Ukrainian Cultural Centre, Manchester
When a hip-swivelling, pelvis-thrusting, heart-breaking Elvis Presley entered the building, the recording studio and the conscience of every teenage rebel in the world to become the bone fide king of rock and roll, its seismic effect spanned several generations. As choreographer, director and performer Claire Cunningham shows in her astonishing new creation, it’s easy to be all shook up by Elvis’ youthful pre-Vegas image on TV, even when you might be trapped in your own sense of quietly rebellious self.
This becomes the starting point for the ninety poignantly transcendent minutes of Cunningham’s co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Manchester International Festival, where it premieres this week prior to autumn dates in Glasgow. Throughout, Cunningham and her three cohorts explore what it means to take a leap, strike a pose and learn to love the spotlight for who they are, even as the image they project might be that of someone very different.
Such everyday life lessons are gleaned from a bunch of Elvis tribute acts who help make for a kind of auto-biographical cabaret that brings together four disabled artists to strut their stuff in a way that leaves them both exposed and empowered. As Cunningham, Daniel Daw, Tanja Erhart and Vicky Malin take it in turns to step into the harsh glare of a social club function room, there are moments they could be any showbiz wannabes going through their paces. Set against sound designer Matthias Herrmann’s remarkable deconstructed funereal electronic reimaginings of Elvis originals, it becomes a transformative meditation on how standing out from the crowd isn’t always easy.
In a show that sees the cast embrace their imperfections just as their jump-suited mentors might add their own personal tics to their performance, let’s hear it too for the tribute acts themselves. The disembodied recorded voices of Leigh, Des, Darren, Janny and Colbert are heard giving encouragement to their new charges with the philosophical zeal of Olympic trainers. When Cunningham’s final number unites everyone to make the performance possible, she is totally herself in a life-affirming display of community spirit that would make Elvis quiver with pride.
The Herald, July 18th 2019