Chips’n’Gravy: An Ode to the North

An unfortunate flirtation with glandular fever left me bedbound for most of the Christmas holidays, meaning this Easter is the first time I’ve really spent time in Manchester since moving down South. So, this latest blog is an ode to the North and all the things I’ve missed, through the lens of a library revision session (because it’s exam time and that’s the most exciting thing in my life right now).

Walking into the village to get the bus to town, I experienced a little wave of nostalgia for the North. I had a moment of appreciation for tap water that doesn’t smell of eggs and people who smile at you when you walk down the street. Then I saw a pair of abandoned knickers trodden into the pavement and remembered that Manchester has class, too.

Studying in London gives you a newfound appreciation for walking. Let’s face it, the tube is expensive as hell and sometimes public transport just takes you the long way round: who has time to go down to Leicester Square and back up again when Russell Square is a ten minute walk from Warren Street?

That said, I forgot how pricey buses are up here if you strike out and end up on a Stagecoach. I paid £2.70 for a single ticket to town last week and to make matters worse (if not also slightly more amusing) the bus driver had to stop two other buses just to get me change from a fiver. Even with the Wi-Fi and comfy seat, it wasn’t worth it.

When Central Library first reopened in 2014, all shiny and new after a multi-million pound refurbishment, I was studying for my AS Levels. As certain groups from school started to flock there each weekend for a spot of social revision, I abstained – mostly because I was in denial and still believed I could work at home. Two years later, home from uni and in need of a quiet desk in a pretty room adorned with inscriptions and a skylight (i.e. having withdrawal symptoms from the Scandinavian section of UCL’s library), I found myself racing GCSE students for the last seat. Oh, how times have changed. I actually started daydreaming about the (equally crammed) British Libraryat one point, clearly delirious.

Having found a space, I proceeded to procrastinate by people watching (after three hours, this becomes hugely preferable to reading about barbaric Russian Princes). Studying at Central Library is the quasi-academic equivalent to going to FactoryThursdays: there are too many familiar faces for it to be a comfortable experience, which leaves you wondering why you bothered going at all and the average age makes you question when you got so damn old.

Manchester may be a hub of creativity and diversity, but Central Library is not the place to go if you want to prove that point. The funny thing is that everyone dresses the same, following a formula of vintage jeans and patterned shirts to achieve the same brand of ‘different’. It’s a good look, and one that stays true to the Northern aesthetic of comfortable and cool, but in the microcosm of Central, it looked like a little army of clones leaving a Northern Quarter kilo sale.

Eventually, food beckoned, so I decided a library switch-up was also overdue. As it happens, most universities grant access to external students during the holidays, so I found myself heading a little further down Oxford Road and walking in the shoes of a University of Manchester student. Dare I say it’s a nicer place to work than UCL’s library? I always say, if I hadn’t grown up in Manchester, I would have come here for university and, if the library is anything to go by, it would have been pretty nice. I was hesitant to include that for fear of turning up tomorrow to a full library, so please, dear readers, don’t steal my seat.

Around 4pm, I admitted defeat (read: I’d done enough work to quench my revision guilt, but was also at the point of craving my sofa). As I headed back down Oxford Road (which I am forever confusing with Oxford Street – don’t judge me) I experienced a rare moment of Mancunian sunshine. Admittedly, it was followed five minutes later by rain, but we can’t expect too much, can we?

The longer I spend away, the more I realise that Manchester is the perfect city. Yes, life in the capital is fast-paced and exciting, but it’s also bloody exhausting. Manchester has the balance just right, plus that wonderfully sarcastic humour I’ve missed so much. London is lovely, but the North has more soul.

Chips’n’Gravy: Food, glorious(ly cheap) food!

It’s no secret that life in the capital comes at a high cost. The student loan may be higher here, but it certainly doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket.

When it comes to food, there are plenty of ways to make your money go further. I’m lucky enough to have catered accommodation (I say lucky, but let’s face it, they’re school dinners), so I only have to cook sporadically. In theory, this means I should make all my own lunches and all weekend meals. In reality, I cook when I can be bothered and buy meals a lot more than I should.

That said, my Italian heritage counts for something, because I’m more than happy to spend an hour in the kitchen indulging over lunch when I have time. Where some of my friends don’t even know how to chop an onion (you know who you are), my fridge is often choc-full of Tupperware. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to eat: one big dish, one load of washing up and three meals. The only downside is the repetition – chicken curry tastes great the first time, but three days later it’s so boring it may as well just be rice.

My neighbour is the king of Tesco’s reduced isle, and knows exactly what time of day to go for the best bargains. This is a great way to save money, especially if you have access to a freezer. If that isn’t the case (or your freezer breaks on a regular basis, like ours) you end up with dishes like this: a Brick Lane bagel (25p and worth more than every penny) topped with taramasalata, bacon and mushrooms. Surprisingly, that’s not so odd a combination in the context of university halls.

Eating out in the middle of the day doesn’t have to be expensive. You can justify spending £6 on a burger from the Farmers’ Market one day if you get curry for free the next. Food For All (a charity associated with Hare Krishna) distributes free curry and rice (and occasionally hot cross buns, if you’re lucky) every day just five minutes from UCL. It’s a 20-minute queue, but worth the wait if your stomach’s rumbling and your wallet’s empty.

Lazy Saturdays are best spent at Camden Market, a food-lover’s paradise. The vast mess of stalls offer some of the best street food in London, from flame-grilled jerk chicken wraps to Peruvian anticuchos. And for dessert, there are deep-fried Oreo doughnuts (by no means the most impressive culinary creation Camden has to offer, but they taste pretty damn good).

Even eating in restaurants can be surprisingly affordable. London has hundreds of restaurants where you can eat cheaply, including a whole host of pizza places. Franco Manca serve their pizzas up with sourdough bases while Pizza Union (see photo below) pride themselves on speedy service (and it’s incredibly cheap, even by Northern standards).

Last term, Byron Burger launched a new burger by giving them out for 25p each. It felt like daylight robbery, but a B-Rex never tasted so good! The beauty of being in London is that restaurants (especially chains) are always running giveaways and offers. Just recently, I got this beauty of a breakfast (main image) for free from Kua ‘Aina – for FREE.

The main difference with London universities is the lack of kebab shops. Say what you like about calories and carbs but I need chicken and chips after a night out (don’t judge me, I’m Northern). But that’s something that my area of central London just doesn’t have. Compared to Fallowfield’s quality offerings of Mega Chicken and Abdul’s, it’s disappointing at best. Unless the nightlife of Camden or Brixton beckons, we have to make do with whatever’s in the fridge (usually houmous and pitta). Chips’n’gravy? I wish!

Chips’n’Gravy: New Year, New London

Promises are made to be broken, so it naturally follows that New Year resolutions are too.

It took me five consecutive years of swearing never to bite my nails again to actually stop – hardly an effective method. It’s with a certain amount of trepidation, then, that I call the following a resolution, but this year I am committing myself to at least one activity a week that I can only do in London.

I have just six months left living in halls, and after that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to afford a W1 postcode again. So I’ve decided it’s time to make the most of being a student (with a disgraceful amount of free time) in the centre of the capital.

Until I moved here for university, I’d never even been to the British Museum. I’m a history student. Let that sink in. And to this day I’ve never strolled down Brick Lane or ambled up to Primrose Hill. I’ve never been on the London Eye or seen a West End show. I’ve never ticked all the tourist boxes that London has to offer.

The concept of being a tourist in your own city is an odd one, but for a university student it feels like a necessary rite of passage. The more I think about the idea of going to university, the more I realise how risky it is. You choose a new city to live in based on a website, a prospectus and a day trip – and that’s if you’re organised. Suddenly, you’re in unknown territory. So maybe being a tourist isn’t a bad thing. It’s a quick and fun way to explore a new city and also means that if someone pays you the compliment of asking for directions, you don’t feel like such a massive fraud.

Here’s what I’ve gotten up to so far…

The first stop on my list was a trip to the Saatchi Gallery to see its exhibition of all female artists, Champagne Life. It was a great exhibition, granted, but I always forget how small the Saatchi is. It would be a challenge to spend more than an hour perusing their displays, as interesting as they are – not a patch on The Whitworth in Manchester.

Killing two birds with one stone, I decided to rent a Boris bike and head to Hampstead Heath. Brisk weather and rosy cheeks ensued, but I survived cycling in central London, so that’s something. I can’t take complete credit for that, though – thanks go to Hannah Binney for being my tour guide/keeping me alive. Also, Hampstead Heath is really quite lovely. I’m almost ashamed to say that Platt Fields Park will never hold the same appeal again.

This one I have done before, but there’s so much to see (and eat) that I feel like a tourist every time I go. Camden markets are a great way to mooch away a Saturday and the food market is my favourite part – even Costco can’t top this place for free tasters.

While I would consider the Emirates Air Line a tourist attraction, for many it’s just their daily commute. And what a commute it must be given the stunning view of London it offers. I don’t often venture south of the river but this was worth the trip, if only to see the look on my brother’s face when he realised half way across that he is scared of heights.

A brief visit to Tower Bridge by night afforded an incredible view and several accidental photo-bombs (apologies to the families whose photos I crashed). It’s busier than you’d expect it to be so late.

The Natural History Museum is essentially a child’s playground; step inside the human biology section and you feel like you’ve gone back to primary school, albeit with a much more informative narrative of the birds and the bees than we ever got. The volcano section, complete with a moving Kobe Supermarket (earthquake simulator), reminded me of school trips to Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry with all its interactive elements. A fun way to spend an hour or two, but perhaps more suited to families than hungover students.

The V&A is fabulous for all sorts of reasons, but its café is one of the more unexpected. Not only is there a cake selection to rival Manchester’s finest, but the décor is equally likely to make you drool.

I’ll be sharing the rest of my London adventures on Twitter, so do follow me if you fancy seeing what I get up to (@DaphneDelilah). You can even tweet suggestions by using #ChipsnGravyLondon.

Chips’n’Gravy: Christmas in the Capital

Despite the temptation to hole up in bed and hibernate throughout the winter months, there are several milestones too fun to sleep through in the run-up to Christmas. But how does the Northern approach compare to London’s efforts?

Certain, commercial, differences are obvious. Whereas the North gets its lights switched on by Coronation Street actors, X Factor hopefuls and Lord Mayors, London settles for Kylie Minogue. Similarly, Northern cities focus their street decorations on city centres, but even London’s smaller backstreets have been adorned. Christmas in the capital is certainly bigger, but it isn’t all better.

Nothing beats Manchester’s German markets in drumming up that festive feeling. Bailey’s hot chocolate, strolling through the crowd (or mob, whichever way you look at it), catching alternate wafts of mulled wine and bratwurst. I’ve tailored my trip home to make sure I enjoy at least two evenings of Christmas Market action before they close for another year. This is where London falls short. In Manchester, a trip to the city centre invariably leads you to the festivities; how else do you get to the Arndale from Zara if not through the markets? And therein lies the secret to the success of the Northern markets – unlike their counterparts in London, no effort is required to visit them. They can’t be missed. Perhaps London is just too big and impersonal in that regard.

Instead, the metropolis proffers the overpriced and overrated Winter Wonderland: a hollow commercial crack at Christmas cheer. Call me a cynical student, but the cost of two rides could foot my weekly food bill.

Slightly more fulfilling is the ice-skating at Somerset House. Equally as busy but at least somewhat controlled, nothing says ‘Christmas’ better than falling on your bum in a spectacular (lack of) style, merrily blushing as your – somehow much more coordinated – friends look on. If only it were socially acceptable at 18 to use the polar bear and penguin props. Though, to be fair, I never got away with that in Manchester’s Spinningfields, so why should Somerset House be any different?

Situated a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road, a short walk from Euston and a skip, hop and a jump away from Oxford Street, my accommodation couldn’t be more ideal if it tried, especially for Christmas shopping. Black Friday (a student’s dream excuse to throw away their student loan) failed to be the animalistic mess depicted in the papers and was instead just a case of ‘nipping’ to the shops on a pleasant, if slightly drizzly, November evening. That said, any attempt to get down Oxford Street in December and you start to understand the stereotype that Londoners are impatient and short-tempered; why people feel the need to stop for a natter in the middle of a mob is beyond me. I may or may not have accidentally elbowed a small child in the face as his/her mother dragged them through Hamley’s mania…

Buying presents for friends is a thing of the past now we’re fending for ourselves. In its place is an overly enthusiastic penchant for Secret Santa – I’m currently in three. As it turns out, finding a thoughtful present in London for less than a fiver is trickier than it sounds, you very easily find yourself cheating and slipping into the £5-£10 bracket. A good ten minutes at least were spent pondering certain people’s reactions to a reduced Tesco finest cheeseboard – personally I’d have been chuffed with that. I can’t complain about what I did receive though. My gift from the Floor 5 Secret Santa hit the nail right on the head: The Great Northern Cookbook. A cookbook full of Northern treasures, written by Martin Platt from Corrie who now makes award-winning Northern cheese – does it get any better than that?

I’ve come to realise that it’s the small things that make you feel festive. Some students have advent calendars posted by parents, most arriving battered and somewhat bruised but, in any case, a home comfort and December staple. Christmas parties, all held at the same place (The Knights Templar – the poshest spoons in London), lent an air of drunken joviality. But even this doesn’t make it feel like Christmas. I didn’t feel that until I walked through the door at home and saw the wreath on the door, the tree all lit up and the annoying ornament playing Silent Night on repeat. London is great, but we do Christmas better up North.

MIF’s Alex Poots talks to Northern Soul

Last time I went to Blackfriars House, I was seven-years-old. It was the school holidays and I’d decided to spend it snooping around my mum’s office and chatting to Pot Noodle Dave. Oh, how things have changed.

The light and open offices of Manchester International Festival (MIF) are a far cry from the grey space my mum worked in, and Alex Poots – MIF’s outgoing chief executive and artistic director – is about as far as you can get from Pot Noodle Dave.

I’m here to chat to Poots about the evolution of MIF, a festival which was a mere twinkle in his eye when he first took the reins a decade ago. And that, in a nutshell, is what attracted him to it.

“I came up to Manchester to have a chat about the idea,” he says. “I remember I was just back in Euston Station and they phoned to say they’d offered me the job. I hadn’t actually applied for it. But I got really excited about what they were offering, which was mainly freedom. Yes, there was financial support, but seemingly no strings attached. Asking Manchester City Council for £2 million in exchange for zero control is almost Kafka-esque. But they saw the logic in it.”

Barely a year into working at the English National Opera, the prospect of starting something from scratch, diving head-first into the unknown, was a risk. But it was a risk that has paid off massively for Poots, and one he is about to take again. With four festivals in the bag, and one more this summer, MIF’s artistic director is jumping ship – or rather, stage – and heading to the Big Apple to work his magic on Culture Shed.

With his departure just around the corner, has he reflected at all on the past decade’s highlights? This question invites something of a knowing smile.

“Making shows is a bit like having kids. You become attached to all of them. You actually spend a year, sometimes three or four, building them with the artist – how could you not become attached? So I’m not really meant to have favourites, but there are a few that stand out.”

It’s obvious that, as Poots starts reeling off his list of highlights, that “a few” doesn’t quite cover it. From launching in 2007 with Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country and the triumphant Monkey: Journey to the West, to Steve Reich’s Kraftwerk storming the Velodrome in MIF09 and Elbow performing with the Hallé, the sheer quality and diversity of MIF events makes choosing favourites not just a question of loyalty but one of huge difficulty.

Towards the end of the list comes the inevitable “oh, how could I forget!” referencing a work that seems to typify the spirit of MIF. “Eleven Rooms was huge for us. That was at Manchester Art Gallery in MIF11. Each room had a performative piece behind a door. We worked with a whole host of visual artists for that.” Having gone on to tour the world, Eleven Rooms captured the idea that Peter Saville relayed to Poots ten years ago: “Manchester is the original modern city. What Manchester does today, every other city does tomorrow.”

“That,” says Poots, “is essentially what MIF is all about, and the focus on new work gave Manchester the reason it needed to launch a festival. If the reason you want a festival is because everyone else has one, that’s a bit lame. If you copy other cities, you’re always going to be second best, at best. But we’re the only ones in the world doing what we do.”

The issue of favourites comes up again when I ask who, of all the great artists Poots has worked with, was the most inspiring. “The problem is, if you single one out, you upset a whole bunch of people.” Okay, so choosing one person may not be the easiest task, but Poots will divulge is a word of wisdom from Steve McQueen: “The most important thing is to make something that should exist in the world.”

 

What’s often overlooked is the fact that each festival features only a relatively small number of events, bringing a greater significance to the phrase ‘quality over quantity’. This year, the festival will showcase just 18 performances, so it’s no surprise to hear that Poots abides by a mantra of ‘less is more’.

And this isn’t just applied to the length of the programme. The first MIF event I ever attended also features in Poots’s highlights. “Maxine Peake in The Masque of Anarchy was beautiful. It was so simple, but it was just haunting. The way Maxine handled that so effortlessly was very impressive.”

With that, a look of pride washes over his face, and it’s clear to see just how much he means it when he says “I’ve had a ball”. The question is, why leave now?

“I always said I’d stay for at least three or four festivals. To put all that energy into building something from scratch, you want to make sure it’s solid. You’re only ever as good as your last gig, but recently it’s felt like if an offer came up, the answer wouldn’t just be an outright ‘no’. So when Culture Shed came along, it felt exciting and I just thought, why not? Besides, it’s time for me to give someone else a chance.”

My next question requires ground rules: ’18 extraordinary days’, the cheat-sheet answer that adorns all of MIF’s advertising, is off limits. With that in mind, can Poots sum up the festival in just three little words? Surprisingly, yes. Mmm, I really should have anticipated this one.

“Manchester International Festival” was quite literally staring me in the face. Right – add that to the cheat-sheet and try again.

“Well that just got a lot harder. Innovative. High quality – we’ll pretend that’s one word. And artist-led.” Apparently, Poots is good at bending the rules. Which might just explain why he’s been so successful. Still, this isn’t something you would expect to go hand-in-hand with “high quality”. How do you bend the rules, break into unknown territory and still produce consistently brilliant works? Surely some rules aren’t made to be broken?

“There is a tension between making new work and quality,” says Poots. “The way we get around that is by only working with artists at the top of their game.” He’s keen to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean artists at their most famous. Kanye West, for example, who Poots says “it was great to catch [him] on the up”.

He adds: “The artists we work with are not only at their most curious – that would have been my fourth word – but in the full swing of their ability. By working with this calibre of artist to develop new ideas and by putting as much support behind them as we can, we’ve been able to minimise the risk.”

Have things gone wrong? Yes. But at MIF, if something’s wrong, the working premise is that it just needs more time to find what’s right. Take The Age of Starlight. The ultimate aim is to bring state-of-the-art technology to audiences, something so ‘extraordinary’ that it’s still being developed, alongside a commentary from Professor Brian Cox. Originally intended to premiere in full this summer, the event has been postponed until MIF17, and will be replaced in the current programme with a discussion involving its creators. It’s not an acceptance of failure – that wouldn’t be in the spirit of MIF – it’s simply the opening act.

Poots is the first to admit that MIF events may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the chance to create something that develops an art form makes it worth the risk. That, not making something everyone likes, is the “holy grail”. For a festival that prides itself on originality, pushing boundaries is paramount.

But what of the artists? “My first question, when I approach an artist is ‘what’s your dream project?’ Then me and my team of producers are with them the whole way, whether the show takes six months or four years to make. We try to give them the support they need and do what it takes to make that dream a reality.

“That’s why with Il Tempo del Postino, which had been trying to be born for about eight years in different places, I was able to say ‘sure, we’ll have a live bull on stage’, which of course you shouldn’t really have in the theatre – you know, because it could charge. And why we could do the Matthew Barney work. It was quite extreme, but it was definitely art.”

That brings me rather nicely to my final question – the kind of existential crisis you ponder in the shower. Poots talks a lot about ‘artists’ and ‘art’ itself, but what, to him, is art?

“I think it’s a combination of humankind’s unquashable desire to create and the need to respond to the big questions in their subconscious. Add to that an exceptional ability and that fuels a creative person to make art. In every generation, there are a few great artists and they can come from any walk of life. Martha Rosler put it so beautifully when she said that the future always flies in under the radar. Great artists, for me, know that and have the ability – sometimes, not all the time – to tune into that and discover something profoundly awesome.”

And that’s it. In his ten years with MIF, Alex Poots has worked with incredible artists, but he too has shown the ability to tune into ideas that, initially at least, may have sounded too ambitious or out-there and create something profoundly awesome. Whoever MIF announces as his successor certainly has some big shoes to fill.

Dystopian Fictions with Professor Steven Fielding

The last time I went to a talk at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, I was very nearly late – a consequence of my terrible sense of direction.

I tried to blame it on the dark and hint of snow, but that poor taxi driver knew I had no idea where I was sending him. The talk was on British Dystopias, the specialism of Professor Steven Fielding. Last week I had the chance to chat with Fielding about Orwell’s 1984Nigel Farage and all things dystopian.

Dystopia fiction seems like a niche area for the University of Nottingham’s Professor of Political History, and perhaps it is. By his own admission, Fielding found this particular interest almost by accident.

“I found there was evidence that how fiction depicts politics does influence how people think about politics,” he says. “I was very interested in why it was that people disliked politics and disengaged with it, why people have this impression that all politicians are a waste of time.”

According to Fielding, dystopias are borne out of the context in which they are produced, and project forward the fears of the author about what’s going on in the present day. I guess it makes sense, then, that a political historian would wish to engage with them.

And engage he has. Fielding’s new book, A State of Play, examines dystopian fictions from the past 100 years or so. “I was interested in the dystopias that depict things like elections, popular opinions of politics and voters, not the kind of ones that are set so far into the future that they almost become science fiction. I looked more at the dystopias about the day after tomorrow. Things are still recognisable, but society has moved in a different direction, and it’s a wrong direction.”

Surely there are certain themes that crop up time and time again?

“Naturally. There have been left-wing versions and right-wing versions. But the basic fear, the main theme in them all, is that democracy isn’t really democracy and is going to be used against the people.”

The themes may be similar, but the contexts certainly differ. “Richard Littlejohn looks at UKIP and political correctness in To Hell in a Handcart, whereas the film V for Vendetta examines a fear of Muslims. Anthony Burgess writes about how a socialist government under the thumb of trade unions would work, but then people have also looked at the influence of America and the capitalist system.”

A varied genre, then, but which dystopia has been the most successful in engaging a mass audience? It’s as this question is asked that George Orwell’s 1984 finally comes into the conversation. I’m surprised that it took so long for Fielding to get onto what he calls “a very special dystopia”.

That said, I can’t help but wonder why Orwell’s novel in particular had such success. Thankfully, Fielding can offer some explanation. His reasons are three-fold. Firstly, Orwell himself became a very significant figure, a feat that was only helped by the skill with which the story was crafted. The second reason is slightly less obvious.

“Orwell saw the emergence of the Cold War and two power blocks around America and the Soviet Union. So he was writing about that, but it was appropriated by the Right of politics in Britain and the United States to say ‘this is Orwell warning against socialism,’ which wasn’t actually his intention.” An interesting point, made all the more so by Fielding’s third reason. “1984 was unique in its mass appeal and the size of its audience – the fact that it was transatlantic, it was turned into a film and taken up by schools and book clubs and so on.”

Speaking of audiences and the writer’s intentions, how easy is it for dystopias to be misinterpreted? Apparently, not as easy as you’d think. “A lot of the time people will seek out works that confirm their own prejudices. I don’t think many people on the Left would have read Richard Littlejohn’s book, where the country is run by lesbians and Trotskyists. It was serialised by The Sun so I imagine people already on that wavelength would have read it.”

Ok, so that’s novels, but what about films – was it just 1984 that was taken out of context?

“No, 1984 wasn’t alone in that. The film adaptation of V for Vendetta was based on an illustrated novel from the 1980s, and while the film is about how right-wing governments are using Islamophobia to reinforce authoritarianism post-9/11, the original context was the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and nuclear weapons. Funnily enough, Alan Moore, who wrote the original, was very critical of the film.”

It’s clear that Fielding knows his stuff when it comes to dystopias. Having studied almost a century’s worth of dystopian fiction, he must have one work that stands out as the worst, the one he’d really hate if it ever came to fruition? His answer doesn’t disappoint.

“In 1984, there are the Proles and then the Party and the Inner Party. I’d always hoped that I’d somehow manage to be in the upper tier of society, the Inner Party of any dystopia. So, I suppose my worst dystopia would be one where that’s not the case. The one I’m thinking of isn’t British, it’s actually a Hollywood dystopia, but it was called Idiocracy. It projected about 500 years into the future, when all the stupid people had out-produced all the clever people, who always thought of reasons not to have children. You’ve got a wrestler who’s President of the United States, crops are being watered with Gatorade, and so everything is utterly ruined.”

So, if Fielding was to write his own dystopian fiction, based on today’s political situation, what would the man who’s read more dystopias than most, and therefore must be pretty critical of politics, include?

“It would essentially be a dystopia in which a Nigel Farage figure is running the country because people are all so anti-politics that they only elect politicians who run against convention and consensus. The point would be that, while in public he was seen as a politician of the people, behind closed doors he would be the most politically-motivated, evil-minded and unrepresentative of them all. He’d be a supercharged Farage – an amalgam of all of those types – a bit of Jeremy Clarkson, maybe. Britain would be like North Korea, but under UKIP. It would be completely destroyed.”

Speaking to Fielding opened my eyes to a whole range of fiction I’d somehow neglected. I doubt I’ll have time to read or watch everything he referred to so I asked him for a ‘Top Three’ to tide me over:

** Edge of Darkness 
A TV series from 1985, about privatisation, the nuclear power industry and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. There’s an American version with Mel Gibson, but that wasn’t so good.

** The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess
Written in the early 1960s, this novel looks at a Malthusian crisis: the population is too big, crops are dying off and the Government is trying to control how people reproduce. It’s kind of funny because obviously in the 1960s to be gay was deemed a bad thing, and public figures who were gay tried to hide it. But in this novel people are encouraged to be gay so that they don’t produce children. Burgess clearly didn’t think being gay was a good thing, but that wouldn’t actually be seen as a dystopia today. So it’s an interesting case of how public opinions change over time and, as such, dystopias change their character.

** 1984 by George Orwell
You couldn’t have a top three without this – it’s just so well done. There’s a reason why it’s the most referred-to dystopia.

If you want to find out more about dystopias, the work of Anthony Burgess or attend talks, visit The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. Tours of the archives are available about once a month.

Photo of The International Anthony Burgess Foundation by Kim May

Macy Gray at The Bridgewater Hall

She tried to walk away and she stumbled…

Put it down to my musical education (or lack thereof) as a child but before last night I’d never heard the name Macy Gray. So it was with trepidation that I was dragged along to her concert in Manchester, my Dad having given up his ticket due to a bout of man-flu. Call me cynical but I can’t help thinking that he had the good sense to look up reviews online beforehand and his immune system reacted accordingly. All I knew going in was what I’d found on a five-minute Spotify search. But somehow the cool, soulful singer with the raspy voice wasn’t the Macy I saw at the Bridgewater Hall.

An hour and a half in, having rushed our pre-concert eats to make it in time, we found Macy hadn’t made the same effort. All we’d been graced with was about four songs from an opening act whose name was a muffled, inaudible sound (we found out later it was Rothwell) and Boogie Wonderland on repeat. Hardly the best way to get an audience – depleted in numbers though it was – in the mood.

By the time Gray finally stumbled onto stage in a get-up I can only compare to Chandler’s Dad in Friends, the idea of deserting had already formed in the back of my mind. There was a sense that what we were watching wasn’t a performance we’d paid to see, but a dress rehearsal for which the main act had only half-bothered to turn up. Apparently, it takes ten minutes to swap feather boas – who knew?

We spent more time looking at the back of her head and listening to her drivel about how “We’ve come all the way from Los Angeles, California just to dance with you,” than actually listening to her sing. No artist is particularly great at the mid-concert chat with the audience, but her statement (which sounded oddly religious in its exclamation) that “Google says the women in Manchester have the best vaginas” was enough to get feet moving and doors swinging. After that, I got the impression from what little audience remained that no-one was really into it – apart from the couple in the balcony who were a little too into it.

I couldn’t help but see the whole charade as a little bit tragic. The 15-minute drum solo, as pleasant as it was, was not what we were there to hear. Nor was the karaoke-esque stream of covers, however fitting Radiohead’s Creep felt. I would, however, like to thank the woman in the third row for her (probably futile but nevertheless entertaining) attempts to get the rest of us up dancing. She was living proof of Gray’s own admission that “the more you drink, the better we sound”.

Cinderella: new work by Northern Ballet

I’ve seen Northern Ballet perform before. I’ve liked Northern Ballet before. I genuinely wanted this production to be a success. But somewhere in the space between pseudo-panto and epic, heart-wrenching, ‘how-do-they-do-that-with-their-bodies?!’ ballet, David Nixon’s pumpkin drove right into the abyss.

The Russian backdrop makes sense and lends the production – I’m hesitant to call it a ‘work’ – a certain vibrancy. It’s responsible for the most dynamic male dance deserving that title – after all, who doesn’t love a bit of cossack dancing? And let’s not forget the circus tricks and Blackpool-promenade magic – they’re always crowd-pleasers. As for Duncan Hayler’s set design, it’s clear to see that the costume department took the bulk of the £250,000 budget. It’s a shame, really, because certain moments were really rather pretty and I got the distinct feeling that what we saw on stage didn’t quite match up to what he probably envisioned. The ice-skating scene especially was reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker. With its frosty glow working in perfect harmony with the dancers gliding convincingly across the ‘ice’, I could envisage a winter wonderland in the middle of Manchester. It was one of the few heart-warming moments. For the most part, the set was a lot less self-indulgent than the choreography and a lot more flatpack-fairytale than I’d have liked – more rags than riches.

I only wish my own enthusiasm for this production matched that of the dancers on stage. Perhaps their over-zealous applause after every solo was over-compensating for their lack of oomph in the rest of the show? Of course, the dancers move beautifully and are technically exceptional, but their lack of unity and je ne sais quoi distracted from the overall impact of the choreography.

There were elements of Nixon’s work that showed real ingenuity – the kind of flair and creativity you’d expect from a choreographer of his calibre. A pair of fur coats leap into action as carriage-leading huskies and the stepsisters’ excited allegro injects a burst of energy into the opening act. Tobias Batley gave good Royal as Prince Mikhail, but it was in interacting with his friends when his real boyish charm shone through. And my, doesn’t he have a nice bum? I envied good ol’ Cinders in her duet with the Prince. Not because of his bum – lovely though it is – but because in that one dance the two shared such chemistry that I genuinely believed they were falling madly in love.

If the rest of the show had that level of emotion driving it, I wouldn’t have been left thinking that Nixon’s choreography had suffered a serious disservice. That said, I was impressed with Nixon’s refusal to shy away from the tricky transitions so many choreographers avoid; Cinderella blossomed from child to teen with all the grace and ease of dropping a pan – literally – and her transformation into the belle of the ball gleaned an audible gasp of awe from the audience. Unfortunately I almost missed it in the dull haze of the first 50 minutes. It took me until the end of act one to truly engage with the show.

There are a lot of things which are right about Cinderella, they’re just overshadowed by the things which are wrong. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so bitterly disappointed if I’d been expecting to see a beginners-guide-to-ballet, but for a company and choreographer so renowned in the realms of high quality British ballet, I couldn’t help but feel that Nixon’s fairy-tale just fell one jeté short. Is this a magical adaptation of Cinderella? Yes, but only for about five minutes.

Mark Bruce sinks his teeth into Dracula

Ask anyone for the first name of the choreographer and it’s pot luck whether they say “Christopher” or “Mark”. For the latter, dance runs in his blood but his father’s legacy has never cast a shadow over his work.

“I never really thought about having that above me – who my father is – because I was so obsessed with what I was doing.” He laughs understandingly at my fan-girl moment over his childhood spent touring with the Rambert dance company and reflects that “the whole heart of that culture – that fantastic time in the 70s at Rambert – is inside me”. So surely a career in dance was inevitable? Turns out, that was not the case. “I wanted to be a comic strip artist.” Right. Not quite the answer I was expecting.

And so, as I sit in a cold and echo-y classroom with Mark Bruce on the other end of the phone, I’m struck time and again by the fact that this man is not what you expect. He’s so much more than a choreographer, which is perhaps what makes his work so special. “Because I did lots of other things before dance – movies, music, visual arts – I’ve actually got something to choreograph about.” Asked about what inspires and motivates him, Bruce concludes that he “would never ever be able to choreograph the equivalent of what Jimi Hendrix could do on a guitar. That sets a benchmark for me”.

The question on my lips was, after a career spanning over 20 years, why stage Dracula now? “I read Dracula when I was about nine or ten and have always loved re-reading it, always come back to it. I thought about doing a version of Dracula – in some form or other – even before I thought about dance.” So what made now the time to give it a go? “Part of the reason I put off making it for so long was because you need a lot of ingredients to get it right and there’s no simple answer to how you do that.”

It’s clear to see that this production has been through a rigorous editing process – you don’t get a show sharper than Dracula’s teeth overnight. Whatever ingredients Bruce was holding out for were worth the wait.

This weekend, as Manchester was lit up with Diwali celebrations, I was exposed to the artistry that lurks in the shadows as I found myself at the Contact theatre in Manchester amid a crowd of creative-types and creatures of the night (this is part of the Manchester Gothic Festival, after all). I can’t help but feel a little smug that I’ve managed to bag myself the best seat in the house at a show for which tickets are so coveted you’d kill for them. *cue inward evil laugh*

I wait with baited breath as the chap next to me spies Braham Murray’s name in the programme and whispers something along the lines of “kiss of death”. As the lights go down and chills run down my back, I wonder if they’ve actually lowered the temperature in the room.

It’s clear from the first note that this isn’t the commercialised, cult-inducing image of vampires we’ve grown used to in modern films. Instead, this is a much more traditional vision of the illustrious Count and his cronies. The lighting is used simply and strikingly, the set is dark and eery, and the music is divine. Bruce confirms this: “I have a great respect for traditional methods of theatre.” And it’s a good job he does because it’s the simplicity of the production that stops Bruce’s biggest fear – “just making it stupid” – being realised. There are times, when the parallel staging errs dangerously close to over-complicated and the temporary lapses into jovial cheese-fest come close to school play territory, but the depth with which Bruce approaches this proves its salvation. As he very readily admits, “I have a very particular dramatic aesthetic.” Does he ever worry people won’t ‘get’ it? “If I ever feel like I’m getting too weird with my work or that people won’t understand it, I go back to David Lynch and watch his work and realise it doesn’t matter.” And it doesn’t.

This production is a dream – a beautiful nightmare if ever such a thing existed. It seems fitting then to label it a work of contrasts – a true gothic tale in its exploration of light and dark, innocence and evil, love and lust. From the first step, Jonathan Goddard as Dracula shines – and no, not in an Edward Cullen stepping into the light kind of way. It’s clear to see why Bruce chose him. “In the book, Dracula doesn’t really do anything – he disappears, he’s alluded to, he’s very still. But meeting Jonathan helped me realise, he’s a predator, a wolf, a bat, a nobleman – all these different things that have different types of movement.” It’s certainly true that with his wide, bloodshot eyes and lithe figure, Bruce’s Dracula is every inch the man for the job. As actors are taught to know their motive for every line, Goddard’s performance could be paused at any moment and perfectly portray his sultry story.

What makes it so easy to be seduced by Dracula is that it encompasses so many facets of the Count’s (super)natural instincts. The fast-paced and folksy complement the surprising bursts of comic relief which in turn contrast the dark and provocative. I find myself thinking that the Vampire Brides must have had a hoot in the studio practising their screams. All together now! The stunned silence at the end of each act before any single audience member managed to retrieve themselves from their trance-like state to applaud speaks volumes. Bruce wanted the audience to be “taken on a journey, even if they can’t define its resolution”, and that’s exactly what he’s achieved.

Its biggest pitfall? Too short a tour.

Young Theatre Reviewer 2017: Romeo & Juliet

I recently won Northern Soul and HOME‘s young theatre reviewer competition, and got the chance to review HOME’s production of Romeo & Juliet – enjoy!

Phwoar! Before we start this review, can I just take a moment to applaud the casting crew over at HOME for bringing us the sensational piece of eye-candy that is Alex Felton? Thank you.

So, Romeo & Juliet is ‘immersive’ in every sense of the word. But HOME’s first original offering was never going to shy away from the spotlight. With the somewhat surprising choice of location of Victoria Baths, this production was bound to stand out. The script may have been reshaped and revived many a time over the years but make no mistake, this show is breaking the mould.

Do the monumental roles weigh heavily on the shoulders of leads Felton and Sara Vickers? Not at all. In fact, Vickers says that realising the vision of German director Walter Meierjohann was “liberating”. Her biggest challenge? “Learning to let go.” With such an extraordinary setting, it’s not just the cast but the audience who are thrown in at the deep end – excuse the pun. This production feels like someone grabbing you by the shoulders, removing the rose-tinted glasses of productions past and forcing you to see Romeo & Juliet through a fresh pair of eyes: HOME’s eyes. Letting go is not an option but a necessity.

Felton remembers the first few shows as an evolution, a time when neither he nor the spectators were sure of this bold new direction – a tentative testing of the waters, if you will. He laughs: “It took a while to realise ‘this is ok.’” And yet the result of that evolution is such certainty in the creative vision of HOME and the cast that you can’t help but be consumed by the action.

From the offset, the hustle and bustle of the audience creates an atmosphere of anticipation as those lucky enough to have purple promenade wristbands are directed to their positions. Young girls ponder whether their heads would have bobbed above the water in years gone by, while others try to suss out the show – was that a door that just slammed? Are those an actor’s shoes I see?

Despite being steeped in the history of the Baths, Ti Green’s set design has an air of modernity about it. The juxtaposition of the Punch & Judy-esque changing rooms with a reflective sliver stage created an almost inexplicable sense of, well, kitsch. The choreography may have suggested otherwise but there was no conflict when it came to the set – Green pulled off a seamless transition from 16th century Verona to post-Communist Eastern Europe.

Where the Capulets lend themselves well to an almost Mafia-like unit, Mercutio seems to have raided the wardrobe of Keith Lemon, with fantastically frivolous consequences. Little black Calvins lend Romeo an edge, and who could help but love the debauched disco that evolved from the masquerade ball? Full of charm and dynamics, even the lighting of a cigarette is transformed into music. Sat, feet dangling into the pool, there are moments when you feel so involved that one small step could land you at the mercy of Tybalt’s knife, or plunge you into the depths of confession with the friar. What HOME has created is a complex web of tragedy embraced by what Felton sees as the “happy accidents” of Meierjohann’s directorial genius. How he stumbled across the idea to mess with one of Shakespeare’s most memorable love scenes – the one which has inspired countless spoofs (and who could forget the Taylor Swift song?) – is unknown. Would Shakespeare have been insulted by a twerking Mercutio and Romeo breaking into a verse of Crazy In Love? Possibly. But does it work? Definitely.

Vickers puts in an exceptional performance as Juliet, but if she could go back in time and ask the Bard himself how he managed to capture the essence of a 13-year-old girl so brilliantly, she would. As she put it, “I was a 13-year-old girl, you weren’t. How did you get it so bang on?”

Similarly, Felton gives Romeo a forlorn hipster-vibe that somehow works against the intensity of the story. And together they capture something which even Vickers recognises “cannot be played or forced”. They capture the idea of a ‘big love.’ So if it can’t be played or forced, how do you go about creating that? An infectious giggle is shared. “I showed Alex this quote about soul mates that said ‘I feel like I’ve known you my whole life and how can it be that we’ve only just met but you feel so familiar to me?’ I think that’s what we tried to get across.”

However, it’s not just the star-crossed lovers who shine here. Rachel Atkins does a fabulous turn as the nurse; her character possesses that distinctly old European comfort that reminds me so much of my Grandmother, and Griffin Stevens provides some comic relief as Peter – a perfect example of the Shakespearean fool.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few things to be ironed out – the seated audience had to crane their necks to see from above and while the concept of three separate locations was exciting, it did mean moving sometimes in the middle of a scene. However, these things are trivial and pale in comparison to the feat that HOME has managed. The last scene left me lost for words – and, trust me, that doesn’t happen often. But, I suppose that’s a good thing; if I had the words to do it justice in gushing, it really would ruin the surprise. At the end of the day, this is a production my Dad would hate (purely because he so often falls asleep in the theatre and in this he most definitely could not), but, in theatre terms, that is one huge compliment.