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Factory International, Manchester: Should It Exist?

RIGHT now, we’ve got gas bubbling into the Baltic Sea, a Russian psychopath threatening nuclear war in Europe, a worrying Autumn wave of Covid-19, escalating train strikes, runaway inflation, and a severe cost of living crisis. 

And while financial markets are in a mess, the economy is in a rough patch, too. 

But guess what? Theatre continues to play a key role in the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The venue will open in summer 2023, four years late and £100 million over budget

Last week I attended Factory International’s Opening Programme Launch (it opens officially in October 2023). An immersive Matrix films-themed dance, music and visual effects experience directed by Danny Boyle is to be the opening production. 

However, news that Factory International itself is £100 million over its initial budget – and opening four years late – will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this particular story.

Factory International opens to the public in October 2023

Now, Manchester City council will have to cover the extra £25.2m over spend, with £10m coming from a contingency fund and the rest from borrowing. It’s public money: we should know where and why it’s being spent.

Additionally, a council report stated: “The ongoing impacts of Covid-19 – with precautionary measures still in place across the construction industry – and challenges associated with the one-off and complex nature of the design have also contributed to budget pressures.”

But critics, especially those from the north of England, rightly wonder what that extra £100 million could have achieved elsewhere. 

Indeed, it is the largest investment in a national cultural project since the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, thanks to initial Government investment and backing from Manchester City Council and Arts Council England. Still, Factory International is predicted to boost the city’s economy £1.1 billion over the next decade and predicted to support as many as 1,500 jobs. Hm.

Under construction: Factory International

All in all, the 13,350 square metre building includes a 21m high warehouse with capacity for up to 5,000 people standing, which can also be divided by a movable, full-height acoustic wall, and a hall with a flexible stage with a seating capacity of 1,600 or 2,000 standing, as well as other spaces inside and out. 

Alas, Factory International isn’t the only shiny new cultural building opening in northwest England. While I was out and about last week, I also went to see Northern Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beautiful Shakespeare North Playhouse — now open in Prescot in Knowsley on Merseyside. This dazzling cultural venue sits in one of the most deprived boroughs in England. 

Inside the timber built cockpit theatre at the Shakespeare North Playhouse

Shakespeare North is a £30 million Elizabethan-style hilltop venue, built around a stunning 470 seat recreation of a Jacobean ‘Cockpit’ theatre also houses a 55-seat studio theatre, exhibition gallery and performance garden.

The Shakespearean venue – boasting an oak-framed, octagonal, two-level main auditorium – aims to attract 140,000 visitors per year. Businesses are now preparing to welcome a boost for trade and tourism in the area.

Find Shakespeare North Playhouse at Prospero Place in Prescot

Against this backdrop, we have a new Culture Secretary. Michelle Donelan is the 11th culture secretary in 12 years, replacing historical footnote Nadine Dorries. Yet, there is little hope that we can really tackle the divide between north and south, rich, and poor – which all too often are really the same things.

Either way, the Arts Council England’s monumentally stupid decision to move current and new portfolio organisations out of the capital by October 2024 has been created after the government ordered ACE to take £24 million of funding (15%) out of the portfolio in London and reinvest it outside of the capital. It also requires commitment from large organisations working with communities in these areas of low engagement – especially the Midlands and the North of England. 

Unfortunately, it’s only going one way; in a recent update to organisations, ACE said: “This programme will be particularly competitive, and it is likely that we will be unable to fund many good applications, including from those organisations currently in the National Portfolio, as well as those that are not.”

A fool’s errand, given their track record, (a shifting of neglect from one place to another – see ‘Creative People and Places’) but the CEO Darren Henley, also present at Factory International’s Launch, felt confident enough to make this statement. “We need a capital city that punches on the world stage, but levelling up is a bout increasing everywhere else… Within straitened times we have more money from the government, and we are investing that outside of London.” 

The cast of The Doncastrian Chalk Circle at Cast, Doncaster

Sorry, what? Quite how many parsnips any of that will butter in a couple of weeks’ time is unclear. The ongoing pandemic means more organisations than ever have applied for money – 1,730, requesting £2bn. There will be casualties.

Even more alarming, new data raise more questions than answers about failure of this government to reach the poorest areas of the UK. The southeast of England, the most affluent region in Britain outside London received almost twice as much money as the north-east from the fund aimed at boosting deprived areas. The £4.8 billion levelling up fund only delivered £107 million in its first year of operation. 

Crucially, rising costs and inflation threaten key projects with councils handing back money to government, scaling back projects or fund the shortfall of dwindling budgets amid fears schemes could become undeliverable.

The above, of course, barely scratches the surface of the past few years, in which the UK has repeatedly tried and failed to do better by the freelance workforce.

Don’t get me wrong, these two new cultural venues in the North of England are remarkably ambitious and exciting. I think that Shakespeare North will truly transform the fortunes of communities in Prescott.

So, should they exist? I can’t help thinking that one of them should and the other should not.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of bricks and mortar at a time when self-employed freelance workers – the lifeblood of UK theatre- are facing a catastrophic winter.

The recent Big Freelancer Survey showcased ongoing concerns within the theatre workforce, with 16% of respondents saying they were still considering leaving the entertainment industry.

In the meantime, however, decisions about the next ACE portfolio round – guided by the redistribution of funding from London to the rest of the UK into priority areas such as West Lancashire, Wigan, the Isles of Scilly and Preston – are expected on Wednesday 26 October.