Having very recently scooped School of the Year 2018 in The Stage Awards, the Royal Exchange Young Company have attracted a lot of attention with their new piece of gig theatre, ‘Mixtape’.

Setting out to show the city of Manchester’s B-side as well as it’s A-side, Mixtape follows the lives of three young people from Manchester who are introduced to us as our Irwell, Irk and Medlock – the city’s three rivers. Their lives meander and change direction, just like the rivers and the audience follow their journey of self-discovery and identity searching in The Studio of the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The production itself is Royal Exchange standard. You enter as if going to a gig, the audience stood up in the middle and the performers around the outside, lit up when it’s their scenes, all on different levels and covered in neon to stand out in the dark room.

The piece asks a lot of the audience, not only to stand up throughout, but they ask some members questions, they walk amongst us, ask us to use our phone torches as part of one scene – but they’re so passionate and energetic that everyone wants to be involved.

The Young Company challenge the audience too; towards the end we are asked to close our eyes and imagine an afternoon on market street as we’re guided through the familiar sights, sounds and smells – then we are to imagine it without the people. What is Manchester but the people? This is what is at the heart of Mixtape, I think. They are sharing their stories and asking everyone to realise that there are more than 2 million+ others in the city we share that are all as interesting and important.

As we follow our rivers, Phi, Leon and Leyla through their lives we are introduced to all the people they encounter and their stories too, there is an overall feeling of interconnectedness – the way the story interweaves and the heavy audience interaction serve that message too.

The whole Mixtape wouldn’t exist if there weren’t great music present too. As we move between stages, characters and stories, everything is cinched together with beats and choral chants and songs. It’s all quite current with significantly less references to Manchester’s historical musical heritage than I anticipated. The Company have composed a lot of their own music, lyrics and songs, brought together by James Frewer.

As enjoyable and engaging as the ambitious production and setting were, I wish Mixtape had been a little longer so we could focus more on the narrative of the main characters. All three were so intriguing and realistic that I wanted to know more about them. Phi, played by Zoe Ndlovu has the most incredible voice and Leyla and Leon played by Sara Abanur and Charlie Shaw were so thoroughly convincing and heart-breaking in their delivery too.

Mixtape is well worth the 75 minute running time and probably a bit more. It could feel a little muddled at times, perhaps from trying to address so many things in such a short time, or maybe from taking on so many huge intricate issues like racism, abuse, self-discovery, internet personalities, homophobia, islamophobia plus all the other things that young people grapple with. But Mixtape is well-intentioned and energetic, a passionate call to bring together all the people of Manchester.

Reviewer: Jo Flynn

Reviewed: 11th April 2018

North West End Rating: ★★★★