Mayfest Review: Home of the Wriggler, Stan’s Cafe

stan's cafe

Home of the Wriggler
Stan’s Cafe

Four Stars very good

Tobacco Factory
14th-15th May

Reviewed by Chris Gylee for

There’s a large technical diagram hanging as a backdrop in the Tobacco Factory. It’s an exploded view of a car’s transmission system, but on closer inspection the index of numbered components is actually a list of people’s names. Nobody I recognise. In front of this is a marked rectangle of performance space that half resembles a factory staff room, half resembles some sort of elaborate physics experiment. Two stationary exercise bikes are connected up to sets of car headlights, and up in the corner is what seems to be an oversized fan, connected to more leads and wires. There’s a kettle on top of a battered metallic shelf system, and a matching battered cupboard to hang up coats. The lights go out and into the darkness come four workers, finding their way in from the cold, a set of handheld torches lighting their way. The flyer blurb told me that the cast generate all of the necessary light and sound for this show during the performance, so the torches are battery-less and keep needing to be shaken to make them work. The four mumble to themselves, banter on their way to clock-in. Someone complains that they haven’t performed this for a while; they’ll need some reminding. There’s a wry sense that the actors are begrudgingly beginning a shift at work; the performance is a job to be carried out. Gradually machinery begins to whir, and the space is dimly illuminated, the glow from the various human-powered lights hovering and never constant.

Despite the playful illusion that the performers aren’t ever quite sure what’s next on the agenda, what follows is a staggeringly complex number of personal stories about a community of people all connected to MG Rover’s ill-fated Longbridge factory. Dates are reeled off and we’re quickly updated with who’s been doing what when: who had their hair cut, who had a BBQ, who took their exams, who got a promotion, who went on holiday. Small simple facts, but carefully remembered. We learn a bit more about some characters. Karen who’s young and pregnant; or Sandra who bets on the food being ready in time despite the slim odds; the guy who works on the production line and wonders whether he’s in the right job and the risks to his family if he decides he isn’t; the man in the broken down car on the hard shoulder, terrified of being hit by a stray lorry; Pat, also pregnant, with her fourth child, ready for her first C-section; Tom, Mary, Vasha, Rick, Abdul… Most things we learn about are small things: jokes on the work break, whose fault it is that the order didn’t arrive in time, which route the employee chooses to drive back with the new boss, how the woman from PR has a different concern to the catering staff. There are too many names to remember, and the facts and stories come thick and fast. It’s difficult to piece everything together, and sometimes overwhelming. But as the information grows and more dates, events and sometimes quite personal memories are recalled a real impression of the community (rather than any one individual) emerges.

There’s a sense of worth imbued in all of these small moments, and perhaps because of this careful, quietly impressive remembering it becomes strikingly clear that each individual moment belongs to someone unique, and then that when the Longbridge factory finally closed it affected every one of these people. There’s no great climax to the piece, just a unsettling impression that the narrative extends right into the future, but after the performers have left the space, grumbling about their break-time snacks, and the regular theatre lights come back on (powered by the power-station once more), I can see the list of names on the car transmission diagram again. Only now the names are less meaningless than before. They all connect to a great web of experiences and memories, and looking at exactly the same image but with a different understanding, I’m aware that over the last hour and a bit my perspective has been subtly shifted.

Chris Gylee