Friday, 31 January 2014

Away From Home, re:play festival 2014

This relentlessly energetic one-man play is less My Beautiful Launderette meets the Premier League, more Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads on speed.

The subject is homosexuality and football, a topic dramatised by Kyle (Rob Ward) who leads a peculiar but normalised life as an out-of-the-closet football devotee and secret gay sex worker. When a famous opponent player turns out to be a new client, Kyle’s carefully controlled life begins to tilt out of his control.

Theatre on social ‘issues’ is too often toe-curlingly earnest but Ward carries Away From Home with enormous presence, Scouse charm, unapologetic language and a dose of well-observed humour. Don’t let the ‘one man’ performance fool you, the stage is peopled with secondary characters that are brought to life only through Ward’s dynamic telling.

If the script is occasionally a little baggy it doesn’t hamper the performance and there are genuinely exhilarating moments. When Kyle sees his lover in a nightclub draped over an attractive would-be WAG he drunkenly hurls a well-known chant from the stands in his direction, now riddled with convoluted meaning: Who are ya? Who are ya? It’s a terrific moment and should have been the title of the play.

Ward misses neither a beat nor a line, devouring the set as he relays his unlikely tale to an unseen lover and by proxy to us.

No spoilers, but as in life there are no neat resolutions, and still no footballers out of the closet. Let’s hope when the real thing happens there’s a lot less drama.

There are two performances tomorrow,Saturday 1st of February, tickets here.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

All Our Friends Are Dead, re:play festival 2014

At this year’s re:play festival, comedy pair Katie Norris and Sinead Parker continue their occasionally macabre and wilfully tasteless sketch ‘n’ song showcase ‘All Our Friends Are Dead’, as seen at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere. Political correctness is ditched (seriously, nothing and nobody is out of bounds) in favour of jaw-dropping ‘you can’t say that’ moments driven by the twosome’s strong character-based comedy – think Little Britain rather than Mel and Sue.

Amongst audience favourites are corrupt versions of Disney songs, less ‘bastardised’ and more ‘made orphans of’. For instance, contrived individualism (‘I’m reading Sylvia Plath actually, but in Japanese…’) and gimmicky personality add-ons (‘Can I have a latte, and can you write my name in the foam please…’) are hilariously pulled apart in ‘Everybody Wants To Be  A Twat’. I’m still singing it now.

At this point Norris and Parker’s formidable performance skills are a small step ahead of their writing but the pace is so rollicking and the material so broad that if you don’t like one sketch there’s another one just around the corner with your name on it.

I am personally recovering from exposure to the funny/bleak persona of Brian, with his carton of juice, urine-stained trousers, and tiny wife in the attic with nothing but a hotline to Domino’s and a rocking chair to keep her company. Until now… Single to Royston Vasey please…

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

‘Please sign and share’: Is it possible to sign a petition every day…?

Log onto Facebook and Twitter in the morning and one of the first things you’ll usually see is a request to sign a petition. Amnesty, All Out, Avaaz ... Homophobia in the Olympics, a venue threatening to close, ‘Margaret Thatcher Day’: the Internet wants your signature (well, your name and your fake address anyway...).

Some fear that internet activism is replacing the real thing. Just as likely is that it's facilitating nation-wide mobilisations too. Either way, this is the age of the petition and it’s time to get seriously involved. So, from tomorrow onwards I'm going to seriously consider every petition I come across (even more so than usual...) then I'll sign it if I agree strongly enough and Tweet it with this hashtag:


Let’s see how it long lasts. Please sign and share.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Re:play Festival 2014

The seventh (already!) re:play festival returns with gusto to The Lowry. The festival’s remit is to showcase a retrospective of the best new/fringe/cutting-edge theatre from the previous twelve months across the region. Variety is the festival’s strong point – this year’s output of fresh stage material deals with a range of issues including asylum seekers, social media dependence and homosexuality in sport, as well as staging bold new sketch comedy and an Anthony Burgess adaptation.

All Our Friends Are Dead stars comedy duo Katie Norris and Sinead Parker, riding high from an Edinburgh Fringe success with their troubling comedy sketch pieces. I last saw Katie in a wonderful turn as Olivia for a very accomplished production of Twelfth Night at the Manchester School of Theatre. I asked Katie: What’s harder, comedy or 'serious' drama?

Comedy and tragedy often merge and doing either of them well is a challenge, but there's nothing more rewarding and immediate than making an audience laugh.

Do you worry that having your comedy described as ‘dark’ might frighten people away, or do audiences have a real taste for the macabre these days?

A lot of our favourite comedy is dark, but we also strongly believe our show has something for everyone. Sometimes it is dark and a little sinister, but our main inspirations are like that, such as League of Gentlemen and Julia Davis. Most people naturally find humour in dark places because it's a coping mechanism, and that's why we do it too, it’s like therapy!

Which of the other shows at this year’s re:play are you interested in seeing/would you recommend?

We’re looking forward to seeing Away From Home. We heard such fantastic things from its run at 24/7 over the summer!

Re:play is running right now, check their website here.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #27 Okey

‘I probably imagined myself discussing dense philosophical texts over crepes or something…’

What’s your name?


What do you do?

I work for Carcanet Press, which is a small poetry publisher based in the centre of Manchester. It’s a lovely place to work and I’m very fortunate to have encountered so many fascinating people and so much writing I really admire, while also wearing skinny jeans and ‘chunky knits’ to work.

The road to my current job was actually pretty straightforward in some ways, but also long and windy. When I was seventeen I saw an advert for a reading by Togara Muzanenhamo, one of Carcanet’s poets, at the Central Library. I was just starting to get into poetry, and I think I’d just read somewhere that attending cultural events alone makes you seem mysterious, so I decided to go, and I actually really enjoyed it. It also occurred to me how cool it would be to do that as a job. My concept of ‘cool’ is still very much a work in progress.

A couple of years later, when I was home from university one holiday, I asked if I could do some work experience with them, which I did and also loved. I came back again one summer to do some office work for them (less fun, but paid this time) but then I later decided I might want to be a lawyer. After graduation I did admin work in a Manchester law firm while I started my novel and interned at other law firms. Just when I was deciding that law might not be right for me after all, a job came up with Carcanet, which I was lucky enough to get.

I also do a little bit of freelance writing on the side (poetry, drama, reviews) and I’m (still) working on the inexorable post-English degree novel. I should be free of it any day now.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

My parents came to the UK from Nigeria in the 1980s as part of the Brain Drain. We went back to Nigeria a few times for holidays but we always lived in the UK. I was actually born in Withington and raised largely around the Greater Manchester area, but we moved according to wherever my dad was working at the time. So I suppose you could say I grew up in various different places including Bolton and Heaton Mersey, and we lived in Wales for a short time. We eventually settled on Stockport. I didn’t mind moving – it was probably easier because I have siblings – and in fact I think this might explain why I don’t have a regional accent…

I went to university in Cambridge, a very small city, and my college, Girton, was about five kilometres from the city centre. As much as I loved it there, I think it made me appreciate how nice it is to live in a city where the buses continue after 6pm. I also remember one of my friends complaining that Cambridge isn’t really a place where, as an undergraduate, you can just go somewhere and not be a student: it’s too insular, you can’t help bumping into people you know. I don’t think the same can be true of Manchester.

I came back to Manchester because I thought it would be easier to find work but also because I was curious about the city. I’d never really lived in Manchester itself, at least never for very long. Now I think I’d like to live in London for a while, just at some point in the future, not just yet, I’d like to live abroad first.

What’s great about this city?

The history, I think, is my favourite thing – and how open that history is to the public; how public that history is, as well as all the nooks and crannies. One of my favourite periods of literature (and art, which I know less about) is the Victorian era: I did a special paper on it at university in my final year, and so when I came back to Manchester I started thinking more about Elizabeth Gaskell and going to see Valette’s paintings in the City Art Gallery. Towards the end of my degree, when I knew I was leaving Cambridge for good, whenever I was coming home from the city centre I would alter my route slightly so that I got to cycle across King’s Parade, past King’s College and the beautiful old lampposts under the moon. Especially when nobody else was out, it really did feel like going back in time – or rather, like being somewhere that, in some ways, hasn’t dramatically changed in a long time. As though anything (or anything historically consistent) could happen. I feel the same way walking across Albert Square at night.

But then, the interesting bits of the city’s history continue so much further back - and so much later. Last year I did some writing on Alan Turing, which was really, really fascinating – as part of my research I spoke to someone who went running with him when he was alive. That was really wonderful.

What’s not so great?

I could roll off a pretty long list, simply because I’ve lived in Manchester for so long. But I suppose my absolute least favourite thing is true of any city but here it is: that, despite the fact that some parts of Manchester are very diverse, it’s not entirely comfortable with its diversity. I remember how sad and surprised I was when, coming back from university with a shiny new degree, I realised that security guards still follow me round shops to see what I would do.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

This is probably controversial. I’ve told this to a few people and have been roundly judged: the building which was on the site of the new KPMG building in St Peter’s Square [Elisabeth House]. I fully acknowledge that, especially in the increasingly economically tough years before it was demolished, it was becoming emptier and emptier, and looking more and more unloved. But I’ve always loved it and I was so sad when I realised it was being replaced. I’m not sure why, exactly. I think it was probably because, when I was much younger, I heard very cool sixth-formers talk about how much they loved the Dutch Pancake House the building used to house; and, being very impressionable, I began to see it as the epitome of some kind of run-down urban romance. Ridiculous as it sounds, I really thought it was unspeakably, breathlessly romantic. I probably imagined myself discussing dense philosophical texts over crepes or something…

But, since that building no longer exists… I think I’d have to say Central Library, as it was before the renovations, anyway. I’ve no idea what it will look like when it reopens but I really, really loved it before and even from the outside it’s just beautiful. I remember going on school trips to the Library Theatre; being a teenager and taking the bus to the library and feeling very grown up finding a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in the Black History Month display, borrowing it and racing through it, feeling for the first time (I read Adichie before I read Achebe, the more famous Igbo writer) what it’s like to read something by someone who comes from a very similar background to your own.

I remember reading about the Henry Watson Music Library (top floor of the central library) in An Equal Music by Vikram Seth and being so excited that it existed – and then borrowing two or three times the number of pieces I was ever going to practise just because I could. I think I probably imagined myself into his novel - in fact I probably half expected to bump into a dashing violinist between the stacks but even if I did, I would have been at my least captivating: wild-eyed and clammy with delight, clutching Quantz’s treatise on flute-playing, two or three recorder pieces by obscure German Baroque composers and the PVG scores to some truly embarrassing pop music which I will take with me to my grave [Our readers need to know!].

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

A tough question but I think… I’d have to say Alan Turing. He wasn’t born in Manchester and in fact he lived in Wilmslow, but he worked at the University of Manchester after the war and socialised in the city centre (to the extent that Turing really ‘socialised’ at all).

He’s becoming more and more widely admired and accepted, which is good: even aside from his code-breaking work, I find him absolutely fascinating. I think it’s well known that some people found him an odd man to work with (he could be quite socially awkward), but then in my research I also found out what a deeply passionate person he was, how fixated he was on the relationship between a machine and a human mind. I read that when he was at school, his best friend, a boy he really hero-worshipped died very young: it’s thought that, for the rest of his life, Turing carried with him the idea – perhaps the hope – that something of his friend, some part of this boy’s essence remained on earth, and that it might be encountered again. This could well be the germ of his fascination with what we now call artificial intelligence. I don’t know that I ‘admire’ Turing for this, because you can’t really admire someone for something they didn’t choose – in fact it seems like he was haunted, perhaps even dogged by it. I read he was quite introspective and intense: once he’d fallen in love with someone he idolised at such a young age, and who then died young, I don’t think he stood a chance against the way he felt. But I do find it fascinating: the fact that he could work so steadily, that he persevered in something so jugular-close to himself, and that it might well have been love (although sadly a kind of stunted love, maybe not even real love at all, after all those years) that could drive his creativity so forcefully, I think is a really interesting notion.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

These aren’t very original, really. There’s the John Rylands Library, especially the reading room. I love the Cathedral and I want to go and see more evensongs and concerts there. I love Platt Fields Park. I don’t really go clubbing all that much but pretty much anywhere I’m unlikely to get stabbed will do me.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

It would be nice to live in a city that really doesn’t sleep. To be able to get the train or the tram or the bus or a doughnut at literally any hour of day or night would be something. But that’s just a small thing, and I don’t think Manchester’s missing all that much, to be honest. I quite like it the way it is, but I’ll be happy to move elsewhere when I feel like it’s time.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Make it a law for people to talk to strangers more! I’m chronically shy myself but whenever I go to London I notice how much friendlier and forthcoming people are up North; last time my friend visited from London, a stranger said two words to her on public transport and she almost had a stroke. But – and this could be my imagination – I think as time passes, strangers seem to talk to each other less, here. (My friends tell me Liverpool is way ahead of us in that respect.) I think it’s a really good thing we’ve got, this degree of openness, I’d like more of it. Manchester should be less… British.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

Alan Garner. I loved his novel Elidor when I was at school, the way it’s set in Manchester but encompasses the surrounding countryside.

Okey reads some of his poetry at The Poetry Society, London, this evening (Saturday 25th January).

Friday, 24 January 2014

All new everything

You know The Circus Tavern, that teeny tiny pub on Portland Street? I don’t think I’ve ever been in there. I’ve definitely never eaten in The Rose Garden, which is a few hundred metres from my front door. Three quarters of Chinatown is a mystery to me. I’ve never been to Urmston Books or Cloud 23 or Trove in Levenshulme. It’s ridiculous. So, 2014 is all about things new (to me).

First stop, Lucha Libre at Great Northern Warehouse. We’d been to the Liverpool original and the one in Manchester proves equally fun, the veggie street food medley is such a top dish and there are too many tempting sides to go with. Drink a Michelada made of beer, lime, tabasco and sangrita all mixed up.

Obviously with the ‘all new’ policy some cheating has to happen. We head to Manchester Art Gallery to see the Jeremy Deller and Grayson Perry exhibitions. Venue, not new; content, new! Both are concerned with class and class mobility, the former curates various artefacts to chart threads of British working class culture from the Industrial Revolution on, the latter is a now-famous sequence of huge, gawdy and incredibly detailed tapestries that re-tell The Rake’s Progress with contemporary characters and multiple other allusions. The Deller is patchy, I think all his output is really, and oil paintings of the smelting process can’t compete with Brian Ferry’s family tree. The photograph of wrestler Adrian Street that advertises the exhibition had reached its zenith as the cover of Black Box Recorder’s England Made Me album (1998), which covers roughly the same territory as the Deller, only better.

Experienced with the Grayson Perry though, a good long think about the class system and its cultural ephemera is prompted. This dovetails nicely with the Alan Bennett passage I have just read regarding the word ‘common’ (his mother’s favoured put-down), the meaning of which I recognise immediately as both ‘something that everybody does and is therefore the lowest common denominator’, and conversely, ‘something that is not the done thing.’ Class. It’s complicated. I should know. I have working class parents, two degrees, no mortgage, no savings, no driving license and I was retweeted by Middle Class Problems this morning.

The next new thing is V Revolution on Oldham Street. This place is a godsend, serving honest-to-badness junk food that’s all vegan. The reason it’s a godsend is that in Melbourne we became addicted to a fast-food chain called Lord Of The Fries. They serve all vegetarian fast food. Burgers, fries, shakes, that kind of junk. I dreamed this place into existence, I know I did. And now we have our own version right there in the Northern Quarter. Chicken and cheeseburger and a coke float twice please and whatever he’s having. V Revolution serves truly scrummy food, laid back and completely chilled (someone was watching a penguin documentary while we were there). If that’s not your thing you can admire the amazing range of tattoos on the friendly staff instead. I have a feeling this place will count as ‘new’ for a good while yet …

Monday, 20 January 2014


It was never on my radar to go to Australia, but you fall in love with an Australian and look what happens. I’d just quit my job after twelve years in publishing (more of which later) and flying to the other side of the planet seemed a good way to buffer some enormous life changes. We decide to go for 3 weeks and spend Christmas in Melbourne where my partner Oisin’s sister lives with her partner and their seven-month-old baby girl. While the plane waits on the tarmac, my own sister is in hospital awaiting the appearance of my new niece. The last shred of 3G before we are asked to switch off our phones carries a picture of little Penny Jean – healthy, pink and screaming blue-murder. A happy relief before we hit the skies.

Ten years ago my fear of large aeroplanes might have prohibited the trip. I’m much better now, but I admit my stomach flips when I first see the three rows of seats (three rows! THREE!? this thing is too big to fly, IT’S TOO BIG TO FLY!). My advice for flying east around the globe is to have a bad night’s sleep the night before you leave. I re-set my phone to Australia time the minute I get up, so despite having only been awake a few hours it’s time for bed when I get on the plane. With the help of over-the-counter sleeping pills I nod on and off through the first seven hour leg of the journey.

When I come to, I seem to be in the airport sequence from The Fifth Element, also known as Doha airport, Qatar. There’s just enough time to go to the bathroom and we’re back on a different plane where I now have to stay awake until we hit Australia. I find it impossible to read so my well-intended Hilary Mantel remains untouched while Oisín does the sensible thing and chortles through Despicable Me 2. Make no mistake, the thirteen hour leg of the flight is hard work. The trick is to make your world as small and comfortable as possible with blankets and music and movies. It is bedtime when we arrive in Australia. We go straight to bed and sleep well and wake up on Australia time.

First impressions of Melbourne, and specifically Melbourne in December: It is a huge metropolis made up of smaller neighbourhoods, each with its own character, train station and/or tram stop, and if you’re lucky, beach. It feels as if Irish and Asian people have come together to build a city in the sunshine. (Note: in Australia ‘Asian’ is most often used to refer to south-east and north-east Asia, rather than south Asia as it tends to mean in the UK). Christmas is optional and lightly festive, not aggressive and avaricious like back home. In a list where Canadian and Australian cities dominate, Melbourne was found to be the number one most liveable city while not quite ranking in the ten most expensive. These findings seem to ring true. Easy-to-use transport proliferates and there is healthy food (or unhealthy if you prefer) to fill you up all day for a few dollars.

Oisin’s family are, of course, extremely lovely and welcoming. They are Irish/Australian/Chinese/Norwegian, ­which is to say, Australian. They are warm, fun-loving, healthy, culturally savvy, and generous. These things strike me as very Melbournian. Their neighbourhood is Footscray, close to the city, on the cusp of regeneration (though hopefully not extreme gentrification), ethnically diverse, though predominantly home to a Vietnamese community.  Our first couple of days in the city are an exhilarating blend of world accents, Turkish sandwiches, Christmas lights, 28 degree picnics in the park, espresso, gyoza, laksa, grenita. Courtesy of lovely Michael, we head to a grand beach house at Sorrento while I gather up my further impressions: Melbourne feels like it’s growing and filled with potential, not rammed to capacity and panting over the side like London or New York. It feels as if your favourite bar might not have opened yet. Quality of life doesn’t feel hopelessly out of reach. There are too many KFC’s and Nando’s and McDonald’s and it needs fixing. There is more exciting vegetarian food here than you could hope to try. Jackson 5 and Cat Stevens are playing everywhere. We see two enormous poisonous tiger snakes and a dolphin at the wilds of Portsea. I feel extremely far from home and it feels brilliant.

Notable places that we eat or drink are Mamasita, Corte, Journal, Buckley’s Chance, The Plough, Short Round, Ombra, Shebeen, Spicy Fish, Boney, Izakaya Den and the rooftop bar at Curtin House. Rooftop bars are very Melbourne, originally intended to dull the effects of the smoking ban, they are now an essential part of a summery drink.

The 42 degree heatwave dips and we spend Christmas Day on the beach with home-made sushi rolls and wine and friends and family. The sea is warm. We swim and stay until the sun sets.