Theatre Review: THE MYSTERIES – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

From a sheep farm in Eskdale to a tourist information centre in Whitby, THE MYSTERIES effectively explores the landscapes that surround us but ultimately fails to inspire a dialogue

Whether you live in a big city like Manchester or a small valley like Eskdale, there is something rather special about living in a community. Where we live helps to shape who we are as people, as well as the stories we tell, as Chris Thorpe and Sam Pritchard’s THE MYSTERIES attempts to demonstrate.

Inspired by the original Mysteries plays first presented at London’s National Theatre in 1977, THE MYSTERIES explores the landscapes that surround us and how we live with each other. Created as six stand-alone plays, the cycle captures a snapshot of our communities and the people that live there, from a sheep farm in Eskdale to a tourist information centre in Whitby.

Running in sequence, the first half of THE MYSTERIES focuses on Eskdale, Staindrop and Whitby while the second half follows Boston, Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester. Running at just over 45 minutes each, each of the plays follows two separate stories running side-by-side, the characters often linked by blood or circumstance, exploring the myths and stories that define the community and the fault lines that fracture and divide those stories into contested truths.

On the surface, there is lots to like about THE MYSTERIES. Thorpe’s writing is warm and witty and the cast is strong, with Nigel Barrett and Nadia Clifford particularly standing out for their impressive performances. Rosie Elnie’s simple yet effective wooden set design also works well here, making the most of the Royal Exchange’s intimate space and incorporating objects and props made in the town which is being presented, alongside Mike Winship’s sound design.

Shame then that there is a distinct unpolished feeling to the cycle which lessens the impact of the piece. The biggest issue is the commentary, which while beautifully poetic in nature, is often very wordy with the actors occasionally tripping over the lines and interrupting the overall flow of the piece. On occasion, a cue is also missed, resulting in long gaps of silence or the actors talking over each other, giving the impression that the whole process just needs tightening up.

Some of the stories are also stronger than others, Whitby and Stoke-on-Trent feel particularly weak, especially when played alongside the heart-wrenching stories of Boston and Manchester. Those that focus on the human aspect of the stories rather than the political work much better, the feeling of community – both good and bad – really seeping through here.

That said, when it works, it works well, especially when local performers such as The Alton Handbell Ringers and 50 Sniff are incorporated into the storyline. With a little tightening up here and there, THE MYSTERIES has the potential to stand out as something special but in its current state, ultimately fails to inspire the dialogue it hoped it would.

3 out of 5 stars

THE MYSTERIES runs at Royal Exchange Theatre until 11 November 2018