So this isn’t exactly a review, just some thoughts on the opening event of Manchester International Festival 2017 – What Is The City But The People? which took place on Thursday 29th June.
You couldn’t miss it. A giant yellow catwalk stretching across Piccadilly Gardens, plus two giant screens, a stage, a press stand, a double decker bus and dozens of blue-coated volunteers. MIF 2017 – heralded by an abundance of branded banners and signs across the city – had finally arrived, and its landing spot was Piccadilly Gardens.
It was an interesting choice of location – for those of you who don’t know my fair home city, Piccadilly Gardens is not the nicest of environments. It’s a flat patch of grass between a pigeon poo-splattered Queen Victoria and a giant concrete wall, hemmed in by tram tracks and bus stops – an open expanse to be crossed quickly, in the knowledge that if you stand still, you’re only minutes away from an encounter that’s guaranteed to make you uncomfortable.
But for this event, it was perfect. A busy thoroughfare in Manchester’s heart, open and free and accessible to all. The audience who (like me) had sought it out soon had their ranks swelled by curious passers-by. One glance around revealed how diverse that audience was – and how captivated.
The moment the live music started and the first person walked, I was hooked. There was a Big Issue seller; a woman with a baby mere days old; a former Strangeways inmate – there were cyclists, beekeepers, drag queens, dogs and their owners, workers from Slattery (a famous Mancunian patisserie)… Each person was named – apologies that they aren’t all here – and their stories emblazoned on the screens in a few words.
These stories were by turns shocking, romantic, uplifting, humourous and desperately sad – all the more for being real – and I couldn’t believe the sheer courage it took to tell them. Each person involved stepped up on stage in a public place, exposed not just to their immediate audience but to everyone watching the livestream, held their head high and let their identity show.
But What Is The City But The People? was more than just a rich tapestry of Manchester’s citizens, more than an original concept or a well-executed show. It was a proud and moving tribute to Manchester, one that resonated all the more powerfully in the light of recent events. I hope that its impact will be felt for many months – I know that I’ll remember it for much longer.