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23 July 2023

Two nights in Manchester, and my summer is complete

A sublime evening of torch songs, and managing not to ruin Maxine Peake’s one-woman show – that’s my idea of a holiday.

By Tracey Thorn

I usually write about my annual holiday for the summer issue, and this year is no different. I’ve just got back from a two-day trip to Manchester! You can laugh, but when I read news reports of European cities and resorts sweltering in unbearable heatwaves, I feel both relieved and triumphant about my choice of vacation.

I’d gone up on the train with my friend the film-maker Carol Morley and her partner, Cairo, for a cultural visit to the Manchester International Festival. On our first night we went to a show called “One Night in Trans Vegas”, headlined by Justin Vivian Bond, one of my favourite performers on Earth.

[See also: Why Glastonbury could do with a touch of snark]

The show took place in a new venue, which had inauspiciously changed its name since I bought the tickets. It was Factory International when I booked, but in the meantime corporate interests had stepped in, and so here we are in the Aviva Studios, “a new purpose-built cultural space in the heart of Manchester”.

It was my favourite kind of gig – a warm, engaged audience; a venue that was just the right size. A small combo – piano, guitar, bass, drums – and Bond on vocals, delivering songs and stories for two full hours, entrancing the crowd, steering us expertly between laughter and tears.

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I think of the way that great singers have great taste. You don’t have to be a songwriter; knowing which songs to sing is an undervalued art. And finding new meanings in songs is something that always excites me – the way a lyric can be transformed or enriched when delivered by a different singer, with a different identity. So when trans artist Bond sings Joni Mitchell’s “Let the Wind Carry Me”, that second verse rings out afresh, and whole new layers of meaning emerge:

She don’t like my kick pleat skirt
She don’t like my eyelids painted green
She don’t like me staying up late
In my high-heeled shoes
Living for that rock ’n’ roll dancing scene
Papa says, “Leave the girl alone, Mother
She’s looking like a movie queen.” 

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Bond’s patter is all sardonic humour, undercutting any sentiment. They inhabit the persona of a raddled torch singer with a heart of stone – which is then belied by the heartfelt performances that follow. It’s torch with a twist, although I guess torch songs have always had a twist, if you’ve been listening properly.

The following night we have another cultural event planned, and so after an early dinner we head to the John Rylands Library to see Maxine Peake give a one-woman reading/performance of Kay Dick’s novel They. The building is an ornate, neo-gothic structure, more like a cathedral than a library, and we climb the stairs to the second floor, carved stone soaring high above our heads. It is all grandeur, all dust and solemnity. Books everywhere. An atmosphere of hushed expectation.

Just before the performance begins I have a funny feeling, and the old menopausal thought goes through my head: “Is it hot in here?” For I am suddenly very hot, and the back of my neck is prickling. The lights go down and Peake begins to speak, but I can’t quite hear her, can’t quite concentrate. A bead of sweat runs down the side of my face. The inside of my head has become a squeezed sponge, empty and dry. My vision is grey and pixelated and I might be about to faint so I try to get my head between my knees, without attracting attention.

This, I am thinking, is a complete nightmare. I cannot be sick without causing an unbelievable scene and therefore I cannot be sick. The seats are arranged in three rows either side of the aisle, up and down which Peake walks. I am mid-row; to leave would mean pushing past 15 or 20 people, possibly while throwing up on them. I will have to tough it out. Disappearing inside my head, I close my eyes and count to ten, then a hundred. If I make it to a hundred, I think, I’ll do another hundred.

Look, I won’t take you moment by moment through the full hour. Can I just get a round of applause for the fact that I made it? At the end I muttered two words to Carol and Cairo – “Food poisoning!” – and away I flew. Down the stone staircase, out through the huge wooden doors, on to the still-light streets of hot, summery Manchester. Back at the hotel I lay for the rest of the night sweating in a darkened room with the air conditioning on, grateful to have my bathroom close at hand. And honestly, what could be more holiday-like?

[See also: We have a new album out and are determined that ageing won’t stop us seizing the day]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special