Liam Rudden: Compelling Jubilee is defiant but not Goode enough

Toyah Willcox as Queen Elizabeth I
Toyah Willcox as Queen Elizabeth I
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DEFIANT, determined and often just plain daft, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre’s take on Derek Jarman’s cult movie Jubilee is a must see, although not always for the right reasons.

In my youth, Jubilee resonated the way few others films had. It was dangerous, subversive and blisteringly aware. Such was the genius of Jarman.

The chance I would miss the press night of the first stage production therefore was always slight.

The story: When Elizabeth I demands her astrologer John Dee summon a spirit to reveal the future of her realm, the time-travelling Queen receives an unwelcome premonition of a lawless land devoid of God, where rage and violence are the common currency.

40 years after Jarman’s film rained on the parade of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee - albeit a year late - the Royal Exchange production affirms its message remains relevant.

Adapted from the original screenplay by Chris Goode, this Jubilee has been updated to embrace social media.

As the all seeing monarch watches from her throne, high in the dress circle, the world of the X Factor generation ‘who grew up and forgot to live their lives’ unfolds.

Rallying against the populist in a society where art has become an indulgence, the anarchists, queers and punks unite.

Enter Amyl Nitrate and her gang of bad girls, Bod, Crabs and Mad. Nihilists one and all.

Like the performances on stage, Goode’s production is a mixed bag, often self-indulgent although with a gorgeous sense of pantomime.

Channelling all the sass of Lana Pellay with a hint of David Walliams, Travis Alabanza’s outrageous Amyl Nitrate is a sardonic, world-weary creation.

Linking the original film with the stage show, Toyah Willcox makes an intensely regal Elizabeth I, while an engaging Temi Wilkey steps into the overalls of her original character, Mad.

Lucy Ellinson, doubling as the wonderfully flighty Ariel and performance artist Viv, brings a steady hand to proceedings, while Tom Ross-Williams and Craig Hamilton as brothers and lovers Angel and Sphinx spend much of their time naked.

Indeed, while nudity abounds, much is simply shock value over-played, but if there’s a whiff of earnest endeavour throughout, equally there are some truly wince-making moments.

‘As long as the music is loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart,’ says one character, as the mayhem unfolds. It’s an apt line as the script clunks along... cue a thumping EDM version of Jerusalem and Amyl Nitrate’s unashamedly camp Rule Britannia. Both highlights.

The music doesn’t stop there, as the production spills into out and out parody as songsheets drop from the circle and Elizabeth I belts out I Want To Be Free.

A hit for Toyah in 1981, it brings the house down. A bizarrely populist ending to a strangely compelling yet flawed production.

Jubilee runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 18 November

@LiamRudden