Friday, April 22, 2011

'The Mill: City of Dreams' @ Drummond Mill, Bradford

Last Saturday I had the privilege of seeing the final performance of 'The Mill: City of Dreams' by Freedom Studios a wonderful 'promanade' play at Drummonds Mill in Bradford. The play was the culmination of a significant oral history project, collecting the stories and reminiscences of the mill workers of Bradford that came from all over the world on the promise of a better life.

It was without a doubt the most powerful piece of theatre I've ever seen. Admittedly, I'm probably the dream audience: if its got anything to do with weaving, then the likelihood is I'm going to enjoy it. However, I do also have a short patience threshold, particularly with drama, whether it be a film, TV or theatre: if the dialogue or plot is poor, then I'm unforgiving.

Without realising it, my partner and I had the ideal prelude to the play. We arrived in Bradford mid afternoon, and decided after checking into a shiny new hotel that we'd have a wander around the city and soak up the atmosphere. Despite being impressed by the National Media Museum and admiring the many listed buildings that litter the centre, we were also overwhelmed by the number of empty shops, and just how quiet it was for a Saturday afternoon in contrast to the crowded streets our home city of Cardiff. This was clearly a city suffering the loss of industry.

The Mill: City of Dreams, opens with a property developer revealing his plans to develop the empty mill into luxurious flats and leisure facilities. A power cut forces him to leave and go rebuke employees. Then, Frank, our guide for the evening wanders in. We learn that Frank, now the caretaker of the abandoned building worked at Drummonds Mill for all his working life primarily as an 'overlooker' keeping an eye on the burling and mending department. And thus he leads on a journey around the mill and of his memories.

The first door we're led through is opened to the deafening sound of looms clanking and whirring..... but the vast space is empty but for threads stretched between iron columns and figures punctuating the space. As when I visit any mill, the evocative sound of weaving on a grand scale made my stomach do a back flip, but the visual contrast was profound.
Aside from Frank, the play focuses on three characters: Maria from Italy, Petro from the Ukraine and Yakub from Pakistan. We are introduced to the stories that lead them to Bradford: necessity, hope, escape. And thus we follow them through there new lives at the mill from its prosperity to ultimate decline.

The walk through structure is inspired: I can't imagine that it could possibly have had the same impact on a stage with the audience sitting comfortably. The sound, lighting and set designers have all done a fantastic job defining and structuring the space, as well as ensuring all the senses are assaulted (in a good way!) 

There really wasn't one element of the whole play that I could criticise. The writing was intelligent, eloquent and pertinent. One scene that will always stay with me sees the various mill workers borrowing suits and jewellery to pose for photographs at the infamous Belle Vue Photography Studio. These photographs would be sent to relatives all over the world to try and convey a positive picture of prosperity. Yakub stands proudly in his smart suit and gentlemanly umbrella, then gets undressed and walks across the room putting on a hoodie, into an imagined pool hall. He's transformed into his son who talks about failing his father: he was the hope for a better future and he 'f**ked it up'. The complicated jumble of contemporary 'issues' surrounding second generation immigration, identity, expectation, belonging, youth, deprivation, aspiration etc are summed up perfectly in this scene.

The temptation is strong to carry on trying to describe the rest of the play to you..... but I clearly couldn't do it justice. Unfortunately there wasn't an optimistic 'happily ever after' ending.... but the resilience and unquestioning work ethic that shines throughout the play gives hope for the future....
Its a real shame that the play has now finished - I could have watched it again and again. I understand that it was a sold out run, and the reviews in the national press have all been excellent. It clearly hit a nerve. I urge you to look through The Mill: City of Dreams website and watch the various trailers for the play so you can get a sense for what it was like.

Many congratulations to all involved in this outstanding production - I look forward with enthusiasm to seeing future performances by this brilliant theatre company.

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