Home of the Wriggler
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Touring, February 2020
Seeing as I spend my entire working life writing about this sort of thing, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that quite a few plays have, in the last few years, explored notions of memory, community and story through a post-apocalyptic-type setup. Most famous is the brilliant Mr Burns by Anne Washburn, which imagines how post-apocalyptic communities retell and reimagine stories taken from The Simpsons (I know!). Also worth mentioning is Tajinder Singh Hayer's North Country, set in post-apocalyptic Bradford and given a great site-specific production in 2016, which put the action in dialogue with the city's abandoned commercial and industrial sites. Stan's Cafe join this little group with their fantastic, engaging and resonant Home of the Wriggler.
Technically, it's been a member for a while: the show was originally devised and performed in 2006, but this is the first I'm seeing it, even if I've been aware of it for some time. In the ten years since it was last performed, Britain has continued to suffer from the economic decline, market uncertainty and job losses that spurred the original impetus behind the play - the 2005 closure of the Midlands Longbridge car factory, and the loss of 6000 jobs. This pattern has come to define our age, and as the show's programme notes point out, their effect is only growing: today, between the pressures of a tumultuous, Brexit-sensitive economy, the competition from cheap global workforces and the impact of the climate crisis, industrial sector jobs are as imperilled today as they have been for the past half-century. Deeply aware of this, Stan's Cafe have plundered their own archives and brought Wriggler out to the light.*
Set in an unspecified time and an unknown place, which might or might not be the staff room of the Longbridge car plant, or any industrial space for that matter, Home of the Wriggler is a story of the recent past and present, told from the perspective of the future. From its earliest days to its last before closure, from its nearest neighbours to its farthest international reaches, the play paints a picture through recounted stories of those who lived and worked in and around the plant. It's a generational story: there are (or, of course, were) families with successive members working at the factory; there were marriages and affairs, births and deaths, arrivals and migrations that made the Longbridge staff part of an extended family - one which, with the plant's closure, was eventually broken up and effectively abandoned by their employers and governments.
The future perspective with which these stories are told distinguishes Wriggler from other plays that document community strife: while the experiences of the individuals are legitimate, and drawn from interviews conducted by the company around the time of the plant's folding, the framing of the performance is entirely fictional - and brilliant. Gathering in what looks like an abandoned industrial space, with its engine blueprints and office filing cabinets, four performers enact the stories of the lives that passed through the Longbridge gates, passed down over time and here presented as part theatre, part ritual: a conjuring of the past, told in many voices and stories. We jump frequently from person to person, decade to decade: some individuals we return to and follow, others we hear from once, and never again. The four performers help each other reconstruct the plant's history, sometimes helpfully correcting recollections, other times giving light to one another with torches - telling this story with care is clearly very important to them. Intimate details of love and loss are shared alongside wider international events like "2001: George closes all US airspace". This intermingles the mundane and historic, the transient and the consequential: from the perspective of the future, the big and the small coalesce into one. It's an incredible mosaic in which the littlest detail is equated with the greatest change - a stark reminder that behind every statistic is a life, behind every death or redundancy is a family left to grieve or struggle.
Photos taken from the Stan's Cafe website
The production complements this fantastically: there is more or less no electrical power on stage - or rather, everything electrical is powered by hand, arm and leg. The four performers crank levers, operate switches and pedal bikes to generate their own power, hooking these devices up to lights that rise and fall with their exertions. It's an image also used in Mr Burns, the third act of which closes with one of the characters pedalling on a static bike to keep the lights going. In Wriggler, this lasts for the whole show - all seventy minutes of it, bar a handful of pauses when the cast stop for snacks. Seeing the show come to life in this way is a fantastic coup de théâtre, and it is impossible not to admire the cast's ability to animate their characters with poise and grace, after pedalling furiously for ten minutes straight. So despite abandoning typical theatrical machinery, this is a wonderfully theatrical piece - more so, even, because of the exertions of the performers. Through their efforts, both physical and emotional, the atmosphere is built factory-like before us, in real time, with sweat and stamina. And even with this collective energy and bravado, the production remains committed to giving space to the smallest moments. When it could (quite literally) press down hard on the pedal and rocket the power up to the max, it chooses not to: instead, it is restrained and respectful. The performers (and, in the programme notes, Stan's Cafe themselves) know that this is not their story, so they tell it with due care and diligence.
Post-apocalyptic plays ask us to reflect on who we are and where we've been, in the light of where we might well end up going. Home of the Wriggler calls into question how our economy, as a nation and a culture, treats its workers: do we value loyalty, reward hard work and prioritise dignity and protection? Or do we cheapen efforts, endanger lives, and pursue cost effectiveness, ironically yet fatally at all cost? These are questions which only continue to grow, in a world split dangerously between rich and poor, secure and precarious, thriving and suffering: Stan's Cafe do a great job of highlighting how these problems are at our door. The future is what we make of it.
*This isn't Stan's Cafe's first work in this vein: in the late 90s, they recreated Impact Theatre's The Carrier Frequency from old video footage. The original show was a devised piece set in a post-nuclear world in which six figures perform an absurd ritual aimed at reviving a lost civilisation. So a show all about re-performing snatches of history became itself a performance based on re-performing snatches of history.