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Manchester International Festival 2021 / Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

On reading the words ‘Manchester International Festival’, you know you’re in for quite the experience. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to attend a biennial international arts festival, during a pandemic, with a specific focus on original new work.

There is more free, outdoor public art than ever before and the city is alive with accessible, vibrant and exciting art. So with some degree of excitement, I made my way to Manchester last week, and here are some things I experienced.

First up, an impressive 42m (138ft) sculpture replica of Big Ben has crash landed in Piccadily Gardens. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ – the UK’s biggest participatory art spectacle in years – has been created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin and is covered in 12,000 politically-themed books. I fully immersed myself in this impressive and quirky statement on Brexit, disillusionment and democracy. Brilliant – and – free.

Marta Minujin’s sculpture is called Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books

The Arndale shopping centre, meanwhile, has been turned into a makeshift art gallery for Cephas Williams’ Portraits of Black Britain, which features giant banners showing high-achieving black Britons. Powerful stuff.

Playing to a socially distanced, masked audience may not be every singer’s dream but Arlo Parks gig at the cavernous Manchester Central was a performance of stunning tenderness.

Arlo Parks at Manchester Central

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music string players joined Parks on stage to enrich the songs and add layers of heartfelt nuance. Parks – a 20-year old London singer-songwriter-poet bagged the Brit award this year for best new artist. She expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Pure joy.

Elsewhere, Cloud Studies at the seriously trendy Whitworth Art Gallery just out of town features clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture as toxic. This gripping exhibition explores the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to a lopsided world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the first phase of an investigation on environmental racism in an area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In a US region heavily populated with petrochemical facilities, majority-Black communities, the descendants were historically enslaved on those very lands, today contain the most toxic air in the country.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

MIF has also commissioned choreographer Akram Khan to produce a stylish and moving 17 minute short film. Breathless Puppets is a 17-minute animation co-created by Khan and animator, writer and director Naaman Azhari.

This brilliant animation utilises retroscope technology; basically whereby a live action is sketched over to give a constantly moving, line-drawn aesthetic. Breathless Puppets tells the story of a young man called Nicholas who wants to be a dancer, despite his family urging him to go into medicine. 

Manchester’s beautifully restored Central Library played host to ‘I Love You Too,” This project featured Eleven Manchester-based writers that collaborated with participants, putting their words to page and composing love letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individuals. Furthermore, together with the publication, the stunning domed Reading Room played host an exhibition of Wa Lehulere’s new sculpture, created especially for the space.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, “I Love You Too” marked the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopaedia of devotion.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

I was delighted to snag a ticket to the raggedly charming “Bloody Elle” at the Royal Exchange. It has reopened with Lauryn Redding’s emotional, wild and honest ‘gig musical’. This gauche kitchen-sink theatre is smart in its portrayal of a queer love story. Right on.

Bryony Shanahan’s supple solo production makes the most of the in-the round setting of the main space – it feels like a epic late-night show at Roundabout at Summerhall during Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The songs are spry and melodic with a forthrightness that is refreshing.

Bloody Elle is a ‘semi autobiographical’ show that is simultaneously confessional, sprawling and occasionally indulgent.

It moves in the course of the evening from noise to quietness, from non-stop crassness to moments of musical tenderness and expressive gesture. Admittedly, it is all a bit drawn out, and could do with losing 30 minutes, but it is often a perky evening and during these Difficult Times, well worth the effort.

A very pleasant surprise. 

Manchester International Festival runs until Sunday 18 July

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical runs until 17 July

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Guest Blog – The Mono Box: “Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent.”

The Mono Box has always prided itself on supporting freelancers creatively – providing opportunities that are lacking or less accessible in the industry. For 8 years, we have run workshops and events for actors, directors and writers as well as, more recently, designers and movement directors. Training never stops but we also prioritise the importance of community in an industry that can feel incredibly lonely and inaccessible. 

This became more crucial than ever from March 2020 as we watched our industry fall to its knees. We were forced to re-evaluate our careers and our lives, to step back and notice all the gaping problems we’d let slide for so long. Tweets, articles and blog posts were thrown around about a utopian post-pandemic vision for theatre. Promises were made that have yet to come to fruition…

photo credit Helen Murray  

We have always championed new voices and formalised this through a new writing scheme called PLAYSTART which has run for 3 successive years (2017-2019). After the events of last summer, and in response to the lack of opportunities for emerging talent during Covid-19, we got to work. We invested in 7 ethnically diverse writers from PLAYSTART, offering them what we knew was crucial in building a career: a commission, mentorship and a platform for their work. It is notoriously hard to crack that ceiling without someone paying you to do what you do best, and someone else who is several steps ahead of you career-wise providing a guiding light. Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent. 

We were keen to not only keen to put our money where our mouth is in terms of supporting emerging creatives, but also to discover a way to adapt theatre-making to the current global restrictions and advancing marriage of theatre and film. As we were locked in our homes, theatre had to adapt and enter people’s living rooms and kitchens. Amidst the “it’s not the same” grumbles, we also quickly realised that this format was providing access to audience numbers we only dream of. 

And so RESET THE STAGE was born. A collection of 7 filmed monologues responding boldly to where we are as an industry and where we could be, if we committed to platforming – nationally and internationally – more diverse voices, bodies and stories.

In addition to the mentorship from leading playwrights including Duncan Macmillan, Alice Birch, Lucy Prebble and Theresa Ikoko, we provided the writers with actors, a theatre and a film crew to help realise their vision. All in lockdown, when the theatres were empty.

The pieces have been directed by Roberta Zuric (part of The Mono Box’s PLAYSTART 2018) and was mentored by Ned Bennett

CYNTHIA by Vivian Xie Stills ; Starring Isabella Laughland ; Directed by Roberta Zuric ; Director of Photography: Fẹ́mi Awójídé ; First Camera Assist: Stephen Ofori ; Sound Recordist: Luise Guertler ; Stills Photographer: Helen Murray ; Gaffer: TC Thomas ; Producer: Joan Iyiola & Alison Holder ; Co-Producer: Miles Sloman Reset The Stage ; Monobox ; Soho Theatre ; London, UK ; 30th March 2021 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

7 stellar actors jumped on board with all guns blazing and delivered mesmerising and incredibly nuanced performances: Shane Zaza, Ken Nwosu, Thalissa Teixeira, Danny Kirrane, Isabella Laughland, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and our own co-AD Joan Iyiola. We paired them up with one of our partner venues – Arcola, Almeida, Bush, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, Young Vic – all who passionately committed to the project’s ethos and offered invaluable support.

The films within RESET THE STAGE have been achieved to an exceptionally high standard, by a small but mighty team. We are so excited to share them with the world and to show what can happen when new voices are given a platform to showcase their work.

The films launched on 17th June to outstanding feedback and a brilliant 4* review from WhatsOnStage lauding the project’s beautiful outcome and bold response to our industry’s perilous state. 

Screening repeated 1 to 3 July and tickets are on sale now

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British Theatre Is Facing A Covid Tragedy

July 2021. UK Theatres are in limbo. By now, of course, you know the latest facts, because you live in them. 

In no particular order, over 62% of British adults are now fully vaccinated. And 84% have had one dose.

A new production of Jersey Boys is set to begin at the Trafalgar theatre next month

But the Indian or Delta variant (which is ultra-infectious, so infectious that one person may infect up to six others) has resulted in the UK having the highest infection rate in Europe. New research suggests ‘scarily fleeting’ contact could infect, and that places with high jab rates are susceptible.

Fortunately, we now have one of the lowest death rates because of the astounding vaccine programme. Indeed, now stadiums, shopping centres and theatres have joined the “grab a jab” campaign in England in a bid to boost vaccine uptake.

However, even by late August, only 39 per cent of under-40s are set to have been fully vaccinated, opening a generational divide and zero chance of foreign summer travel should vaccine passports become a thing. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have resigned but his successor Sajid Javid has his hands full with an NHS struggling to cope with a vast backlog of operations, treatment and surging cases.

Either way, according to the latest official figures, more arts, entertainment and recreation businesses were still suffering last month than in any other industry.

Felicity Kendall & Sutton Foster in Anything Goes rehearsals

But the show must go on, right? Major West End shows including Anything Goes and The Lion King have started rehearsals, with more set to follow; contracts have been signed, audiences have rebooked tickets (as many as four times) and the consequences of another delay beyond July 19 are unthinkable.

The pandemic has exposed the Tory government’s insulting attitude to theatre: a mixture of apathy and hostility. Despite generating billions pre-pandemic, London theatre owners and impresarios for example, claim regularly they are now “on the brink of ruin”.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Howard Panter – owner of the second-largest operator, Trafalgar Entertainment, said the situation in the West End was “intolerable”.

In the meantime, tempers (and sanity) are fraying; Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman launched legal action to force government to publish Events Research Programme pilot results.

A masked usher awaits The Mousetrap audiences

A stretch of the imagination that might have dumbfounded me pre-pandemic, but Lloyd Webber certainly seemed to be speaking from the heart when he went on LBC recently: “Public Health England officials don’t have a clue about theatre and how they’re operated. We’ve somehow been made a sacrificial lamb.”

Alas, the long awaited report – which was released promptly after a Court order – said there were “no substantial outbreaks” identified by public health teams and their surveillance systems around any of the events.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrated that the testing regime of the Events Research Programme was pointless and incompetent, meaning it clear the government is repeating their own mistakes at a colossal cost to everyone else.

But weary theatres still need insurance to safeguard against the possibility of Covid-based cancellation, however the pandemic means that the private market will not provide it. This would help thousands of freelancers return to the industry and reassure producers, venues and artists alike.


The major issue for theatres from the West End to Liverpool Everyman is that rehearsals, preparation and planning take months not weeks and often costs thousands and thousands of pounds, and the current question marks hanging around hospitality and entertainment venues are making such work impossible or loss-making. Regional theatres dependent on income from tours will lose the very shows that might help them survive.

Temperature checks outside a west end theatre

Of course, Slytherin Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden would refer to the generous £1.5bn culture recovery fund, even if the rescue funds left the actual freelance workforce – musicians, photographers, actors, artists, dancers, choreographers, designers out in the cold. In fact hundreds of cultural organisations have still not received promised funds leaving some worse off than when they applied.  

The delaying of Step Four of the road map is a final straw for many: confidence in reopening has been shattered, despite the vast sums invested in venues to restrict Covid transmission. The creative sector must now be allowed to cautiously trade their way – at full capacity – out of difficulties and contribute to our national recovery.

It is completely stupefying that we have spent 66 weeks being told to “take responsibility” and “use common sense” by a government religiously incapable of either.

Anyway, July 19 is yet another ‘not before date’ and this week came rumblings of future winter lockdowns amid warnings from scientists. So, don’t rule out another delay to the ‘cautious but irreversible’ easing of lockdown restrictions. In fact, don’t rule out restrictions being completely ditched before a murderous third wave, subsequent U-turn and more mutant strains.

Frankly I’m not sure we will ever reconcile the impact that Covid, Brexit and the ‘streaming economy’ are having on the sector in my lifetime.

Continuing to allow galleries, art centres, opera, communities, theatres and independent cinemas to wither away is an act of profound cultural vandalism.

A socially distanced audience at the London Palladium

Hell, if a whole generation of talent goes to the wall, no one wins, the whole country will be poorer for it.

Something’s got to change. Fast.