Wednesday 23 April 2014

Discover Manchester

Manchester City Centre, picture by Daniel Cadden Photography

It’s the NODA North West conference just around the corner and we are already so excited as we gear up towards it!

Also this year it’s in Manchester- the city that our very own Marketing and Social Media Co-ordinator Tamsin lives (on weekends!) so we thought we would put together a list of top things to do whilst you’re in this wonderful city from the unique perspective of someone who actually lives there and knows the secret spots that the tourist guides fail to mention!

We know many of you will be staying in the Mercure Hotel and will be dining and celebrating with us at the conference, however there will no doubt be one or two of you who have perhaps planned an extended weekend as a chance to see a bit of the city and the surrounding area.

Manchester is a buzzy, vibrant city with plenty to do for all ages, but without the jacked up prices of London or the huge distances you have to travel to get from one end to the other.
With a rich cultural history and a, safe to say, historical music scene (Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, The Courteeners, Elbow, Joy Division, The Happy Mondays, Simply Red and of course Frank Sidebottom – do we need to drop anymore names?) Manchester undoubtedly has a fantastic nightlife, offering a huge range of independent quirky bars, music venues and restaurants – at which you’ll often see many a famous face!

It’s also home to two of the world’s biggest football clubs – Manchester United and Manchester City, and the city has a multitude of different theatres, museums and tourist attractions as well as plenty of opportunities for shopping.
Manchester is considered to be one of the top destinations for a city break in the UK so if you’re not planning on staying on a bit longer and taking the opportunity to discover the city – why not?! Call and extend your booking now!

To help you explore and get the best out of your time here in the beautiful city we’ve put together a list of some of our favourite places to go and things to do in the city centre from the best places to eat down to where you’re most likely to spot a footballer (you might see ex Man United manager David Moyes partying down Deansgate, P45 in hand!)
Artwork on Affleck's Palace
Have a look through the list and see what you fancy – and if you know a gem that we’ve not mentioned then don’t hesitate to let us know and share the knowledge!
We’re looking forward to seeing many of you at the conference at Manchester, come say hello to us on our stand and if any of you try anything from our list then do tell us what you think!

Top places to eat:

Mr Thomas’ Chop House – an old Victorian pub that has maintained its charm and on Sunday's it offers the best roast dinner in all of Manchester, the infamous 'Chop House Roast'. Enjoy your dinner and a pint in its historical surroundings and gaze at the portraits of famous Mancunian’s that cover the walls.

Mr Thomas' Chop House
Koffee PotThis place is top dog when it comes to breakfasts and people flock from across town to this diner to get their full English or stack of American pancakes. With a retro setting, out of this world food and a purse friendly menu to boot this is probably the place I eat at the most.

Sugar Junction – Another Northern Quarter favourite Sugar Junction is an excellent tea room that is also known for its delicious cocktails. The ‘Twickers Shake’ is a personal favourite.

Almost Famous – This place is absolutely notorious for producing burgers on a whole new level. If the UK had a version of ‘Man vs Food’ Almost Famous would be featured. Having gone from a well kept secret to 'place to be' all I'll say is that this burger joint is not for the faint hearted or for those who don't like any mess. With burgers like the 'Baddaboom' (double cheeseburger, garlic butter brioche, bacon, chorizo, onions, marinara, famous sauce, frenches, parmesan and chilli) expect to be covered in sauce as you try and chomp your way through their gravity defying stacks.

Koffee Pot, photo c/o innasky
Friday Night Food Fight – I’ll admit – we’ve not attended this yet but I have seen the crowds lining up round the corner outside of it. Situated in the Victorian Markets opposite the Hilton Hotel (Beetham Tower) you can get a table and sample some of the best street food that there is on offer, accompanied by music and of course with a fine selection of drinks and cocktails. Since it was started it’s quickly become very popular with people around the city and is not something to be missed if you fancy trying something different.

Frank pops up at Koffee Pot!
Photo c/o innasky
Red Chilli Restaurant, China Town – A favourite of our owner Kate’s. Expect superb chinese food and massive portions. I recommend the sweet and sour chicken and at the end of your meal don't be afraid to ask for a doggy bag- there will be leftovers.

Luck, Lust ,Liquor and Burn – linked to Almost Famous burger, the guys at Luck Lust Liqour and Burn,as well as having a fabulous name, serve up fantastic burritos, tacos, nachos and general tex-mex.

Dimitri’s – a bit more upmarket, many footballers frequent Dimitri’s for its fantastic tapas and greek food.

Teacup – Another tearoom that has an astonishingly large selection of teas. If you are a tea connoisseur and fancy finding and trying something different then this is the place to go to track down an elusive leaf.

Teacup, photo c/o innasky

Home Sweet Home – Cake makers extraordinaire. We also rate Hey Little Cupcake but this is a bit closer to the Mercure hotel. Expect wild theatrical creations with many colours and lots of unusual, yet delicious, flavours.

Dough – pizzas just like mama used to make. Their pizzas are works of art but with no compromise on taste. They are also able to meet lots of dietary requirements with gluten free and even whole-wheat pizzas on offer.

Bem Brasil – Experience a taste of Brazil with its exquisitely barbecued meats and well stocked buffet. Ask any Mancunian what a great place to eat is and this will often be the first place that anybody will mention.

Deansgate Locks - photo by T.J. Blackwell

Best Places to Drink

Generally, you only need to walk down the street and you’ll come across a great pub or bar but the best place to go for unique and independent bars and clubs is the trendy Northern Quarter.
Home to many of Manchester’s best loved nightspots you’d be mad not to try it – however if you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket and glam then you’re best bet is to try in Deansgate where you’ll find places such as Revs de Cuba and The Living Room, or along Deansgate Locks where you’ll find the clubbing institutions such as Vodka Revolution and Lola Lo.
You can also try along Canal Street for Manchester’s vibrant gay district which features popular venues G-A-Y, Baa Bar and AXM.
Here’s a few of our favourite places to go for drinks:
Night & Day Cafe, photo c/o Holly89

Night & Day Café – A truly historical music venue in the Northern Quarter that has hosted some of the biggest names in the UK music scene. This much beloved venue has been at the centre of a news storm recently where it has been met with thousands of messages of support and a series of fundraising gigs have been announced to help it in it’s upcoming court battle. Without a doubt this is my favourite nightspot in Manchester as it hosts some fantastic live music nights and its quirky venue is perfect for enjoying a drink on a Friday night.

Trof Northern Quarter – Another quirky venue, Trof is a popular place to go for drinks on Fridays and Saturdays before ‘hitting the clubs’, they often have DJ’s playing music that can stretch from reggae to the most recent chart hits and during the week host a popular Open Mic night.

The Liars Club – Devilishly good cocktails and an authentic tiki bar décor create this 'tropical hideaway'. The tunes and a few Zombie cocktails will soon have you up on the dancefloor!

Black Dog Ballroom - Black Dog Ballroom is a fantastic bar that plays fantastic music and also just happens to serve fantastic food and have its own pool hall. Their latest venture is the new Dog Bowl which, alongside the fab food and drink, also has a bowling alley.

Font bars – A Manchester institution really, a little way out of the city centre (but only a couple of minutes by taxi and opposite the Palace Theatre!) the cocktail menu is incredible and won’t break the bank. With a huge range of £2 and £3 cocktails my recommendation would be to try the ‘Dr Pepper’.

Soup Kitchen, photo c/o trip advisor

Soup Kitchen – Craft beers in a 'canteen, bar and music venue'. Split across two floors you’ll find DJ’s playing anything from disco to techno until the early hours, and the venue has hosted everything from art exhibitions to film nights. A recent winner of the 2013 Manchester Evening News City Life 'Best Club'.

Big Hands – Another bar that’s out of the city centre but a great place for spotting band members. Situated next to Manchester Academy (where lots of bands play) you’ll find plenty of good drink and a member or two from whoever is playing at the music venue next door.

Places to Visit

As well as a fantastic nightlife Manchester is culturally rich with an array of places to go and things to do suitable for all ages and interests.
With theatres scattered across the city there’s plenty of opportunity to catch a show, but Manchester also plays host to two of the biggest football clubs in the world so why not book a stadium tour?
For people more interested in history then visit one of the various museums, book a canal walk or visit the Cathedral or the Roman ruins at Castlefield.
Take a look at what we recommend to do to really get to know Manchester:

Old Trafford at night
Old Trafford Stadium – Book a tour and see the ‘theatre of dreams.’ You’ll get shown all around the stadium, go into the home dressing room and even have a chance to get on the pitch! If you’re a fan of football (or just Man United) then Old Trafford is probably the most famous stadium in the world, and home to one of the world's biggest clubs.

Etihad Stadium – that said, I’m a City supporter myself and considering how we’re doing in the Premier League so far compared to United it might be worth going to see the Etihad instead!

Hopefully we will be seeing this again soon! Picture c/o Reuters

Manchester Museum of Science and Industry – Manchester played a huge part in the Industrial Revolution and the Museum of Science of Industry was seen recently on ‘Corrie’. Learn more about Manchester’s industrial past here and enjoy a walk along the canals.

Manchester Museum – A lovely museum in the University that was recently renovated with a brand new rejuvenated Egyptian department. Having studied Archaeology at the University of Manchester a lot of my time was spent in this museum and alongside the exhibits it also has a lovely shop that perfect for souvenirs, as well as a café. Well worth visiting to see the fantastic T-Rex they have on display which they have running along the gallery.

Gallery of Costume – this is all the way down in Platt Fields Park but definitely a must see for us theatrical folk! Featuring beautiful costumes and fashion through the ages this is just a small museum but always lovely to go to.
Royal Exchange Theatre, photo c/o innasky

Royal Exchange Theatre – in the centre of Manchester is the lovely Royal Exchange, a beautiful ‘theatre in the round’ that attracts lots of fantastic productions, both modern and traditional. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is showing until Saturday the 3rd May – we’ve got our tickets booked for the Friday performance already!

The Palace Theatre – when the touring musicals come to town they come into this theatre and on the 3rd of May a run of ‘Rock of Ages’ will be starting, eventually finishing on the 10th of May. After three years on the West End Manchester now has a chance to relive the 80’s with this energetic musical that’s filled with power ballads. Excellent if you feel like punching the air, unleashing a mullet and doing the air guitar in the stalls.

Take a walk along the canals in Castlefield
Photo c/o innasky
The Opera House – yet another great theatre and the 3rd of May happens to be the last night of ‘See How They Run’, presented by The Reduced Height Theatre Company and starring the legendary Warwick Davis. We’d suggest booking your tickets now to avoid disappointment!

The Lowry – if anyone is planning a long weekend in Manchester and you’re still around on Monday the 5th May then you’re in luck as 'Fame the Musical' has its opening night at the Lowry! Dust off your legwarmers and ‘learn how to fly’ with the students of New York’s High School of the Performing Arts.

Manchester Cathedral – You’ll find the cathedral near Harvey Nichols and Selfridges and it offers a peaceful and tranquil area away from the buzz of the city centre. The Cathedral dates back as far as Saxon times and the cathedral its famed for its misericords which are considered to be some of the finest in Europe.

Castlefield – the Castlefield Bowl is a popular visitor attraction due to its Roman ruins from when the city was first founded. The site also has a reconstruction of a small fort and if you follow the site around you can get down to the network of canals which are perfect for a walk as you can see some of the Industrial buildings and mills. On the way to Castlefield there is also a small ‘greasy spoon’ that serves up delicious bacon rolls – perfect for a cold day!

John Rylands, photo c/o Manchester Confidential
John Ryland’s Library – Part of the University of Manchester but tucked away on Deansgate is the John Ryland’s Library which has one of ‘the world’s finest collections of rare books and manuscripts.’ The library itself is a beautiful gothic building that was originally designed by the architect Basil Champneys. The library took ten years to build and is considered ‘the best example of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe’.

Afflecks Palace - Affleck's is a shopping mecca and an absolute must for anyone visiting the city. Located in the Northern Quarter Afflecks features hundreds of different small shops run by independent sellers where you can find anything from records, vintage clothing, an american diner with out of this world milkshakes, a bead shop and several extensive costume shops! If you are putting on a show or need a costume for a themed evening or night out Afflecks is the first place to go and despite having lived in Manchester for 5 years I always discover something new when I go to Afflecks. It really is the pride of the city and is a wonderful place to discover and support independent traders.
Afflecks Palace with Black Dog Ballroom tucked underneath it. Photo c/o Murder Mystery Costumes (who can be found inside)

Of course, these are just our top picks, there really is much more to do and explore in this city.
We will be on our stand all weekend so do make sure you come say hello and if you want any further recommendations – perhaps artisan cinemas or karaoke bars, then don’t hesitate to ask!

We’re looking forward to seeing everyone at the weekend and we hope you find this guide helpful, or that you’re persuaded to stay a few extra nights!

Written by Tamsin

Picture Credits:

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Immerse Yourself - A New Way to Engage Audiences

FMC Technologies production of 'Hansel & Gretel', Cloth No 887 Gingerbread House Interior

For many years pantomime season has been the bread and butter of the amateur theatre world.

The festive period is the busiest time of year for us as scenery suppliers and also vastly successful for amateur companies as you can often really rely on the fact that whatever panto you choose to put on you can depend on getting plenty of bums on seats as people attend their local panto regularly year after year.
The key to panto’s popularity with its audience is the fact that the shows themselves are very interactive and depend on the audience’s participation, as well as offering a full escapism into a different world. It’s that feeling of involvement that appeals to so many of the people that attend a pantomime each year, and audiences come out of the theatre feeling like you’ve all shared a great laugh together, and whilst watching a panto you also become immersed into a new world. Unlike viewing a piece of theatre that addresses hard issues or has the characters overcoming terrible struggles, for example ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ which is a wonderful play but also very distressing, in pantoland you can rely on the fact that good always triumphs over evil in the end and that the land of ‘Far Far Away' is always very cheerful, hence offering a form of escapism from the drudgery of day to day life.
The success of how audiences respond to this involvement is clearly something us in the amateur world have recognised and known for years and it now seems like everyone else is finally catching up as interactive theatre outside of pantomime is enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment.

This post was prompted by an article in this months Elle Magazine which looked into ‘the best new cultural experiences that put you at the heart of the action’ – a pick of events currently on in the UK which offer you something slightly different for your money – think quirky locations and improvised performances.

Article from the 2014 May Issue of UK Elle Magazine - Available for subscription both digitally and on print
The shows that they list cater to a multitude of different tastes from ‘Macbeth’ being performed in a carpark to a boutique festival.
(On a totally different note - the Macbeth tickets are delivered as little passports - how awesome is that? You know you're going to see something really special when the tickets are a bit different)
These are the kind of shows that I love to go and see as it takes you out your comfort zone – in a theatre you can rely on the safety of the seats but when out in the open who knows what’s going to pop up where! Even just being in a strange location can enhance your involvement in the piece as it blurs that barrier between actors and audiences.

To run alongside the article in Elle we thought we’d recommend some other similar events and experiences that we would recommend if you fancy dipping your toe into something a little bit different and seeing for yourself what the hype is about – without having to gather at midnight in a disused warehouse or creepy carpark.

The Three Witches of Macbeth
 by Alexandre-Marie Colin.
Wouldn't want these sneaking up on you!
Punchdrunk are considered to be the real pioneers in immersive theatre at the moment and specialise in creating ‘theatrical experiences’ where the audience can choose what to watch and where to go – often being given free reign across the set. This month they have put together ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ alongside the National Theatre.

Promising to tread the line between illusion and reality attendees are advised to ‘wear comfortable footwear’ but if you’ve got images of a bunch of drama graduates in leotards running around a dimly lit space then you’ve definitely got the wrong idea. Punchdrunk are the people you want to see to put your faith back into experimental theatre.

Future Cinema's screening of 'Ghostbusters' - Pictures c/o Future Cinema and Photography by Hanson Leatherby
 For people who want an added theatrical experience on top of a more regular activity then one of our top recommendations is to go check out the events run by Future Cinema as well as their sister company Secret Cinema.
Future Cinema promise to offer ‘cinematic experiences like no other’, and this is a promise that they definitely deliver on.
Future Cinema and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'
Photography by Roberta Facchini
Combining screening popular films with an added theatrical experience their screenings are in absolutely huge demand. Charlotte Skeoch of The Huffington Post wrote that attending Future Cinema is ‘like being dunked head first into your favourite guilty pleasure.’ Each location is decorated appropriately and in extraordinary detail and the screening is combined with actors physically acting out scenarios alongside the film. It’s essentially a themed event on acid as everything is planned down to a T, from the costumes that the organisers wear down to special effects within the film (I believe a lot of slime was involved at their showing of ‘Ghostbusters’) and the menu and drinks that are on offer are all in accordance with the themes in the film. Charlotte Skeoch rightly explained the event as being ‘multi-sensory’ and in my book the added elements make it much more of a fun escape then just plonking yourself down in a dark room at the regular cinema.

Secret Cinema also offers the same immersion into the film – however the catch is that often the film is left as a complete mystery so who knows what world you’re going to end up being dunked in! 
I'm already breaking the first rule of Secret Cinema as their website proclaims 'tell no-one.'
Secret Cinema’s latest offering was its recent showing of Wes Anderson’s (our favourite! See our blog post here) new film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

Secret Cinema's screening for 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' picture c/o their facebook page

The event held for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ encouraged those attending to dress up in costume and the location, actors, décor and food and drink were all chosen to recreate films and references from the film.

The popularity and success of both of these events shows that people are definitely interested in exploring a more ‘hands on’ style of theatre – people enjoy being involved and having people taking part can turn what could be considered quite a solitary activity – such as attending a cinema, into a real social event. In short, audiences now want the full experience of being immersed totally into a different world – escapism taken to the next level!
Of course, as I mentioned before, all of us theatrical folk have known the appeal of audience involvement for years but perhaps this suggests we can all look forward to a new golden age of theatre.
A big question could be is could we enhance amateur theatre shows further? Even something little such as the staff working at the theatre being in costume would certainly be a talking point for the audience while they gather before the  show and would help establish an atmosphere before the curtain was even up – the world that the show is set needn’t begin and end at the front of the stage, it could be good fun to sneak a few added extras into the theatre itself.

These theatrical elements already have a real foothold outside theatre itself as institutions like museums often capitalise on the fun factor by having actors dressed as figures from history giving demonstrations or guided tours.

The 'Back to Front Weekend' at the Foundling Museum. Picture from Dan Weill Photography

Our very own Tamsin getting
into the spirit of the weekend
The 'Back to Front Weekend by Yinka Shonibare' event at the Foundling Museum in London that we helped out at saw the museums staff put together a weekend celebrating the museums past and engaging the local community. The entire staff team dressed in authentic costumes from the period and collaborated with local schools in a role reversal weekend where the children, also in costume, gave tours and acted out small skits – as well as learning about the Foundling Museum’s origins.
The weekend was a huge success and even included performances given by students from RADA who gave sword fighting demonstrations and re-enacted scenes from popular plays.
It was a great weekend, and a huge success for the museum – many visitors commented on how lovely it was to see people sweeping around in their costumes and how it really enhanced how they experienced the museum. It also attracted a lot more visitors who had only heard about the museum through its promotion of the event!
The 'Back to Front Weekend' at the Foundling Museum.
Picture from Dan Weill Photography

The success of events like these are encouraging more people and businesses to use a more theatrical element or create an experience which they can use to promote their products or exhibitions and it’s a technique which really goes hand in hand with this decade’s craze: viral marketing.
The longboat after its trip along the Thames ready
 for Vikings Live, picture c/o The British Museum
All across the UK you can experience the theatrical outside the theatre with well known success stories including the ‘Dungeons’ experiences which are scattered across the uk in cities including Edinburgh, York and London and even the upcoming ‘Vikings Live’ that the British Museum have put together to promote their current exhibition ‘Vikings Life and Legend’ – where they’ve even sailed a longboat down the Thames! It even boils down to people handing out flyers on the street while dressed in a costume – if anyone has seen the costumed actors advertising the Edinburgh ghost walks then they’ll know that they truly help to establish a chilling and unnerving atmosphere!

I definitely think that interactivity only enhances an audiences experience further and is something we can all embrace – but if you’re not too sure and do fancy dipping your toe then our (and Elle magazines!) fantastic recommendations for shows and events are definitely all good places to start!

Have you experienced an interactive or themed event or seen a fantastic show lately? Let us know with a comment below and share the knowledge!

Written by Tamsin

Picture Credits:
Elle Magazine May Issue 2014

Thursday 3 April 2014

A #bearinablanket project update!

A few months ago we officially announced the launch of our new charity initiative, the #bearinablanket project.We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the huge response that we received from everyone and are so excited that so many of you are willing to join us with our challenge!

We recently sent over a shipment of bears and blankets to the charity Little Stars in Luxor, who have just got back in touch with some pictures to show what happens next.
Little Stars is currently supporting around 85 families in rural Luxor.
Since their establishment Little Stars have built a clean medical clinic that provides free healthcare to the surrounding community, as well as being a resource centre that provides additional support.
Today, the centre includes a surgery, an IT room, several schoolrooms and a playroom featuring numerous toys for the children who often don’t have any of their own. It also has a sewing room where women are shown how to use sewing machines and taught how to sew their own clothes, and to mend and make alterations. The IT room is often used to help teach the children who can attend as well as teaching computer skills to help people find jobs.
Not only this but Little Stars also helps the poorest families in the outlying villages by taking out food parcels for them once a month, and handing out donations of clothing. Typically a family will have to survive on around 400.00 Egyptian Lei a month, given to them by the government – the equivalent of about £40.00.

Images showing the living conditions of the families that the charity currently supports
From looking at the pictures you can see that the conditions these families are living in are appalling, and deeply upsetting to witness.
The centre runs on donations and is in desperate need of clothing and shoes for older children as well as for the younger children, babies and toddlers.
Whilst Egypt is very hot during the day it can become very cold at night and without proper clothes to cover them the children are incredibly vulnerable to becoming sick. Even a small knitted hat for a new born baby can make a difference.

One of the families that Little Stars supports is a mother and her two children, both of whom are severely disabled.

Both children are unable to move so their mother is their full time carer, and she struggles to find any time to be able to go out to work and earn money and therefore relies on the charity to support her.
What these families really need is money and food, but through the Little Stars centre they also have access to resources to help them learn skills that they can use to support themselves better.

Pictures of the facilities at the Little Stars clinic. The second image shows some of the clothing that the women have been
making in their sewing class.
The children that received the bears and the blankets were totally overwhelmed that something had been made specially for them by people in a far away country. The gesture from receiving a bear showed them that lots of people do care and are trying to help.

They were so thrilled to each have a toy of their own, as well as a matching blanket to snuggle up in at night. Even the older children were gathering around and were delighted when there was enough for them also. We think the older boys would be even more impressed if they received some things from ‘Manchester United’ (much as it pains me to say, being a firm City supporter!) but from now on as well as knitting the bears and blankets we’re also going to start collecting footballs and other Man United club bits and pieces.

However there are still plenty more children who do not have a teddy or a blanket yet. We need you to join us in continuing to knit these bears and blankets to show even more families that we want to try and help them.
This time we also sent out lots of children’s clothing which Little Stars can distribute so alongside your bears and blankets please feel free to donate any clothing and toys, and we also accept donations of balls of wool to keep us going!
To an experienced knitter, knitting a bear and a blanket is such a small thing but it really did make a huge difference to these children who were just so appreciative!

 If you would like to learn more or receive our #bearinablanket project info pack please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
You can leave a comment here or on our facebook page, or you can email us at

Additionally, you can download the info pack by visiting this page

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported us so far!