Six Degrees of Separation at the Royal Exchange

Sad to say we caught this on its last day, so this is a review for my diary rather than my readers. Which is a shame, because the Royal Exchange once again proved that Manchester has the best theatre in the UK. And I say that as a relatively regular visitor to London’s West End and without fear of contradiction from anyone who knows what they’re talking about. Even Londoners acknowledge that the West End’s looking a little tatty.

Thanks in part to the IRA bomb (the largest ever on the British mainland) in 1996, we have the very best theatre in the country. But its not just the Royal Exchange. Salford spent £120m on two new theatres and an art gallery at the Lowry something to set in context against the much trumpeted £20m Sir Cameron Mackintosh is spending across his seven London theatres. Then there’s granny’s favourites the Opera House and Palace, fringe venues like Contact and the Green Room and loads of others. In short Manchester has more theatres than anywhere in the UK outside London, but unlike London you don’t have to sit on a broken seat behind a pillar and the wallpaper ain’t pealing.

Our premier theatre, the Royal Exchange is in the round. Nobody’s more than few feet from the action, there are no obscured views and actors enter from all around you. For Six Degrees of Separation everything was white, with plasma screens mounted round the perimeter – unusually minimalist for the Royal Exchange which generally likes to show off. And of course there was the double sided Kandinsky revolving in the middle. (Katharine and I couldn’t remember where we saw Kandinsky recently, but think it was the Miro Foundation in Barcelona. But I’m showing off now.)

Six Degrees of Separation is based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean it’s crap. It’s a story with a common enough theme – the stranger who brings turmoil into our lives. The story’s legitimised with ‘science’ and pinpoints its characters through their culture; commoditised high art. The science bit’s only touched on briefly in the play, but the concept comes from various experiments designed to gauge how close knit society is. Most famously people had to get packages to strangers across America by passing them to friends who might know the person, who would in turn pass it to a friend of theirs who might know the person and so on. On average a package passed through six hands, so six degrees of separation.

Anyway. The conman here is three degrees of separation from his victims; the friend of a friend of their children. But that’s enough for him to discover all he needs to know to demonstrate enough knowledge of their lives to take them in. Of course, he’s morally dubious as the best conmen are; trading on his victims politically correct racial concerns and taking more from the poor than from the rich. You’ll have to buy the book.

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