07 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #5: Rags to Bitches

A couple of posts ago, I touched on Manchester’s current paper art, and as we head south out of town towards Fallowfield, let’s peek inside the gorgeous Whitworth Art Gallery, where there’s an outstanding archive of wallpaper. There is also a number of Wardle Pattern Books containing more than 1,700 pages of patterns for fabric by the designer associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris and Liberty.

A little further along Europe’s busiest bus route is the vast Platt Fields Park, overlooked by the Modernist beauty that is the Toast Rack (complete with Fried Egg) and the 1930s Art Deco delight that is Appleby Lodge, designed by the same architect as the soon-to-be-defunct Cornerhouse and once home to Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the Halle Orchestra (and honoured with a blue plaque – gosh, perhaps I am a plaque collector, after all!).

Platt Fields is also home to the Gallery of Costume, reopened in 2010 after a complete overhaul, and already mentioned on A Wondrous Place by Pete Collins. On top of a well-curated permanent collection of outfits and accessories through the eras, there is a button exhibition (no good for the koumpounophobists among you, I’m afraid), a timeline contextualising the Gallery by reminding us of Manchester’s importance in textile manufacture, and changing shows; right now, dresses made of paper.

“A good specimen is one which is not only in sound condition and of nice quality, but which embodies the features of its period in an entirely representative way” – fashion writer Doris Langley Moore on collecting
There are get-ups that belonged to the likes of Jerry Hall and Audrey Hepburn – in the latter’s case, a 1967 fuchsia button-through belted frock designed for the film star and fashion icon by Givenchy. There are a few writer connections, too. There’s a trademark Roberto Cavalli leopard-print number worn by Julia Roitfeld, daughter of Carine, editor of Paris Vogue until last year. There’s a wool suit owned by art and fashion historian and writer – and Lord Byron scholar – Doris Langley Moore, who had so many clothes, she kept them in her large house while she herself had to move to a small flat. There’s an evening dress created in the mid-1930s by Edward Molyneux, who mingled in the same circles as Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward, no less. (By the way, the title of this post references a former vintage shop in the Northern Quarter; it’s not a reflection on the people mentioned!)  The building, which itself is most pleasant – a Grade 2 listed Georgian manor – also houses a comprehensive fashion journal library containing glossy magazines and periodicals dating back more than 100 years. Some are displayed alongside the actual garments shown in the spreads, while the complete collection is available to view by appointment. As a former fashion magazine journo, I’m making that appointment. But for now, I’m not far from home, so I’m off to kick back and have a well-deserved pre-dinner sherry.  

Thank you for reading! I hope this guide to Manchester’s literature and libraries has been as interesting for you to digest as it has been for me to put together, and I hope it might inspire you to pop a poetry night in your diary or pick up a book by a Manchester-based author. Obviously it’s not comprehensive, and there are plenty of people and places I’ve not had chance to mention (how about alternative depositories such as the virtual Rainy City Stories, for example, or the Salford Zine Library, where fellow A Wondrous Place contributor Natalie Bradbury’s The Shrieking Violet is one of the tomes?), but perhaps it can be a starting point. Thank you, too, to the people who have answered my questions and provided photographs (particularly Gareth Hacking for his original images of the Portico Library, more of which can be seen on Creative Tourist). Finally, a big thank you to Chris Meads for giving me the opportunity to explore my city further – it really is a wondrous place!

06 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #4: Magic Buzzes

There seems to be no getting away from Anthony Burgess in Manchester and, en route to our next port of call, we’ll just drop down to Cross Street and stop for a quick jar or two in Mister Thomas’s Chop House, just shy of the splendid Royal Exchange Theatre. Mister Thomas’s was a favourite watering hole of Burgess, who, in his memoirs, talks of ‘hard-headed magnates and cotton brokers gorging red meat in chophouses’. Social commentator Friedrich Engels was also a regular, as he was at the library at Chetham’s School of Music. Here, legend has it, he met Karl Marx and the pair went on to write The Communist Manifesto together.
“If you want to blame any one place for the creation of communism, blame Manchester” – journalist Ed Glinert
Much of this information I picked up on the recent Boho Literary Tour, a regular fixture on the programme of the annual Manchester Literature Festival. The tour was led by Manchester Walks organiser Ed Glinert, who founded City Life, an “alternative” news, arts and listings magazine published between December 1983 and December 2005 which spawned such talents as yours truly. Ed isn’t the only tour guide in Manchester – there are loads, covering subjects as wide-ranging as music and sewers, and there are also lots of leftfield organisations encouraging the fine art of flaneurism (try the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, Manchester Modernist Society, Northern Quarter Stories, Ancoats Peeps and Skyliner – whose Hayley Flynn has already curated A Wondrous Place). But I digress…

Like John Rylands, Chets is a fine example of the juxtaposition of old and new architecture, with sandstone Medieval buildings linked to brand-new structures by almost futuristic glass walkways that reflect the weird and wonderful Urbis whose shadow the school lives in. It’s a working school, but members of the public can go to free lunchtime concerts (I’d also recommend the RNCM ones at the delightful St Ann’s Church) and visit the library, as well a kept secret as the Portico. I’d had the delight of sitting in the properly atmospheric Baronial Hall for last year’s Manchester Fiction Prize Gala, but I’d never been to the library until I came to research this piece – and it really is worth a trip. After ringing a bell, a heavily studded door creaks open and you’re directed up a flight of stairs to an L-shaped, vaulted-ceilinged, lead-glassed, book-lined gallery, with individual ‘gated’ booths and a separate room at one end dominated by an enormous fireplace. There’s a 17th-century printing press and a display about the Brothers Grimm, and the comments book says it all: references to Hogwarts crop up umpteen times. Well, it is pretty magical!

05 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #3: Secret Society

While seeking out Anthony Burgess’s blue plaque on campus, I stumbled across another – appropriately on the building that houses Manchester University Press. As I snapped it as an aide-memoire (I’m getting on a bit), the security guard asked if I collect plaques, which curiously means that living amongst us are plaque collectors. This particular one is for Peter Mark Roget, he of the thesaurus, pleasing me no end, dictionary aficionado that I am. Turns out Roget was one of the secretaries of our next library, the hidden gem that is the Portico, described when it first made its mark on the local landscape as “the most refined little building in Manchester”.

For your delight and delectation, here’s a poem by another famous librarian, and a famous Northerner to boot, Philip Larkin.
Library Ode

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

Contrary to popular belief, the Portico Library is open to everyone, every day except Sunday, and you can browse the regular craft shows and art exhibitions (currently Clare Allan’s ‘Burnt Wood and Paper’, echoing a theme being explored at Manchester Art Gallery just down the way) and even take tea and cake beneath its lovely dome, which is rather civilised. Well, I suppose you’d expect nothing less of a space which includes a section with the moniker ‘Polite Literature’ and boasts links to regular ‘Coketown’ visitor Charles Dickens and local literary lady Elizabeth Gaskell. These days, it counts among its members the likes of Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, whose partner Emma Jane Unsworth has made it onto the shortlist for the Portico Prize for Literature which is awarded tomorrow [that was November 22 - W&F]. The wide-ranging shortlist this year includes fresh talent, such as Manchester resident Joe Stretch, and famous names, such as Jeanette Winterson, who’s just taken up post as professor of creative writing at the University’s Centre for New Writing. To bring us full circle, in 1989 the gong went to one Anthony Burgess…

Portico Library image: Gareth Hacking www.garethhacking.co.uk

04 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #2: Proud Mancunians

Cross the road from City Library, pass the white block capitals of The Avenue (which, at certain angles, spells out HEAVEN) and stand in awe of the cathedral-like splendour of John Rylands Library, a sandstone edifice complete with gargoyles, rose windows and some brilliant Crappers (literally) in the basement. These days, you enter through a bright white extension, all glass and steel, that weaves into the old structure and appears to have given the place a new lease of life, if the buzzing little café and bookshop are anything to go by. The original building was dreamed up by Enriqueta Rylands, who wanted to remember her industrialist (and philanthropist) husband John, Manchester’s first-ever multi-millionaire, and to try and regenerate the slum-filled area. It took 10 years to build and opened on 1 January 1900. Take the lift to the third floor, and you’ll find the beautiful wood-panelled and book-adorned Historic Reading Room, where you can work away at your latest masterpiece (or read a comic; we don’t judge) or take in one of the changing exhibitions.

On show until 27 January is a display, curated by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (itself worth ferretting out on Cambridge Street for its collection of rare manuscripts and typewriters; and thanks to them for the image), celebrating 50 years since the publication of local literary hero Anthony Burgess’s most famous work, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Burgess was born and bred in Manchester, living in Harpurhey and Moss Side, and studying at Xaverian College in Victoria Park then the University of Manchester. Here a blue plaque has just been inaugurated, on the Faculty of Arts’ Samuel Alexander. The Rylands exhibition is an interesting insight into both the man about Manchester, and the reasons for writing a novel so brimming with ‘ultraviolence’. It includes correspondence with Stanley Kubrick, who directed and ultimately imposed a ban on the movie version, photographs from the film and newspaper clippings outlining the appalling criminal activity that was bubbling through the cracks of 1960s Britain.

“I am proud to be a Mancunian” – Anthony Burgess in his autobiography, Little Wilson And Big God (1987)
Which leads me on to the question I was posed by previous curator [of A Wondrous Place] Missy Tassles: “What in, or about, Manchester inspires you, or has surprised you or has restored your faith in humanity?” The riots during August 2011 shocked the city, and the public outcry at the anti-social behaviour of a handful of individuals was heard loud and clear. Everyone pulled together to get the place cleared up and back on its feet, in a not dissimilar way (though obviously to a lesser extent) to after the IRA bomb in 1996, when I lived five miles from the centre and we could still hear the bang and see the smoke. There’s something wonderfully warm in the Mancunian spirit that helps us get through times of tragedy and toil and that makes living here so enjoyable on a day-to-day basis.

03 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #1: Central and the City

Mother's been on so again I realise I must apologise for the lack of activity on Words & Fixtures in recent weeks. Thing is, I had the honour of curating the website A Wondrous Place, and it took up quite a bit of my time, in a good way. The idea behind the site is to offer an interesting skew on the north and its creative side, and I decided to look at literature and libraries in Manchester, which was a lovely exercise. I've decided to re-run the pieces here, one a day for this week. Enjoy!

The mists of time shroud the exact date of my arrival in Manchester to study, and after stopping a while, I departed for a sojourn in the big smoke before being drawn back to the rainy city coming up for a decade ago. Manchester has an appeal to me for many reasons, not least because it’s big enough to support a feeling of cosmopolitanism; small enough to offer a sense of community. Since returning, I’ve become involved in various groups and activities, helping organise green festivals in Chorlton (where else?), joining the monthly bike ride Critical Mass, tagging along on psychogeography derives, taking part in a 24-hour performance art project and doing all sorts of other cool things in various cool places with loads of different cool people.

My main thing, however, is getting immersed in the burgeoning literary scene, which has really taken off this last 12 months or so. You can’t swing a cat for the amount of spoken word nights, author readings and creative writing workshops there are these days; often two or more brilliant events clash and I have to play rock paper scissors in order to decide which one to grace with my inimitable presence. I like to listen and learn from other poets and proseurs, and I also like to write and perform my own micro stories, or flash fiction. I work for Manchester Literature Festival and The Literateur online literary magazine, and I’ve been churning out an arts blog, Words & Fixtures, since 2008. I’ve decided therefore to take this opportunity as guest curator of A Wondrous Place to look at the city’s words and fixtures: literature and libraries.

“The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries” - scientist and writer Carl Sagan
Libraries are on topic right now and there’s been a lot in the media about our public libraries being under threat while the Culture, Media & Sport select committee has just published a report on the subject. Meanwhile Manchester’s main reference and reading establishment, the amazingly imposing Central Library (pictured here - in the original version of this post on A Wondrous Place, that is - in an artist’s impression of the under-construction One St Peter’s Square), is currently closed to undergo a complete overhaul, due to reopen in 2014. The temporary City lending library is crammed into Elliot House on Deansgate (lovely stained glass and awesome wallpaper, though, so definitely worth a looksee if you’re passing), the collection is squirrelled away somewhere in a Cheshire salt mine and the future of Library Walks is uncertain, but STOP! Let’s not get disheartened, dear reader – I’m going to take you on a tour of some of the alternative book depositories the residents of Cottonopolis are lucky enough to have access to and explore some of the colourful wordy types this place has produced. There will be mystery! There will be history! There may even be drinks if you promise to keep quiet and don’t run in the corridors…

06 November 2012

Off the rails

Last week, I took a wee trip to the big smoke to rendez-vous with the editors of The Literateur literary magazine and to attend the launch of the latest issue of Ambit. While I was killing time between meetings near Euston, I decided to see what was going down at the British Library, and lo, there was the scroll of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, in the Folio Society* Gallery.

The 120 foot-long scroll was banged out in three famously frenzied weeks and, though small, the exhibition is very interesting in providing information on the background of the manuscript and its context in terms of the Beat Generation, and there are some great photos of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg et al. The show runs until 27 December and is free, so if, appropriately, you have a bit of time before catching a train, bob in.

*The Folio Society, btw, republish classic books with unique illustrations, and their version of On The Road, above, has black and white photos throughout and is £29.95. Other tomes include various by British authors, such as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which is on my reading list for winter...

Down and out in New Orleans

When Imogen Stubbs last appeared at the Royal Exchange, in Noel Coward's Private Lives, I couldn't stop gushing about it: it was brilliant; the best thing I've seen there, possibly even the best thing I've seen at the theatre. I was therefore not surprisingly awaiting this production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending with some degree of giddy excitement, so imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be nowhere near as good as the Coward.

The play opens mid storm, represented by thunder clashes and four large screens pouring with water. It's a pathetic fallacy, of course: the characters, inhabitants of a small town in the Deep South, all harbour poorly veiled mistrust of each other and even more poorly veiled mistrust of anyone from outside their community, and tonight, in particular, tensions are running high. A bunch of dislikeable women minding a shop are soon joined by a bunch of equally dislikeable men and, eventually, the couple they are waiting for: the store's owners Jabe Torrance, just discharged from hospital, and his long-suffering wife, Lady, an initially unrecognisable, but ultimately scene-stealing Stubbs (pictured).

There are other arrivals, too: the wayward Carol Cutrere, who's friends with voodoo types and is not supposed to darken the town's door after being falsely accused of vagrancy, and Val Xavier, who is a guitar-toting drifter (and the titular Orpheus), but, being good-looking and having one of the local loony bible-bashers on his side as he does, is allowed to stay, at least for the time being. Val and Carol seem to have history, and there's more than a whiff of David Lynch's Wild At Heart about the pair, not least with the importance given to a particular snakeskin jacket. It turns out Lady is an incomer too, with her Italian heritage (though it took me a fair while to work that out), and this is what leads to the play's dramatic and tragic crescendo.

Unfortunately, this crescendo is a hell of a long time coming, and there are so many tiny scenes, with the lights going up and down for the briefest of appearances and random snippets of blues music punctuating the action, that I lose interest quite quickly. Another weird lighting effect, which indicates the early evening sun and, I'm assuming, aims to emphasise the increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere the script is out to portray, manages to be too subtle to make its meaning obvious, yet annoyingly nausea-inducing at the same time. There are other odd lighting choices, too, though I'm presuming these are to reference the importance of light and shadow, good and bad, white and black in a racist era and area. My final criticism is that there are way too many characters, which simply adds confusion and slows the pace down even more, and these extras seem there mostly to shoehorn in the minutest details of back history. You start to wonder if this wouldn't work better as a film, though whether that's the fault of the play or the production, I can't say. 

Photo by Jonathan Keenan. 

Orpheus Descending continues until 24 November. See the Royal Exchange website for full details.

27 October 2012

Words and pictures

David Shrigley is a ruler aficionado. He is also a collector of found ephemera, including maps people draw for their friends to show them how to get to a particular pub or some such destination of choice. I am a dictionary aficionado and collector of discarded lists, so I instantly feel a certain affinity for this tall man standing somewhat self-consciously on the stage at the front of Cornerhouse’s Cinema 1 on Saturday 13 October, to give a talk relating to his current show, How Are You Feeling?.  

He likes the “gestural” - without words - though I come away from this show and tell lecture, called, um, Show & Tell, thinking how important words actually are to him; as integral to his work as the pictures or installations. There are neon banners, lost pigeon posters, spoken word albums, tattooed phrases, stuffed animals holding signs, the trademark cartoon combinations of stick drawings and scrawly captions.

He’s not interested in representational drawing, he says, and he says he can’t draw very well anyway. He’s interested in “economically delivered narratives”, communicating things as efficiently as possible, so with the cartoons and short films such as New Friends, he creates a simple image and a snappy slogan that go together - or a slogan and an image; the order is not always the same - usually with “some odd slippage”. The slippage was unintentional in a series of plates that ran in The Independent some years ago, when the art director unilaterally decided to cut off parts of the image in some cases, and the words in others, essentially publishing an end result that was incomprehensible and pointless. Not surprisingly, Shrigley took his talents elsewhere.

Sometimes, of course, the experimentation is totally conscious in terms of not knowing what the outcome might be: a giant unending sausage of clay at a German gallery, for example, that cracked apart as the medium dried; or filling things (tents, waders...) with expanding foam. “It doesn’t always work,” says Shrigley, “but it’s kind of fun.”

The most fun I’ve had in ages* is watching Shrigley’s slideshow from a break in France with his wife. This is David Shrigley, so obviously we’re not talking sunsets and chateaux; his holiday snaps are of the gite owner’s obsessive labelling, from her surname on the dustbin (within the bounds of reason) to “do not move” on a completely portable object. How do you know if it’s not already been located elsewhere to its original position? Light switches are labelled light switches, and, inspired, Shrigley sculpts a big egg, paints it white and daubs on EGG. Does writing “egg” on a big egg make it more of an egg, he queries. Well, in the context of an art show, perhaps it does. In the context of a kitchen cupboard, maybe not.

I come away from the show with a lot of newfound knowledge about David Shrigley and conceptual art, and I’ve had a good laugh. I’ve heard how a mural he painted at a skatepark in Malmo, Sweden, was too distracting and had to be removed after the skaters kept falling off their boards. I’ve learnt more about the giant ceramic boots I saw at the Haywood exhibition; they’re a response to an old suit of armour on display at a museum in Scotland. I’m interested in Shrigley’s creative process (he has a stack of recycling) and thoughts on success: “If you make stuff that’s not rubbish, that’s a good criteria.” And I leave with his final idea buzzing around my brain: show, don’t tell.

(*This might not technically be true.)

David Shrigley's How Are You Feeling runs at Cornerhouse until Sunday 6 January 2013. Galleries are open Tuesday-Saturday 12-8pm, Sunday 12-6pm (closed Monday).

10 October 2012

Who's in charge here?

I've been shouting loud and proud about a great literature project currently underway in Birmingham, as part of the annual Book Festival there. It's called Reliable Witness and is on until Saturday night, so if you're in the area, please do go and check it out.

It's very innovative and not something I've come across before, and, as a writer, I think it's a wonderful way of telling a story - get the audience to do it themselves! Using social media platforms in the run-up to the Festival, the group behind the project built up an audience - and a buzz - for a site-specific installation, where individuals are encouraged to interact with a variety of prompts and choose from various options to take them to different outcomes. Everyone comes away with their own version of the story - I've been describing it as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure for grown-ups with smart phones.

Anyway, you can read more of my words along these very lines here and here.

Reliable Witness is open daily until 13 October in the Pavilions Shopping Centre (Unit 10, Level 2 Lower Ground Floor, Birmingham, B4 7SL): Monday–Saturday 10am–6pm. Admission is free.

08 October 2012

Print charming

This new print mag for Manchester looks great and features a piece of flash fiction by yours truly... Keep your peelers eyed for copies in such wonderful environs as the Manchester Craft & Design Centre!

02 October 2012

Weird science

Last night, I went to see The Heretic, a new play rubbishing the so-called facts behind the shock tactics used when dealing with the subject of climate change. Interestingly, when I got home, the idea of politicians using pseudo science and quack statistics to add credence to their arguments came up on the radio (the next chief scientific advisor to the government plans to ensure that scientific evidence is taken seriously by an arts-dominated civil service, apparently), fixing the feeling that the play is very “now” (we’d already been making comparisons to The Thick Of It, of which series four is currently being aired, and passing comment on academia kowtowing to the corporate world in order to secure much-needed funding).

Set in a university earth sciences faculty, lecturer and sea level expert Diane Cassell (played very competently by Cate Hamer, pictured) is the heretic (def: “the upholder of an opinion opposed to the usual or conventional belief”) in question: “I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in anything,” she says at one point. Her own research and the massaged reports of her peers have made Dr Cassell cynical about global warming, but her outspoken views and gas-guzzling lifestyle make her a target for death threats and dismissal. In fact, while the play does deal with some serious issues, emissions and ozone aside (also cropping up are anorexia, self-harm, mental health…), ultimately it’s a comedy, which, in the second act, leans more towards farce.

Writer Richard Bean’s last play, One Man, Two Guvnors, was critically acclaimed and picked up a Best New Comedy award, and The Heretic’s clever and colourful language and back-and-forth ripostes, especially with the high-falutin scientific lingo, are very funny. However, I’d say the last quarter of an hour or so lets the rest of the production down a little, and the farce feels forced and the acting a little over-egged (though Ciaran Kellgren as Ben Shotter couldn’t get much more OTT with his “yoof” accent - a misguided move, I felt, on the part of Bean and the director, Chris Honer). It’s a shame, but the dénouement is obvious; the trick played on the audience at the opening of the final scene, when Professor Kevin Maloney (Stuart Fox) comes on stage (following, incidentally, a gaping props clear-up), is cheap, and the loose ends are tied up too glibly, and in too clichéd a way.

Still, The Library have done themselves proud with the set (in the Quays Theatre at The Lowry), which, between acts, moves from a convincingly cluttered university lecturer’s office to a well-kitted kitchen in a very big house in the country (by the way, where does Dr Cassell get all this money from to have a posh pad and a Jaguar car? I thought academics were destitute!). The detail is great, right down to the house’s stable-style back door and coat hooks at the bottom of the stairs and the charts and notices in the corridor outside the office door.

There’s also a nice device when Dr Cassell is interviewed on Radio 4. Having just the audio might not have persuaded us as to the “authenticity” of the clip, but when a screen is lowered from the rafters and we see John Humphrys in all his Today programme glory, it really does add weight to the plot and makes the subsequent disciplinary scene all the more believable.

And that’s what this play is all about: believability. And I’m mostly there, just not fully.

The Heretic is on until 13 October. See the Library Theatre website for times and tickets. 

Photograph: Gerry Murray

26 September 2012

Seventeenth-century smutmastery

I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect from the Royal Exchange’s latest production, The Country Wife; to my shame, I’d not even heard of its author, William Wycherley. Still, the press release mentioned the word “bawdy”, so I was straight in there with my RSVP, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Taking my seat, the first thing I notice is an outlandishly attired dandy checking his talcum-powdered face and wig in a mirror, beneath an impressive chandelier of antlers and surrounded by plush chaise longues and fancy side tables. This turns out to be Mr Horner, an incorrigible womaniser who, in order to kid his fellow men of society into letting him gain unrestrained access to their wives and sisters, pretends to be suffering permanent impotence following a recent trip to France. It takes no persuading Sir Jasper Fidget, who immediately grants him escort duties to his wife and daughter, though Mr Pinchwife (a sometimes quite menacing Nick Fletcher) is less convinced, having been out of town with his new spouse Margery and therefore missing out on “the news”. The country wife of the title, Margery (played appropriately at first ditzily and increasingly minxily by Amy Morgan) wants to be introduced to society, and her husband is soon mad with jealousy as he witnesses her head turned by the fripperies of London and the flatteries of Horner (Felix Scott, knowingly roguish).

Other romantic complications arise, leading to a number of farcical entrances and exits, often symbolised by the opening and closing of various gates located at the periphery of the round, plus of course the stage doors themselves. Best of all are the shenanigans between Mr Pinchwife’s sister, Mrs Alithea, and her betrothed, the Jedwardly coiffed Mr Sparkish (pictured with Pinchwife above), whose costumes are a wonderful sight to behold, and whose delivery, thanks to Oliver Gomm’s over-the-top performance, is brilliantly comedic and rakish. The play was written to cast light on the promiscuities of the higher classes at the time and the incestuous nature of Restoration theatre (Wycherley, I have learnt from the programme, shared a mistress with Charles II, on the throne at the time), and in-jokes about theatre-going show the writer satirising his own social circles (perhaps one reason why his theatrical career spanned a rather brief five years!).

The piece might date from 1675, but by playing up the script’s colourful language (words and phrases like homaster and “Lady Wife Fidget, he’s coming into you from the back way” had the place in sniggers, while I enjoyed the exclamation: “No need to be so smutty!”) and using contemporary music (an interpretation of Hendrix, for example) during set changes helps keep the whole thing light-hearted and accessible, so hats off to director Polly Findlay. The only couple of things that don’t translate so well are the jarring characters’ explanatory asides to the audience at the ends of scenes, and the rhyming couplets which close the final act also stick out somewhat – but I suppose that’s the style of the time, so no matter. All in all, it’s a very entertaining piece and I very much enjoyed being introduced to the work of a playwright so old yet so totally new to me.

The Country Wife continues until 20 October. See the Royal Exchange website for ticket details.

Photograph: Jonathan Keenan