King Cotton,The Lowry, Salford

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The Independent Culture

Seven years in the making, the musical King Cotton finally arrived on the stage. An adventurous co-commission between Salford's arts centre and the Liverpool Culture Company (promoters of the city's European capital of culture events), it ties in with Liverpool's 800th birthday celebrations and the city's Year of Heritage programme.

Set at the time of the American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine, it is also linked with the bicentenary of the slave trade. With so many cultural and politically correct boxes to tick, its creation seemed unwieldy, its success unlikely. But with Jimmy McGovern (Cracker and Hillsborough) persuaded to write the story and lyrics, King Cotton just about avoids being weighed down by worthiness.

Cotton is the thread that binds two narrative strands, deftly handled in Jude Kelly's large-scale production. Sokoto (a strong performance by Israel Oye-lumade, again playing a slave who pulls himself up by his chains) strives to break free from the tyranny of the American cotton plantation. Meanwhile, an impoverished millworker and cornet fanatic, Tom (earnestly played by Paul Anderson), struggles to survive in the North-west of England.

The right-on workers stop the machines when they find blood on the cotton, but their principles are put to the test when the banning of cotton imports results in famine and death. Tom sails away on the Alabama to fight under the Southern flag for the preservation of slavery and cheap cotton; meanwhile, the rebel slave Sokoto has escaped to the US Navy, whose brief is to intercept the invading ships. Tom and Sokoto are enemies in every sense.

The sequence of all-too-brief earlier scenes interrupts what little flow there is in the plot, suggesting that King Cotton has potential as a film. The vast, empty stage allows for swift changes of setting with a few well-chosen props, but hinders seamless entrances and exits. It does, however, allow for a viscerally exciting battle at sea on Ti Green's stunning Act II set.

There are strong performances from several of the cast, many of whom take a multitude of small roles. But McGovern's strength lies in the creation of characters from hell and sharp, dry dialogue, so the portrayal of God as a "can scarcely be arsed" slob, lighting his fag on the flames from hell, is a stroke of genius. Casting John Henshaw in the role is another.

There is plenty of raw sincerity, effectively underscored by a few instrumentalists in the pit, some powerful gospel music and spirituals and the burnished sound of the Ashton-under-Lyne Brass Band on stage.

To 22 September (0870 787 5790)

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