will feel very familiar to anybody who has so much as lived in the north.

COMMON PEOPLE: Jarvis Cocker provides the soundtrack to Simon Stephens’ Light Falls  Royal Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom’s fitting swansong

This play, in no uncertain terms stands as a chest-out, is a celebration of northern life. Although it would seem an impossibility for it to be so for a plot centred around the death of an alcoholic mother with a cheating husband, there was something heartwarming about Simon Stephenson’s portrayal of a Northern take on the nuclear family.

A minimalist set is counterbalanced by the vibrancy of the performances of a cast that impresses throughout. This is a play centred around its characters, the starkness of a bare set allowing the performances of its dexterous cast to shine, which one imagines was very much the intention of stage designer Naomi Dawson.

The play features a soundtrack provided by Pulp icon Jarvis Cocker, namely in the form of his love-letter to the North entitled Heart of the North.

Cocker’s 1995 anthem Common People painted a bleak but intriguingly endearing image of a protagonist possessing everything of the dour, sneering world-weariness that one would recognise as quintessentially typical of the Pulp frontman himself.

In the Mercury-Prize winning album Different Class, Cocker took the brave and, in some ways, undervalued step of presenting a seminal piece of sneering class commentary set to music and the inclusion of his tunes in this production appeared a perfect fit.

The bespectacled Sheffield-native provides the soundtrack for this production in the form of his affectionately-titled Hymn of the North, which is sung at various points during the production by various members of the cast.

Although Cocker appeared the appropriate songsmith for a play centred around Northern life, the same could not be said for the placement of his music in the performance itself by director Sarah Frankcom.

It felt jarring and, at times, added very little apart from leaving the audience in a state of slight bewilderment.

At points the soundtrack almost felt shoehorned in – Cocker’s contributions often adding little to proceedings.

Where it really came to life was at the close of the play, where it was sung in unison by the cast members and it again became clear that the characters in this play are the real star.

STARRING ROLE: Rebecca Manley is convincing and moving as Northern mother Christine

The remaining cast, reunited at the funeral of a clearly beloved mother, end the play by signing the song in unison, which appears to be the thread that binds them together as the plots involving all develop simultaneously portraying the events that had placated their own individual lives, all of which are transcended by the shock of a mother’s death.

Suddenly, Cocker’s lyrics seemed all the more striking and for, the first time, very much apt.

The play was a poignant, thought-provoking portrayal of a family that, with its constituent parts spread out across the North of England, personified its setting.

If Stephens had endeavoured to present the North as a place where more unites us than divides us, then he very much succeeded. His characters seemed crafted to portray a modern North of England which in some ways felt an unprecedented feat.

In some ways, Simon Stephens’ Light Falls could not have come at a better time. It is a reminder of the importance of unity, a take on the North that has not become airbrushed by nostalgia or sanitised by fear of presenting a caricature of itself.

Rather, it is a refreshingly fitting reminder of the things that make the North the gritty, warm melting pot it is.

Light Falls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until November 16, for tickets click here.

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