Man to Man – gourmet theatre at Northern Stage

It’s a man’s world

After a five star Guardian review, expectations were high for this performance, and I am delighted to report that we were not disappointed in the least. Maggie Bain’s, deliciously layered performance, makes Man to Man a generous helping of gourmet theatre served up at Newcastle’s Northern Stage
This one woman show, previously performed at the Edinburgh festival, is a tour de force for this talented actor, who creates a powerful and at times quite mesmerising piece of storytelling.
The play is based on the story of a woman (Ella) who took on her husband’s (Max) identity after he dies, in order to survive in second World War Germany – a pitiless place for anyone, but especially for women.

In our story Ella has to survive on her wits, and takes over her husband’s crane driving job in order to keep his salary, keeping up the charade that ‘she’ is a ‘he’ at his place of work. She learns to drink, play cards and eat pork knuckle with onions in the pub, just like the other men.. The woman who works in the canteen falls for her, thinking she is a man, and a kind of romantic relationship ensues.

As the play opens, the stage looks pretty dour and depressing – think the toilet scene in Trainspotting. This dark canvass becomes populated with characters and a narrative which draws you in, and some of the best stage and creative lighting design I’ve seen in a long time, brings a surreal fairytale element to the narrative. Shadows and projections help tell the story and add a magical feel to this tense surprising monologue.

Climbing the walls

Man to Man is a translation from the original German play by Manfred Karge, who initially wrote the part for his wife. As an actress you couldn’t wish for a more meaty role, but it takes an extremely talented performer to make this complex piece work. It’s not just the hour and a half stream of consciousness dialogue, but this is also an energetic piece of physical theatre which has Bain doing everything from moving furniture to literally climbing the walls. The part would simply not have worked as well visually without this element, and it always adds to the three dimensions of the piece, never seeming gratuitous.

This is a visceral representation of a gruesome and violent period in German history, but it is also  very personal and human story. A tough woman, with no sense of entitlement does what she can to survive. In most societies, men have always had more freedom to be alone, to move around and do what they like without question, and this is what Ella sees and takes for herself, to make the best of a very bad deal.

Ella as she was

The stagecraft in the production is exceptional and there are lots of clever details which delight, particularly in the use of projections on to the walls. In one scene the repetitive lever pulling on the assembly line appears in silhouettes behind her, in another the walls come crumbling down as the terrible symbol of oppression that was the Berlin Wall, disintegrate before our eyes. Using projection so much gives some very cinematic elements to the production, as well as a kind a magic time travelling feel.

Factory work

This is a pretty dark jig saw of a piece, and Bain plays thirty different characters across twenty seven scenes. The power of thoughts and memories come to haunt Ella at the end of her life, but although undoubtedly an exceptional woman, she sees the past only as a painful struggle that she would rather forget.
The original English translation stage production of Man to Man was performed in the late 1980’s and starred Tilda Swinton. I can easily see her in the role but I can’t imagine her being better than the brilliant Bain.
Man to Man is on for one more night at Northern Stage and then it continues on tour around the country. Do not miss it.  Man to Man