Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre has been turned into a bingo hall. Is it recession, you may wonder, that has induced this conversion? The foyer is littered with lurid, pinging slot machines, and the auditorium looks superlatively tacky too: blue Formica tables, pink neon lights, and digital display boards flashing up random numbers.
Keep calm. The Royal Exchange is only pretending to have been taken over by Rex Bingo. This is the setting for writer-director Neil Bartlett's new playful-cum-philosophical show, Everybody Loves a Winner – part of the Manchester International Festival.
Most appealingly, the festival understands that the populist and the experimental can be combined, and Bartlett's ensemble certainly generate enjoyable moments. Several of the characters hanging around the Rex are portrayed with a delightful spiky humour. Some are based, verbatim, on real-life customers and workers at local halls.
Sally Bankes is explosively funny as the foul-mouthed regular, Maureen: a waddling bruiser with childlike high hopes. Warren Sollars is equally entertaining as the usher-waiter Joe: a swaggering youth who keeps breaking into cheesy Top 10 hits (with a seriously good singing voice). At other points, the Rex's frazzled MC and number-caller, Ian Puleston-Davies's Frank, steps down from his podium for spotlit internal monologues, and his clientele turn into an oratorio-style chorus, hymning about expectations versus disappointments, serendipity versus self-determination.
Amid all this, the audience get to play bingo. On the night I went, linen-clad gents were wielding their dabbers (that's felt-tip pens to the uninitiated) almost as eagerly as the seasoned old bird next to me. She was filling in two score-sheets at once. However, the downer is that Bartlett has not managed to hone all this. When the chorus ruminates en masse, it sounds a mess, and there's no sustained dramatic tension, storyline or character development for half the cast, so unfortunately, Everybody Loves a Winner becomes a prize bore.
The same festival has taken a second gamble, handing over an office block to Punchdrunk. Felix Barrett's ambitious, site-specific company has transformed a bland concrete edifice into a dark maze of paranoia and menace for its new promenade piece, It Felt Like a Kiss. This is a sprawling multimedia installation obsessed with the sinister side of America: its democratic dream turning sour, its CIA plots and sneaky foreign policies post-1945. It has been created in collaboration with Damon Albarn of Blur, the Kronos Quartet and the BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis.
Blundering down pitch-black corridors and caged walkways, as if you're trapped in some nightmare Gothic funhouse, you suddenly find yourself spiralling through a fully-furnished, 1950s ghost town. Crazy-looking, bug-eyed dummies lurk in corners, some dressed like prison guards, in nylon wigs. Soon you are prowling, like a detective, through picket-fenced gardens, past mysteriously abandoned picnics and into toy-strewn, deserted children's bedrooms. Then come morbid offices, torture chambers and medical wards, smelling of formaldehyde, where you squint in the half-light at reams of documents, left spilling out of typewriters: insane ramblings about surveillance schemes and mind-altering lab experiments.
Fuzzy television monitors are scattered around too, beaming out vintage clips of blithe school proms, small-town beauty queens, lurching chimpanzees, and US soldiers torching grass huts. Through the walls, you hear snippets of doo-wop hits, melancholy violins and ominous throbbing. The film snippets are eventually drawn together in a 35-minute experimental documentary by Curtis (with no voiceover). This flickers in a gloomy chamber at the heart of the labyrinth.
It Felt Like a Kiss has its longueurs and, in some ways, remains frustratingly elusive, never articulating a persuasively coherent argument. What connection is Curtis implying exactly between his intercut clips about historically disastrous, CIA-backed coups; chimps being used in the space race; and the spread of HIV from non-human primates in Africa? Then again, Punchdrunk never promised a lucid lecture. The aim is, rather, to be intriguing, suggestive, and spooky.
You appreciate that all the more in retrospect, especially when sitting through Death of Long Pig. This somewhat stilted new play, by the actor-turned-writer Nigel Planer, is really two short biodramas joined at the hip. Act One portrays the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson, as an ex-pat on Samoa in 1894, avidly rehearsing his funeral rites with his Polynesian servants. Act Two depicts the more openly womanising and booze-addled painter Paul Gaugin unceremoniously attempting suicide in 1897. Death of Long Pig suggests both these Europeans lorded it, in some respects, in the South Pacific but also wanted to go native, scorning Christian institutions as they prepared for death.
What's obtrusive is how Planer inserts extra background information, flagging up his interest in anthropology and art history. Director Alexander Summers's cast is uneven too, with everyone doubling roles. Amanda Boxer is particularly wearisome as a querulous Mrs Stevenson. But Sean Murray gathers steam as Gaugin, and newcomer Nicole Dayes is one to watch, transforming from the novelist's timid maid to the painter's demanding, self-assured mistress in a flash.
'Everybody Loves a Winner' (0844 815 4960) to 19 Jul; 'It Felt Like a Kiss' (0844 815 4960) to 19 Jul; 'Death of Long Pig' (0844 847 1652) to 1 AugReuse content