First Night: It Felt Like A Kiss, Manchester International Festival

A rollercoaster of paranoia and poignancy
  • @pvall

It begins even before you get inside the building. There is a big list of warnings to the audience. It will be a promenade production with stairs to climb and uneven surfaces. There will be strobes, smoke and loud noises. It won't be suitable for anyone with a heart condition or a nervous disposition. One woman in my group was so spooked that she turned around in the foyer and left before we even got in the lift of the empty office block where this multi-media piece was to begin.

It started with the cheap fairground disorientation tricks of a ghost train, all strings and sheets to catch your face in the darkness. But this was to be an ideological roller coaster as much as a physical one.

It Felt Like a Kiss moves from the 1950s to the present telling the story of America's shift from the confidence of post-war Fifties Hollywood through the political and cultural turmoil of the Sixties and the social and economic revolutions of the decades that followed: the Cold War, the Space Race, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, the legalisation of homosexuality, and the credit boom.

The audience moves through rooms decked out like a film set of each period, inhabited by creepy mannequins. In each room screens relay evocative archive footage of the nodal moments in history against a sinister atmospheric background score by Damon Albarn so you feel you are a character in some weird movie. It mixes pop, politics, fashion and sex along with shots of chimps sent into space and in the jungles where the HIV virus transferred from ape to man.

It is a powerful journey, through rooms and gardens deserted with the cherry pie half eaten as in some domestic US Marie Celeste. There is a poignant tableau of a father looking silently at his sleeping child as the world waits to be blown to smithereens as the Bay of Pigs crisis unfolds. And director Adam Curtis has done an extraordinary archive trawl to find historical curios like an architect condemning the World Trade Centre twin towers as "satanic" even as they were being built – or archive film of Osama bin Laden's father building Saudi Arabia's first modern highway to Mecca.

But there is paranoia among the poignancy. By the time you get to the centre of the piece – a 35 minute film on the implosion of the American Dream – you know too well what you're in for.

Some of the detail is intriguing, like Carole King's eponymous song prompted by a woman saying her man beat her because he loved her and when he hit her it felt like a kiss. And some of it is disturbing, like the footage of a napalm victim which Curtis has looped so that the boy's death throes take on a grisly choreography in their repetition.

But there was too much of the smell of conspiracy in the air, splicing together patterns of meaning with a simplistic political intent. When our descent of the five floors began the enterprise descended into melodrama with heavy-handed references to Hidden Persuaders who, having failed to sell us dreams, are now offering us nightmares from which only they can now rescue us: Pick up the phone, Don't press the red button, Take the pill, Pick up the gun, Start the chain saw.

It was like being trapped inside the set of the Sixties cult show The Prisoner with surplus fake blood supplied by Hammer Horror. There was something unremittingly apocalyptic and relentlessly anti-American about it. Curtis should have found something nearer home to criticise and been a bit more subtle about it. It felt like a kick.