Clementine Telesfort in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Clementine Telesfort in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Ahmed Hashimi and Mohamed Sarrir in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Ahmed Hashimi and Mohamed Sarrir in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Michal Keyamo Mohsen Nouri and Mohamed Sarrir in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Michal Keyamo Mohsen Nouri and Mohamed Sarrir in The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Cast of The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.
Cast of The Welcoming Party at Manchester International Festival, photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.

The Welcoming Party, Manchester International Festival

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Kids in Museum Commissioning Editor Rhonda Carrier takes her sons to experience a powerful piece of promenade theatre exploring the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Sometimes a theatrical idea and a venue come together in such a profound way as to add a whole new dimension to the piece in question. Such is the case with The Welcoming Party, an immersive show presented by Theatre-Rites, who specialise in experimental theatre for children, and Manchester’s own Z-arts, art and creative hub for young people.

The setting is Manchester’s mighty Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) – more precisely, some of the vast 1830s brick warehouses at the rear of the venue, which are often used for temporary exhibitions. They have a certain spookiness to them – on walking in, my nine-year-old described the setting as a ‘Victorian murder house’.

Within this atmospheric space, the audience follows the actors around from room to room, along corridors and up steep staircases (there are lifts and alternative routes for those who need them), often in semi-darkness. The wooden floors, old beams, and industrial paraphernalia chime perfectly with the tale told – that of a group of migrants and refugees trying to help one another navigate ‘the system’. Most dramatically, an old pulley system is put to spellbinding theatrical use in an intense scene in which Mohamed, fleeing Sudan, crosses a turbulent sea on a life raft, with some of his fellow passengers tumbling overboard into the churning waters.

Colourful puppetry, lovely music from some of the characters’ native countries, modern dance and the use of projectors all contribute to a rich mix and make the story accessible to children. The Welcoming Party is designed for families with kids eight and up and seems perfectly pitched to me. My nine-year-old, who has found certain pieces of immersive theatre overwhelming in the past, did understand that it was all make-believe but said that the piece made him feel how frightening such situations would be in real life.

Cleverly, the piece even turns the audience themselves into asylum-seekers at one point, with a Big Brother voice asking them to produce their passports and, when they can’t, instructing them to fill in complicated, barely comprehensible forms and then herding them through a cage. Many under-eights would find this too alarming. My youngest and his 12-year-old brother found the play as a whole both thought-provoking and moving.

Manchester, the multi-cultural, open-minded and open-armed city par excellence, couldn’t be better suited to host this story. And MOSI is a symbol of the city. Occupying the site of no less than the world’s first railway station, the museum charts Manchester’s role as a global leader in industry, science and technology – something that has only been possible through its successive waves of ‘incomers’, bringing their skills and talents from around the globe to create the ultimate world city. This is something that the biennial Manchester International Festival truly brought home in its fantastic opening event for 2017: What Is the City but the People?

You can watch a film about this event here.

The Welcoming Party runs until July 16th. Tickets cost £15, £10 for under-16s.

See other family events at the Manchester International Festival here.

Welcoming Party events continue to the end of August courtesy of Z-arts.

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