AATMA, Manchester; Tuesday 28th September, 2021
Manchester, the 1980s. In the living room of a flat above a chip shop, Mark (Jonathan Mitchell) and Ange (Abbey Hayes) are watching Coronation Street. These two are so “Manchester in the 1980s” that they seem to be more than just viewers of Coronation Street – they look as if they might be characters straight out of it.
They’re an odd pairing. It takes a short while to figure out that they’re not just some bickering husband-and-wife-unit moaning about fresh milk and who’s going to go out and get it – they seem to be just good mates, housemates. Queer housemates.
A man and a woman, sharing a flat – perhaps that’s how it had to be back in those days, made them fit in more? Perhaps it was a case of presenting one thing to the outside world, but then do as you please indoors?
On stage there is something strangely reassuring about the grim, mundane living room of that chip-shop flat. The TV in the background has the BBC news on, there seems to be the unmistakable voice of Delia teaching how to cook, and possibly even Tomorrow’s World presenting the latest marvels of then-modern technology.
The confines of the living room are somewhat claustrophobic, yet that also makes it seem quite homely and comforting, it looks like a good nest. Mark can’t quite stretch out fully on that living room sofa, it looks and feels constricted; maybe they both faced an ever greater constriction – in lifestyle and existence.
In a four-TV-channel, internet-less world, everything feels much slower-paced, so much less daunting. Mark and Ange may not have had the most glamorous of lifestyles, but theirs looked to be anchored to a solid baseline, theirs was a point from which not much could get worse. Could it?
Sour Milk starts as a formulaic, Northern kitchen-sink style comedy. Conversations centre on who’s making the tea, what’s on the TV, what biscuits do we have, and why have we not got any milk, again? And of course the most important question: who have you been shagging?
The manner in which the character of Mark summons up bravado in the face of what was then the burgeoning AIDS epidemic is fascinating. Mark seems to think he’s above it, seems to think he can easily defy it, it won’t happen to me, he confidently asserts.
It’s fascinating to see his reasoning being fuelled by nothing more than willpower and over-confidence – it so closely mirrors a lot of what we more prominently and publicly see today with Covid denial.
In hindsight the storyline of Sour Milk progresses at an astonishing rate. To go from living-room banter to an extraordinary and unexpected conclusion in less than an hour is an impressive achievement. It works because, despite the short timescale, both characters are successfully built up to a point where the audience can and does know them well enough to genuinely feel what’s happening.
Sour Milk is the debut performance from Red Brick Theatre and continues the growing line of recent, Manchester-based theatrical performances centred on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. This one goes a little bit deeper though, ultimately digging in much in harder thanks to two fantastic acting performances that deliver a shocking and superbly well-engineered finale.