HAT – World Premiere

Review: Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax 21.11.01

23 November 2001 – Guardian ***

Knitting is man’s work – at least it was in South Yorkshire in the 1950s, when it was not unusual to see men working dexterously with their needles on the way to the mill. To celebrate this lost world, and make a new case for knitting as a performance art, Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley, has stitched together four interlocking yarns about interlocking yarn. He performs these with a little help from a strange assortment of friends.

This is a crossover project that draws together personnel from the worlds of rock, poetry, classical music and avant-garde jazz. McMillan’s words are accompanied by a tapestry of sound generated by the cornet player and electronics wizard Andy Diagram (from James), viola player Angie Harrison (from the Hallé Orchestra) and the jazz guitar improviser Billy Jenkins (who comes from his own planet entirely).

Jenkins is primarily responsible for the strange mutations of the score, which lurches capriciously from his own Howling-Wolf-on-steroids stylisms to Diagram’s digitally treated trumpet. Harrison mediates with the mellow tones of her viola, though every so often she puts her instrument aside and picks up her knitting. The idea is that while McMillan completes his surreal extemporisations on great pieces of knitwear – such as the mythical output of One-Handed Alice – each member of the ensemble produces their own woolly hat. Harrison, who claims to have knitted in all the great concert venues of the world, comes up with a very creditable beanie. Jenkins, whose knitting turns out to be as free-form as his guitar improvisations, produces spaghetti.

It’s good fun, but it never really gets beyond its own kookiness. There are brilliant flashes of individual inspiration, but guitar, viola, sampled brass and a South Yorkshire raconteur hardly make for a stable sonic combination. But for sheer originality you have to take your hat off to them. Try and catch the final performance of this uncompromising one-off.

© Alfred Hickling

HAT: a performance of words, music and knitting…

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