Ahead of the final weekend of MIF, David Adamson reports back on a Saturday night spent at Festival Square

MIF ’23 Reviews: Saturday night at MIF’s Festival Square

Totally subjective rating: 7/10 for an open, accessible space well set up for performing acts, with points lost for a lack of cover in the outdoor space

What: Festival Square including late live performance from producer and W.H Lung guitarist, Tom Sharkett.

Where: Festival Square, Aviva Studios

What MIF 2023 says: For the first time ever, Festival Square takes over the banks of the River Irwell – Manchester’s newest outdoor space. Catch up with friends, watch new acts and pick from enough street food to keep you full all summer. Whatever you’re into, Festival Square’s the place to kick back and discover what makes Manchester special.

What we say: Arguably the best thing on offer at MIF is Festival Square.

From midday every day (bar Mondays) you can wander in freely (and for free) and be treated to a considered and near-constant programme of talks and discussions, DJ sets and live performances.

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The constant drizzle at Festival Square Image: Confidentials

Each day is curated (that buzziest of festival buzz words) to a theme, meaning there’s not the usual dizzying conveyor of clashing styles.

And it’s all neatly ensconced in one place, the banks of the Irwell to be precise.

That said, when Factory International were planning out their Festival Square space for their first summer at Aviva Studios, someone will have surely raised the very real possibility that, at some point or other, it would absolutely piss it down. Which, of course, it did. Quite a bit.

I’d wandered down from Piccadilly, stopping off for a quick pint in the sun at Kampus, and thought that maybe we’d had the worst of it earlier that afternoon.

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The weather earlier that day... Image: Confidentials
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The rain soaked seating area by the banks of the Irwell Image: Confidentials

What we got instead was the same biblical downpour that graced Man City’s trophy parade last month, but with a better soundtrack.

Well, in a sentence I never thought I’d write, thank god for the underpass, especially when it was time to eat something.

I opted for the Hip Hop Chip Shop stall, and the fish and chips with tartare sauce. The chips were just what you want; crispy to near-cremation outside, fluffy and cloudlike inside, and in too great a quantity to ever finish, try as you might.

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David with some much-needed dinner Image: Confidentials

The fish was considerately served in two handheld bites the size of a balled fist, allowing you to avoid that slightly strange experience of knife and forking it out in the elements.

The batter was bloody lovely, the fish plump, and the tartare sauce the right consistency, so thick with chunks of gherkin that you could lay crazy paving with it.

While handheld battered cod is a satisfying and sensible food to guzzle down while stood up, you can’t help but wonder why a year-round venue decided against a restaurant of some form (a la HOME).

The beer for washing all this down was bought from the ‘Ebar’, currently something of a gimmick but surely the future of events this size, where the queues will always end up five deep despite it being a moderately sized festival.

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The future of festival pints Image: Confidentials

After a few trips, and a few more, I was on the path to being sozzled. Which led, inevitably, to a full bladder.

Wandering through the foyer of Aviva Studios towards the loos, the change in atmosphere is slightly jarring on a head full of beer. You suddenly go from a festival-goer - drunk in drunken company - to feeling like you’d stumbled into your local library after a day session on a park bench.

Any suspicions of you being hammered won’t be helped as you fumble with the faulty and fickle sinks and taps in the loos (mixed gender, by the way). On a run of about ten, none of the end four so much as expelled a gnat’s breath of water, soap or hot air.

And yes, I did wash my hands, thank you very much.  

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The evening rolls in proper Image: Confidentials

As is known to happen on summer nights, it was suddenly much darker outside, and with it the atmosphere went considerably more techno tent. Full up with food, it was time for music.

Taking a break from the day job of playing in Mancunian critical darlings W.H. Lung, and off the back of the June release of his Futuro EP, Tom Sharkett played an infectious, eclectic and strangely soothing set, the clear highlight of which was Twenty Thousand and Twenty Three, his sumptuous remix of Wings’ absolute humdinger Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty Five. Macca would be proud.

Then just like that it was carriages, so we spilled out onto Liverpool Road and into afters across the city.

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Tom Sharkett at the decks Image: Confidentials

Ultimately, teething problems might be expected but there's one really big 'but' about the new Festival Square.

The problem is there are no passersby. 

Albert Square was perfect for this, even Cathedral Gardens was good. The music from the tents, the food and drink, definitely the drink, dragged in revellers who'd never heard of Manchester International Festival but were just out for a night in town. 

The only people down by the river at Aviva Studios are festival goers; Manchester's professional culture vultures. You spot the same faces at every one of these types of events. 

One of the underpinning principles of Manchester International Festival is it is progressive, diverse and aims to bring the best of culture from across the world to Manchester for ALL audiences. The experimental nature of programming means this is never quite achieved, so Festival Square was a corrective. It's lively and jolly nature widened the audience. 

There's no real chance of this in the new Festival Square and that is a shame. 

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Maybe next time the sun will come out.... Image: Confidentials

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