Nico in Manchester

The Nico Project
It’s said that on her first visit to Manchester, the German born singer Nico was astonished at how cheap the heroin was. As a consequence she decided to move north, spending four years of her life in the city.

She certainly blended into 1980s  Manchester with its bleak post-industrial landscape, gothic architecture and emerging music scene. She linked up with bands such as Joy Division, gigged at the Hacienda and socialised with Tony Wilson and his cohorts.

The heroin story may or may not be true but what is agreed is that she certainly took full advantage of the cheap heroin once she had arrived. Nico’s life is a confusion of fact and fiction, much of the fabrication devised by herself to create and perpetuate the image of a tortured soul.

With her enigmatic looks, the one time model, film star, composer and much else, Nico also boasted a love life that was said to include Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Alain Delon, Andy Warhol and numerous others. And of course there were the years with Velvet Underground.

Whatever your take on Nico she is certainly a fitting subject for theatrical exploration and for another collaboration between director Royal Exchange director Sarah Francom and actor Maxine Peake. Such was the anticipation that all tickets were sold out within hours of going on sale. But sadly this venture does not live up to expectations.

Maxine Peake appears as the tortured soul, unsure of herself and plagued by the demons that endure in her mind and all around her. Appropriately dressed in black, she screams out the lyrics of compositions she is working on, many of them from her seminal album The Marble Index. She energises herself for a performance but reveals little or nothing of who she is, where she is and why she is there. In way of narrative that’s just about it.

The stars of the show, which lasts barely 60 minutes, are the orchestra of 15 young women musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music. Their playing is simply stunning as well as haunting, made all the more melancholic by the acoustics of the superb Stoller Hall.

Dressed as Nazi girl guides, supposedly to reveal more of Nico’s childhood in war torn Germany, they accompany Nico as she works out the lyrics of her latest songs. Sadly it’s just a reference to her challenging childhood that is never really explored. There is also strong reference in the programme notes to the issues facing female music performers yet there is nothing in the production which explores this theme in any way.

In the end you come away feeling that something is missing and what is lacking is context and narrative. Where is the magic, the drama, the story? Sure, Francom and Peake are attempting to explore the bleakness of Nico rather than presenting some kind of biographical production but you still feel little empathy for her or emerge knowing anything more about Nico, her past loves, Velevet Underground, her Manchester years or even her music. But what you do leave with is the evocative sound created by the orchestra.

The Nico Project is at the Stoller Hall, Manchester until Sunday  July 21 , https://mif.co.uk/

S F Kelly

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