When 1980s Manchester resident Nico released her second solo album, she discarded her image as a beautiful model operating in the world of pop (albeit the warped pop of the Velvet Underground) to create something dark, austere and poetic. Released in 1968, The Marble Index was an unsettling collision of modernist classical orchestration, doomy vocals and the discordant throb of a harmonium. “I suspect that if you’re ever in the perfect mood to play The Marble Index, then it’s probably the last thing you should be playing,” said Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian.
If you’re going to pay tribute to an experimental album, there’s a logic in putting on an experimental show. Commissioned by the Manchester international festival, actor Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom have assembled an all-female company, including an orchestra from the Royal Northern College of Music dressed in the tunics and neckerchiefs of the Hitler youth, to evoke something of the singer’s troubled worldview. Unfortunately, in the case of EV Crowe’s script, “experimental” means never getting to the end of a sentence and never declaring your purpose.
Peake could be compelling reading the phone book, and her performance as a woman seemingly possessed by the ghost of Nico is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. With heavy eyeliner and long fringe, she talks cryptically about searching for a person, a feeling, the truth (it’s hard to say for sure), switching from her own voice to the singer’s deep Germanic slur and back again. There’s no doubting the atmosphere of nightmarish desperation, but it’d help to know who she was and why she was taking on Nico’s demons.
The uncertainty is doubly frustrating because, when the music kicks in, it can be tremendous. Anna Clyne’s arrangements of songs such as Frozen Warnings and Evening of Light have a scary intensity, all troubling double bass, fidgety violins and strident kettle drums, made edgier still by the terror-stricken look of the players as they scatter about the stage.
It ends with Peake alone in the gloom singing an a cappella Nibelungen, but, however bleak and forlorn, its impact is diminished by the lack of context.
• The Nico Project is at The Stoller Hall, Manchester, until 21 July.