We Cut Through Dust review – mixed messages from post-apocalyptic Manchester

With its commitment to world premieres, Manchester international festival could easily seem detached from the city. Invite too many glitzy global names to collaborate on esoteric projects and you could appear remote. To avoid that trap, even as it fields its John Grants and its Alison Goldfrapps, the festival is always careful to keep tabs on Manchester itself.

That is why, for example, Angélique Kidjo is joined by local musicians at her gig on Tuesday, why Bolton-born Maxine Peake is a regular (she appears this week in They), and why the festival has repeatedly worked with Manchester Street Poem.

This art collective dedicated to the city’s marginalised voices has joined forces this year with Brighton’s Blast Theory on We Cut Through Dust, a collaboratively written story set in the aftermath of some apocalyptic fire. There are 14 contributors credited as authors of the audio piece, which is primarily told in a series of voice messages left by a world-weary man called Patrick.

In rich, sonorous tones, he recalls wild parties, a volatile affair with a lover called Jim and his affection for his trusty dog Harrison. While his memories of old attachments linger, the world grows isolated and lonely. Meanwhile something sinister lurks beyond the city’s perimeter in a mysterious exclusion zone.

So much for the content, where We Cut Through Dust falters is in the form. You gather in groups at allotted times and make a call to get directions to the first of three locations where, in front of a neon sign, you hear the story over the phone. Part of the problem is the technology – my small group was never in sync – but there are two bigger questions.

The first is why you need to be in a group to listen to a script experienced individually; the presence of others only distracts from the inner monologue. The second, more weighty, is why you need to stand for lengthy periods by a canal basin or beneath a railway arch to hear it. The story makes vague references to each location, but nothing transformative. The result is promenade theatre without much of a promenade and too little sense of seeing the city through fresh eyes.

• At Manchester international festival, until 16 July.