The Evil Imp

There is no Spoon!

On December 22nd 2014, we, here in TheLab™ published a piece detailing the “monstrous” cost of a newly announced arts building that was allocated funding to the tune of £78Million (with a total projected budget of £110Million) by the UK’s central government. The chaos, confusion, incompetence, and general lack of professionalism in that announcement from all concerned was, perhaps, dire foreshadowing of what was to become of “The Factory” project when it finally opened in Manchester at the end of last year and became the new home of the Manchester International Festival (MIF).

At the time of the announcement the arts in the UK had been on the receiving end of brutal cuts from the Conservative government so the last thing anybody really needed was another very expensive arts building to support. The money was only being made available at all to bolster the idea of a so-called “Northern Powerhouse”, a failed government plan to make the North of England feel better about itself because all the coal mines, whippet farms and textile mills had been shuttered.

In 2015 the architects for the building OMA released some drawings of what the project was going to look like upon completion. They illustrated an enormous glass box with a stylised tent like structure attached to the front and a large ramp leading the audience members down to the nearby river. Presumably so they could drown themselves after watching a show or escape by speedboat, either choice is plausible.

The Guardian revealed in an interview with OMA that the drawings were, to put it charitably, complete bullshit;

“It was just a sketch,” says Ellen van Loon, the OMA partner in charge. “We did it in 10 days and made the presentation in 24 hours. The tent-like structure and the glass box could never have worked with the acoustic requirements.”

The Guardian, Wednesday 18 Oct 2023

What emerged from the dust was a concrete box with some corrugated iron bolted to the front of it and a massive bill for £240Million after the budget and the opening date got completely out of control. In 2014 the annual funding for MIF (now called Factory International) was just £720,000 per year. As of this year that funding from Arts Council England (stop laughing at the back) has ballooned to just under £10Million per year, an increase of more than 1300%.

“The Matrix” movie from 1999 vs “Free your Mind” from 2023

Blow Your Mind

If anything sums up the hubris of “The Factory” then “Free Your Mind”, the venues opening gambit, did so with a comical level of panache. The show was, apparently, some sort of adaption of the 1999 feature film “The Matrix”. The Keanu Reeves starring, Wachowski directed science fiction movie was a green tinted epic that used, for its time, revolutionary camera techniques and visual fx, hyper stylised violence and “guns, lots of guns” to tell the story of a belligerent, global AI using comatose humans as batteries.

The film was set in a non-descript American city (although it was filmed in Australia) when the protagonists were inside “The Matrix”, switching to a full colour, real world, hellscape inhabited by mechanical “squiddies” that hunted the human protagonists through the tunnels of the ruined world above.

“Free your Mind” has none of these things. This show, created by Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante from Boy Blue and Danny Boyle (again, stop laughing at the back), appears to have been created by people who have never seen the actual film it purports to be based upon. What we have is an overly long hip-hop/catwalk piece that replaces all of the movies stylized mystique with….. Manchester?

Gone are Neo, Trinity, Cypher, Mobius, Dozer, Switch, Tank and Agent Smith to be replaced by black cargo pants, hi-viz vests, dancers with Amazon boxes on their heads, Google, “locking” butlers in bowler hats (are you making this up? Ed!) and a ridiculous recreation of the infamous “lobby shootout” scene. Zero attempt has been made to recreate the look and feel of the film, never mind the costumes, the fight sequences or the “bullet time” photography. There’s just a lot of angry staring, so much angry staring.

The Matrix (1999) and “Free your Mind” (2023) Side by Side

Even though this production had far more money than sense they still couldn’t spring for the original soundtrack either, created by Don Davis in collaboration with a multitude of other artists from The Prodigy, through The Propellerheads all the way to Rage Against The Machine.  Instead, we get…. “Blue Monday” from New Order, circa 1988!

You may be thinking dear readers; “this is unfair, you can’t compare the stage show to the movie”. Well, you would be wrong because “The Matrix” is a movie and it works because it’s a movie. The movie can be edited and manipulated in post-production to give exactly the look and feel required to make it work because that’s the only way that it will ever work. If you want to make a stage version of said movie and what you come up with is this terrible, then you need to deal with what’s coming. “Free Your Mind” shouldn’t even exist and with that, “Spiderman, Turn off the Dark” has entered the chat.


Factory International’s press office declined to provide any details of the production costs for “Free Your Mind”, stating only the overall budget for the organisation itself in a statement to Article19. The production is venue specific however and it’s unlikely to be performed anywhere else despite the protestations of their press department.

As for the venue itself? The huge up-front expense alongside the massive operating costs and the out-of-control funding for Factory International itself have condemned this misguided project to suck all the life out of arts activity across the United Kingdom for years to come. Even if the opening production was a triumphant demonstration of perfection and the same were true for every production that comes after it, it would never justify the preposterous cost of this entire, shambolic affair. Over the next ten years this thing will chew through another £100Million.

Such largesse could have been used to fund 10 arts building across the UK. It could have been used to replicate the Norwegian “Cultural Rucksack” programme, a large-scale project that takes arts and culture into schools and could have done so for many years. We could have employed 1000 artists full-time on a fixed salary of £35,000 per year for 7 years, boosted local arts funding for struggling venues and organisations in a thousand different places, or whatever ideas somebody, anybody with a vibrant, progressive imagination could have come up with.

Projects like Factory International and “Free Your Mind” are the demonstrable illustration of the dangers of political arts funding. It doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters where it is because those are the votes they need to buy.  The building’s press office went to great pains to emphasise that many of the dancers hired for “Free Your Mind” were from the North-West of England, a line parroted by Sarah Compton from the Guardian in her review of the show, but it’s not at all clear why that matters. You spent £240Million to hire 28 dancers from in and around Manchester? Are you crazy?

The damage caused by a project like this is incalculable. Arts funding advocates will struggle to make the case about a lack of money when the obvious retort is; “what about the quarter of a billion spent on that theatre in Manchester?” So many opportunities have been lost forever because the money is the pockets of architects, developers, and consultants, not in the hands of the people who could do something constructive and sustainable. The building has already been renamed “Aviva Studios” because an insurance company bought the naming rights for £35Million so Manchester City Council could claw back some money and save some face.

It probably won’t take too long before this monolithic blight is renamed the “The Budweiser Concrete Cave” where they run large scale dance pieces inspired by “The Fast and The Furious” movies and endless reunion concerts for Oasis. Don’t worry though, Danny Boyle will take the call and the paycheque!

If you’re in the UK then you can watch “Free your Mind” on BBC iPlayer