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Review: Census at Contact is ‘ambitious, exciting and gorgeous’

Census, a heartfelt theatre project in North Manchester, breaks stereotypes and showcases the vibrant community through interviews and history.

Census is an ambitious project, as it is a piece of theatre which aims to include voices who have often not been heard, in a working-class area of Manchester, which is changing before their very eyes.

Malandra Jacks consists of Chloe and Josh, they live in North Manchester, Moston and they host the evening, as well as incorporating games, a brief history lesson, chit-chat and introducing local people via pre-recorded video footage.

We begin with our two hosts framing where Moston, Harpurhey and Charlestown are, by describing a typical bus journey.

I have worked in the area on and off for 23 years, so as they introduce the many different characters who take this trip every day, I raise a smile, as I have been on this magical mystery tour many times.

There is warmth here, and the local people are never turned into caricatures for our amusement.

The only slight flaw here that this section is too long, and it does begin to feel slightly repetitive, particularly if you have been on these bus rides.

A game of working-class bingo gets the audience on the night I attended focused and ready, including myself.

As soon as the game begins, everyone is primed and excitement fills the air.

So much so, that you feel this would also be a good way to close the show too. Maybe, using positive words about the area, so that the audience can leave on a high.

There are statistics used and the point is made that Moston is just a 15-minute bus ride from the centre of Manchester.

But when it is part of the MCR conversation, it is often surrounded by negativity, as opposed to celebrating the good work that many in the local community are doing, day in-day out.

Gentrification is also broached and discussed.

This is brought to life through excellent interviews with local people, youth workers, and people who have set up community groups; these volunteers are changing lives on a daily basis.

Malandra Jacks have carried out extensive interviews and chosen the footage carefully, it is slickly edited and there are gorgeous graphics, illustrating where people live, or the places they are describing, as they speak.

The presentation style of the piece appears chatty and it does involve the audience, particularly if you live here, and Chloe and Jack recognise you.

But the overall feel of the piece sees the hosts popping their heads through windows and saying “Hello” at opportune moments, in-between screening interviews.

Even though this is supposed to feel as if they are chatting directly to you, it does give off the effect of two children’s TV presenters, letting you know that you know that they are about to look through the “round window.”

The history film which describes what has been logged about the area in the past, even though valid could be summed up in one sentence.

As it is, it is just too long and does not contain enough meat on the bones, for it to grip an audience and pull them in.

As a riposte to the stereotypical depictions of North Manchester residents in the documentary People Like Us, Census totally works.

You listen to rich and vivid memories and reflections of what the future holds from the most wonderful group of people, of all ages.

And you want to spend more time with them.

And that, ultimately,  is the aim; to peek behind the headlines and see faces, and names, and laugh with them, and they are all so relatable.

This project has taken 3 years to create and the ambition is to archive more interviews, such as the ones I have described.

I would love to see more of these in whatever form, but I feel that a documentary filled with talking heads, similar to Creature Comforts but without the plasticine animals, but as freewheeling as that was, is where Census could head next.

And if that happens, I will be first in the queue.

Census is at Contact until 16th September and can be booked here.

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