27 September 2019
The Guardian (p.26)

Artist tries to ‘jazz up’ issue as local region plans to regain public control of services

A roller-skating musical about bus regulation is to premiere in Greater Manchester as the region’s mayor moves towards taking buses back under public control.

Bus Regulation: The Musical is one artist’s attempt to “jazz up” the issue of bus ownership.

Described as “modern-day agitprop on roller-skates”, the performance uses the soundtrack from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express to tell the story of 60 years of bus ownership in Greater Manchester.

It is narrated by an actor playing Barbara Castle, the late Labour MP for Blackburn, a regular bus user who was mocked for not having a driving licence when she became the first ever female transport secretary in 1965.

Castle – portrayed by Summer Dean, a transport campaigner – will take audiences through the history of bus ownership in the UK since the second world war. That is when car mania took hold and successive petrol-headed ministers replaced tram and train lines with roads, and public transport was privatised, according to Ellie Harrison, who has created the show at Manchester Art Gallery along with the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign and the Association of British Commuters.

“The aim of the musical is to learn lessons from history,” said Harrison, a staunch opponent of transport privatisation who 10 years ago set up the Bring Back British Rail campaign group. She chose the medium of roller-skating and musical theatre because “this is often seen as a boring topic, so let’s jazz it up”.

She has commissioned eight skaters from Manchester Roller Sports to whizz around the art gallery at the premiere on Saturday. They will wear capes in the colours of 45 different bus liveries from years past and skate in various formations “to represent the various levels of coordination or chaos between bus companies over the decades”, she said.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has called for more control over local bus services and is expected to open a public consultation later this autumn on bus franchising.

A report commissioned by the major bus companies operating in Manchester claimed earlier this month that if Burnham brought the buses back under public operation it would cost every household in the region up to £68.10 each year.

Bus Regulation: The Musical is at Manchester Art Gallery this Saturday at 2pm. Tickets are free but need to be booked in advance.

Helen Pidd