Julia Pascal

A Manchester Girlhood.

Blackpool’s Old Electric Theatre

Manchester’s Jewish Museum

Burgh House, Hampstead, Camden, London

JW3, Camden, London

April-May 2023

Pascal Theatre Company’s spring mini-tour to Blackpool and Manchester was highly successful. A Manchester Girlhood is the story of three Manchester Jewish sisters, daughters of Romanian parents and their journey from childhood to death. Our northern premiere of A Manchester Girlhood was at the Old Electric Theatre in Springfield Road, Blackpool. It was April and out of season but the sun was unusually strong.  Although the production had been staged in 2019 as Three Sisters, produced by Rosemary Hill’s company The Play’s The Thing, the text was edited and the production was different. Of the original five performers, three were new.  Taking the roles of the three sisters, Pearl, Edith and Isabel were Amanda Maud, Giselle Wolf and Lesley Lightfoot. Their parents Esther and Emanuel were played by Rosie Yadid and Eoin O’Dubhghaill. Eoin also played several male roles.  This production was far more musical than the first owing to the extraordinary singing skills of the company.

In Blackpool, the theatre, a former cinema, is run with great flair by Melanie Whitehead who certainly knows how to welcome her incoming companies. A post-performance Q&A session helped connect audience and performers as we shared the process of how the play had come about and why its northern premiere was Blackpool. (The answer is that I grew up in Blackpool.) Most of the cast had never visited the town and they were enchanted by its particularity and its rich entertainment history. Some of the cast went to a drag club to get a feel for the town’s culture. Even out of season, Blackpool was an experience that they won’t forget.

Next stop was Manchester. Within the Jewish Museum’s unusual playing space- it is a former synagogue-  the cast had two hours to rethink every move they had embodied at the Old Electric Theatre. In Blackpool the audience faced the performers. Here audience was on two sides and the ‘stage’ was a ribbon of a floor space which meant that certainly there was length but almost no width. The actors really were in the spectators’ faces. This proximity proved a bonus as audience laughed in recognition at the Manchester Jewish life reflected back to them.  For me presenting A Manchester Girlhood here was extremely personal. This Museum was a place that my aunt Edith Newman had been involved in creating and the play featured her as her younger self Edith Jacobs.  As I walked up the Cheetham Hill Road to the Museum, I realised that I was bringing Edith back home. 

But before the sold-out Sunday performance, I gave a morning textile workshop.  This was not me ‘teaching textiles’ but my way of using fabric as a creative stimulus.  I had already delivered a first textile workshop remotely in March. In Manchester, we were face to face. The women arrived with their artwork.  These were the original nursery teddies and dolls either as actual objects or visual portrayals of them. All the women brought a sense of loss at the neglect of their childhood and adolescent creativity. One remembered the hurt she felt as a child when a parent threw a doll away or trashed a teddy.  Another spoke of how her husband tells her to throw away her crochet needles and threads with the dismissive ‘all that is rubbish’.  There were stories of cruelty, there was sobbing, there was defiance. The child-artist had been crushed.  But the solidarity of us being together discussing, listening and reflecting provoked a positive creative anger. The women said that now they are ready to take pencils, paints, needles, wools, bobbins, paper and card to make something new. There was an air of rebellion against parents and husbands who had tried, and is some case still try, to crush the-female-artist.  These women did not want to be seen merely as grandmothers, mothers and wives. They knew that it was their time to take space for their own imagination and it was within this group that they knew they had found a truly supportive artistic family.

A Manchester Girlhood’s final showing was in London. We presented it in the tiny Burgh House Music Room where the audience was nose to nose with the cast.  In the after-show Q&A session, audience members spoke of being thrilled by the proximity to the actors who used every inch of floor and wall space to advantage. 

Our final three performances were at JW3 in London. Although this is a Jewish Community Centre, the play attracted audiences of all backgrounds. This was the first time that the production had a lighting design. The Hall is not a natural theatre but more of a venue designed for talks. Again the cast had to reconfigure their performances to make the audience feel an intimate connection.  The houses were very good and the staff at JW3 were appreciative of the level of theatre we brought to the building. We managed to sound record and film the production.   This means that the work is now available to those who could not see it live.

A poignant postscript to the work was a handwritten letter from a man who describes himself as ‘the only child of an unmarried single mother’ who wrote that the play ‘had a special significance for me. I was brought up at the end of the war in a small coastal Dorset town by my mother and my grandmother’. He goes on to explain that his father was ‘an American GI who disappeared around D-Day in the summer of 1944. He was never spoken of. He did not exist. Your production brought all this back.’ 

Read more about A Manchester: A Manchester Girlhood – Julia Pascal PLAYWRIGHT, DIRECTOR, JOURNALIST