Rising Up! Peterloo 2019


When the line-up for this year’s Manchester Folk Festival was announced, tonight’s show at HOME was the one I was most looking forward to. 2019 is the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre that took place at St. Peter’s Fields, a few minutes on foot from where I am now sat. Following on from last year’s Mike Leigh film and the recent unveiling of Jeremy Deller’s Peterloo Memorial, it felt important that the music and theatre worlds should make their own contributions to the bicentenary of such a significant event.

I must admit to being a bit sceptical initially about whether HOME, the art, theatre and film centre, would do well, but it has brought life to the area south of the railway arches running alongside Whitworth Street West. Whenever I go it is always buzzing, and for me it has been a fine addition to the local scene. Tonight’s show is taking place in Theatre 1 and is the second of two nights of writer/director Debs Newbold’s folk music and theatre project. Pleasingly, the show will not be limited to Manchester, with dates scheduled the length of England from Gateshead in the north to London in the south.

Tonight’s three-piece band plays in a traditional English folk style, with acoustic guitar, fiddle and keys providing the instrumentation. I’ve been a fan of Sam Carter and his accomplished finger-picking and rich baritone vocals for years, but Lucy Farrell and Jim Molyneux are new to me. All three singers are amplified via Britney-style wireless mics to allow them to move around the stage. Their voices, though strikingly distinct from each other, blend well, but for the most part either Carter or Farrell do their singing solo. As well as a performer, Molyneux is also the Musical Director.

As would be expected for the style, the songs, all written by Sean Cooney of The Young’uns, are eloquently worded, tuneful, and focus on the events of Peterloo and on more contemporary activism and culture too, including what may be the first Extinction Rebellion-themed song of any note. And that’s perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the show: the comparison, as hinted at in the title, of public protest in 1819 and now in 2019. The impression given is that Peterloo is just as relevant today as it was two hundred years ago.

Bringing the theatre that weaves between the songs are the actors Joanna Holden, who plays the ghost of a Peterloo survivor, and Helen O’Hara, whose character is alive today and also witnessed a brutal attack, albeit on a smaller scale. Both performances are exceptional. Holden’s character, a mother who worked 13 hours a day at a textile mill loom as hungry for cotton as she was hungry for food, is remarkably perky given her hardship, but this brings a welcome humour, humanity and northern warmth to proceedings. O’Hara is brilliant as the friend of the victim of a brutal attack on a night out two centuries after Peterloo.

I love how these two stories combine with the songs to ask us to reflect on what has and hasn’t changed since 1819. The Mancunians and Lancastrians protesting peacefully in St. Peter’s Field for the right to vote (only male landowners had such a privilege at the time) and to be represented in parliament, would have had those things had they been born in a later era. But in a different way O’Hara’s 2019 character has a sense of injustice just as strong as those folks centuries before, and yet struggles to feel she has the freedom of speech to really rise up and do something about it.

The focus on women’s stories is significant because historians believe that at Peterloo the sabre-wielding cavalry that attacked the civilians specifically targeted women. Although women at Peterloo numbered approximately one in eight, one in four of the victims were female. Today we have movements like #metoo, and in O’Hara’s present-day story, the female victim was attacked by a man. It is a fact that a relatively tiny number of violent attacks are perpetrated by women on men compared to the other way round. I have enjoyed tonight’s show immensely, and whilst the humanity of the characters has been heart-warming, it is nevertheless depressing to think that appalling attacks like the one suffered by O’Hara’s character’s friend happen on a regular basis.

Rising Up! Peterloo 2019: Official | Facebook

Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.