Stephen Gregson's Story

Tuesday 27th September , 2016

Stephen Gregson is Director of Language and Culture. Here he talks about his time as a Contact audience member in the 1990s.

Contact had an especially profound impact on me throughout the 1990s.  It really was my theatre of choice and I looked forward to seeing every production at that time, whether in-house or the excellent touring shows it hosted (including Peter Brook's The Man Who). What I will always be grateful to Contact for is how it helped me view the potential of drama through an almost sociological prism (in fact, I eventually wrote a PhD on this topic, which mentions Contact in the introduction!). This was absolutely the case with its remarkable trilogy of Kevin Fegan plays, which not only transformed the theatre into a rave club (Excess XS) and an airport lounge (Strange Attractors), it even took the audience out of the Contact building to be part of a real-life computer game on the streets of Moss Side and Hulme (Game Challenge Level 7).

Contact's 1992 production of Measure for Measure also has a special place in my theatre-going career. Its opening night was on April 10, the day after the General Election of that year, which had returned the fourth successive Tory government since 1979.  The mood in the auditorium was subdued, to say the least.  As it happened, I was reviewing the production for Plays International magazine (I was then its Manchester correspondent). This is what I wrote:

Enjoying the best season anywhere in Manchester, Contact has the vision to take off where others stand still. Combining the topical with the historical, this contention is sustained by the company's timely production of Measure for Measure. An intense attack on social and moral hypocrisy, this unlikely choice for Manchester's contemporary theatre is somehow apposite in the current political climate.

Angelo points to the theme of this play when he says, 'The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?'. Although the play seeks to explore the clash of absolutes (life and death, sex and chastity, liberty and control), its deeply political nature offers contemplative reassurance to those disappointed by the result on April 9. Small wonder that Howard Brenton chose to adapt this play for his own purposes.

Brigid Larmour, the Contact's artistic director, is feminine rather than feminist in her approach to this overlong play. She has the capacity to expose the flabbiness of Shakespeare's writing, without it reflecting on her own talents. With an intriguing set from Simon Banham, the strong cast sustains the director's vision at all times. It's always hard to single out individual performances at the Contact, but Katherine Rogers is easily the best Isabella in a long time.

I am pleased to see that Contact has continued to reflect the times, as well as the needs of the community that surrounds it. I wish it every success as it passes on the vitality of all the performing arts from generation to generation.

Story by Stephen Gregson