team viking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a loop pedal and a slightly shattered heart, James Rowland stands alone onstage. He wears scuffed trainers, odd socks and a viking helmet. Paddling his way through our emotions, he tells us an extraordinary tale of grief, robbery and Christmas pudding. 

Growing up, Rowland used to play vikings with his best friends Tom and Sarah. That childish delight never really disappeared from their friendship, so when Tom is diagnosed with incurable heart cancer, it is only fitting that he asks his two best friends to give him a properly spectacular ending: a viking funeral.  

It’s funny how much someone can make you care about another person just through words and a few bad jokes. As Rowland describes Tom’s devastating deterioration, humour and sadness jolt through each other like an electric shock passing through water.

The way Rowland carves this story is at once beautifully groomed and wonderfully raggedy. His style of speech is causal and tangential, yet each strand of story is carefully gathered together and tied neatly, providing such a sense of catharsis, with layer upon layer of emotion offering us a full, thick fabric of a life. A loop-pedalled song divides the piece up, providing a respite to let the words settle, and Rowland’s slightly scratchy voice that sounds as if he’s had a pint before the show only serves to make it more charming. This play simply swells.

Team Viking is about grief and friendship. But within its humility and simplicity it holds so much more. It is anger for the things that weren’t good enough. It is joy for the little moments that make up existence. It is the look passed between friends when someone says something you’re too polite to outwardly react to, but you both think is utterly ridiculous. It is the joy of gathering with a group of strangers and sharing a story. It is the innocence of a child and the awkwardness of a teen. It is the awful urge to laugh in a tragic situation. It is fiction being better than real life. It is the excruciating faults of humans. It is the pain of living and the unfairness of death. It is wanting to be remembered after you are gone. It is the details you add to make a better ending. It is, I reckon, a little bit golden.

I watched Team Viking sitting next to one of my best friends. At the most overwhelming point of the show, when my face wasn’t so much streaming with tears but rather had itself become a puddle, he gently touched my arm, just to say that he was there. I put my hand on his knee, to say thank you. I think that’s what this play is about.

Original: Exeunt

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Abi.gifJóhann Jóhannsson – Forces Of Attraction

Portraits in Motion is a theatrical version of Humans of New York. Volker Gerling goes on long walks in Germany and gets by via the kindness of strangers. He photographs these people he meets and then makes the photographs into flipbooks, which he develops by hand. In his play, which is actually more of an explanation than a performance, he shows us his travelling exhibition, telling us stories of the strangers he meets on his travels. I saw it as part of Mayfest, the theatre festival that takes over Bristol for a snippet of Spring.

A week after seeing Portraits in Motion I learnt about the suicide of a girl from my school. I didn’t know her well but it still seems incomprehensible. She was a person I just assumed in the back of my mind would go on having a life- in the periphery of my own as we were never close- but at the centre of hers. It is awful to think what she suffered, and it is bizarre how the world just goes on when something so devastating has happened.

Gerling shows us each flipbook three times. He does it slowly, the brushing of the pages having the tingle effect of an ASMR video, or that feeling when someone would trace the alphabet down your spine in assembly. As you watch the face in the flipbook, thrown onto the projected screen, and see it break open into a smile you catch yourself, noticing how much you judged the severe face at first, not expecting such a stern person to exude such joy. I guess we never really know what’s going on inside someone.

I don’t mean to trivialise this tragedy by comparing the emotions it causes to those of a play, but in my mind it was a logical link and a way to think about what death actually means. Portraits in Motion makes you realise how much we can miss everyday, how much can be seen of a person in their laugh, and how much we should value those around us. Death, I think, makes us realise similar things. It makes us value our time with those we love more. It almost shocks you into telling someone how you feel about them, how special they are. Seeing this show and hearing this news made me want more memories to keep, more ways to remember people as we part this summer.

It made me want more of a grasp on my friends, I suppose.

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Chicken

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I’m very lucky to have them. I love seeing them laugh.

 

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Note: I know next to nothing about the army. I get the technical details in this from my plus one.

pink

‘We didn’t know it but we were already history.

And history’s what we’ve become.

Not the kind that’s recorded or sung, perhaps,

but history still. Our own, histories of one.’

Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist is a punch in your chest, a stab in your heart, a whisper in your ear telling you that someone is still there even when they’re gone.

On the thrust stage of the Bristol Old Vic are Hads, Taff and Arthur, our three boys, ‘We might have thought ourselves men/ but we weren’t, not yet, not then.’ It’s Arthur, the one with the cheeky smile, who pushes the others to sign up to go to war, so it’s Arthur who takes responsibility for what happens. As we see the three jump from their small life in Bristol to the wide world of war in Afghanistan, it’s hard to compare who they were with who they are after a few months away. It’s painful to think how much healthier they’d all be if they hadn’t left, but impossible to forget how much they grow in ways they wouldn’t if they had stayed.

It feels like you’re watching hearts and minds break. Almost every word is attached to a movement, making the moments of stillness shine. Noting the repetitions of movements for different meanings contrasts innocence and violence, a firework becoming a bomb just as a playground game of war becomes the real thing. Though dealing with such an aggressive subject, there is a layer of gentleness that runs throughout. As Arthur cradles a bird egg he stole before he went to war, the tenderness in his actions makes him seem like a young boy again.

Every moment tingles. The annunciation, the movements that are so precise. The way Phil Dunster’s body ripples as he leads us through these young men’s lives. The way they all look at each other. The lyrical beauty of Sheer’s words have the ability to either spike or flow, merging an incredible clarity of storytelling with youthful cheekiness and military terminology. It never leaves you behind, regardless of your understanding- or lack thereof- of tanks or training bases, of sangar, bluey or Brize.

Based on interviews with soldiers and their families, the thorough research behind the play is obvious. The green is the exact colour of night vision, the sounds are just what it’s like when a bullet whizzes past you, the helmets are the same as the one lying on the bedroom floor I left this morning. Pink Mist gets the sense of camaraderie that draws so many people to the army. Forget Queen and country, it’s about the men standing next to you. There are no limits to the lengths these men would go to for their friends on the field.

It’s not cheery, obviously. But it’s almost more painful when they’re talking about the good bits. The dark humour that they use to get through it all twists your emotions in seconds. I used to think that crying was this unexplainable thing your body occasionally did, but now I think it’s like there’s too much inside you that some of it has to spill out from your eyes. In a book review of Sheer’s poem is written, ‘there is no forced sentiment’ and this is completely true of the stage version. It is honest, open and funny. It is also terribly, terribly sad.

I imagine that Pink Mist has an extra layer of magic performed in its hometown here in Bristol, that it must lack elsewhere. There’s something special about being able to hear about Thekla in the play after walking past it on your way to the theatre.

This story makes you realise that sometimes it takes something awful to happen to make you see just how lucky you are. Count the blessings, not the curse.

Regardless of personal views or personal ties to the military, Pink Mist is a thing of beauty. But if you see it with someone whose future could be being played out in front of you, the play is a two-hour long explosion in your heart, and you might need your hand held for a while after the lights come up.

Bristol Old Vic, 23/02/2016

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shed

The language of loss is sprayed over us like disinfectant in Bea Robert’s play And Then Come The Nightjars. It’s about loss of love, loss of land, loss of livestock, loss of dignity, loss of every little thing that makes us human- and then whatever makes us up when that’s all gone.

‘Nothing makes any sense anymore. No one listens to me.’

My grandma says that when you get old- like properly old- people don’t touch you anymore. Your skin is seen as slightly repulsive as it gets looser and thinner. Your levels of intimacy decrease. You words don’t have so much gravity to them in other people’s minds. It’s as if your opinion counts for less.

‘Don’t hurt my girls.’

When 60- something year old farm owner Michael, played with such kindness and fury by David Fielder, is told that all his livestock have to be killed because of the spreading foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the English countryside, he rages as if he’s been told to kill his own children. These words matter. He matters. Michael has as many wrinkles on his face as years in his life. He grumbles and stumbles around the small stage but has complete ownership of the space and authority over his farm. This is his space. He was born in the house upstairs. ‘I went to Coventry once. It was shit’. In his strong Devon accent, half his words are gristle.

‘You’re a waste of space.’

40- something year old Jeffrey begins as a bit of a loveable posh twat. Played by Nigel Hastings, he has just the right levels of cockiness and sadness. He’s Michael’s vet, the only one he trusts. But when Jeffrey is drunk, emotionally damaged from his work and personal life- words spitting out of his mouth with a slur as if he’s just had a tooth out, blood dripping from his forehead- he’s a little bit vile.

‘It’s bad luck is Nightjars. It’s a bird o’death.’

Roberts’ play sings like the nightjars, only with a little more hope than their death call. We follow Michael and Jeffrey through broken homes, break ups and break downs. When the shots ring out on the farm they sting us. The light of the fire glowing through the back door of the shed. In the front row the steam rolls over us and the ash falls just in front of our feet.

Time passes in this play in the most beautiful way. Lighting designer Sally Ferguson has choreographed a sequence where the sun rises and streams through the wooden slats then runs across the room and gets warmer then colder, bouncing off the metal farm tools and curling round the piles of ropes. It streams in and out and jumps round and round slowly. It’s bewitching.

Paul Robinson’s production makes it an incredibly intimate piece of theatre. It’s just these two guys, talking about cows in a crumbling wooden shed with time passing and the world changing around them. It almost feels intrusive for us to be there, sitting in on their conversations- both mundane and fiery. The cobwebs and the details of Max Dorey’s set make it feel so real. The broken flickering lights. The rusty trowel propped against the side. The dusty hay strewn floor. My friend who lives on a farm leans in and whispers, ‘it literally looks like my shed’.

After the tragedy there’s a bit of hope for the future before we dip into depression again. Despite all this it’s an incredibly funny play, but the kind of funny where you’re laughing through your tears. Roberts catches the humour in everyday conversation and allows the characters to make fun of themselves and eachother even in the most desperate or depressing of situations. There are few things that make your heart swell as much as an old man talking about the woman he loved, even if he talks as much about her arse as about her heart. Nostalgia has a way of piercing your skin and digging into you.

And then come the sound of the nightjars. The lights begin to fade and you know it’s the end and you want it to hold on for just a bit longer. A little bit longer before it, they and this rural lifestyle all fade away into the dark.

Bristol Old Vic, Studio Theatre, 13/10/2015

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ebt

I have rarely felt so full of love walking out of a theatre. I want to go and make a playlist of all the songs. I want to tell everyone I love that I love them. I want to go and eat ice cream and watch Jumanji and buy a record player so I can buy records and then read the sleevenotes.

I want to send everyone I know to see it. The ones who are having a really tough time at the moment. The ones who say plays aren’t their thing. The ones who need a break from work. The ones I haven’t spoken to in too long. The ones I want to share laughter and stories and embarrassing moments with.

In Every Brilliant Thing there is a list of all of the best things about life. The list is made to stop someone from killing themselves. It doesn’t work. But it is a brilliant list.

In the play the list gets to 1 million. I’d like to add a few, if that’s okay.

  1. Being embarrassed in front of your friend as you’re made to take off a single shoe and sock to make a sock dog, being asked to name it and somehow only being able to think of ‘Mr Socky’.
  2. How every single person who was involved in that piece was made to feel welcomed and loved and laughed at in the best way possible.
  3. Being able to go through the list at the end and see people’s additions: 414. Earlobes.
  4. How on it that Stage Manager was.
  5. How much my grandma would love Jonny Donahoe.
  6. Walking back from The Tobacco Factory, seeing a cyclist come towards you, stopping to let the cyclist go by, feeling confused as the cyclist slows down next to you and awkwardly realising you’ve stopped right in front of their house.
  7. Not looking where you’re going and almost being attacked by a bush.
  8. Eating strawberry laces as you discuss the warmth and openness in that room.
  9. Singing the Indiana Jones theme tune when you’re walking up Bristolian hills.
  10. Walking the rest of the way home in silence not because you don’t have anything to say, but because you’re too full of strawberry laces and every brilliant thing.

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 10/09/2015

P.s. I wrote more about Duncan Macmillan and Every Brilliant Thing here

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I wrote this preview for Every Brilliant Thing for one of my University magazines, Intermission. Unfortunately Duncan Macmillan is too interesting for 800 words so here’s the original article with some added extras.

After several failed attempts at Skype where the ringtone continues even after we can see and hear each other, we eventually get it set up correctly. I’m talking to Duncan Macmillan, author of Lungs, People, Places and Things and Every Brilliant Thing. I’ve never done a Skype interview before but find it makes it far more like a conversation. I can see his books behind him and his mug in hand and hear his crying baby from another room.

He’s in the middle of moving house. ‘I just took on too much stuff. I wasn’t writing for so many years that when people offered me work I just said yes to absolutely everything and then had a baby and then tried to move at the same time. And I don’t recommend doing most of those things, certainly not at the same time.’

***

Every Brilliant Thing follows a child’s attempt to understand depression. At its core is a list, started by the boy after his mum’s first suicide attempt. It begins with

  1. Ice cream

and gets added to at various points throughout his life until it reaches 1 million. ‘The list still has a Facebook group I think. People started their own list there and sometimes when we tour it around people want to add in their own little bits. That’s been really lovely.’ When people contribute their own, the same things come up again and again, particularly ‘hammocks, Kate Bush and different kinds of cheeses.’

Every Brilliant Thing began as a short monologue called Sleevenotes, now Macmillan’s Twitter handle. He wrote it as a ‘thank you and an apology’ to a friend who had been in his previous play but had no words and for the most part had her back to the audience. It became part of the Later series of writer’s performing their own work at Paines Plough, then formed into an art installation and then got taken to Latitude. ‘We really liked the feeling of people just getting up and reading it for the first time and not performing it too much’. Macmillan got Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and The Baptists involved, ‘a friend and a brilliant stand-up comedian’. Having a performer who isn’t an actor gives a play a different quality. ‘It happened whenever I read it, and it happens with Jonny now. People think it’s true.’

Macmillan worked intensely on the research process. ‘There was a lot that we wanted to communicate TED talk-style about depression and statistics and the brain and how moods are defined by chemistry- all this stuff I found really interesting and then you put in front of an audience and its totally dramatically inert so they don’t listen.’ They tested out lots of different ways of staging and storytelling and getting the audience involved. ‘We talked about it endlessly’. As it mixes comedy and depression, it is a difficult show to advertise. ‘From the title it sounds like a children’s play.’

They tested it out in Edinburgh. ‘Hilariously and magnificently, when no one had any faith in it whatsoever, it was reviewed brilliantly in its first preview.’ Later that year Chris Weigand of the Guardian put it as his number 1 show of 2014. ‘Suddenly the momentum rolled and rolled’. It got picked up by a production company looking for a cheap show to take to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and as Macmillan notes, ‘this is the cheapest show you can find.’ When they went to larger theatres like this ‘it was a big question of how to keep the intimacy, the lack of artifice, without it feeling like a whole bunch of British amateurs had just arrived’.

Macmillan, Perrin and Donahoe felt the need to talk about ‘something really important which we didn’t feel anyone else was really talking about in an accurate or useful way.’ A huge step in the research process was stumbling upon the Werther Effect that explains how suicide is socially contagious. ‘So if you know someone who has committed suicide, that makes the chance of you taking your own life much higher. That was quite a terrifying thing to learn.’ Because of this, a huge responsibility comes with talking about suicide. ‘We will always be peripheral to some crushing loneliness and sadness in someone else and we need to be more alert and empathetic to that.’

‘If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.’

‘I was brought up on a diet of mid 90s theatre where everyone was really desperately alone and miserable and abusive to each other and then they all killed each other in the end. It was all very hard hitting, in your face theatre. It seems a very uncool thing to say let’s all just be kind to ourselves and eachother and look for nice things that make it worth living, particularly in a show that’s trying to be formally innovative. But it did feel like it was a useful thing to say’.

In one of their development stages they gave out feedback forms. ‘It was really astonishing, when we were playing to maybe 20 people, how many had direct experience of suicidal depression’. In New York Donahoe has to make a policy of not going out after the show because so many people stayed around to tell their own stories. ‘He wanted to do it as much as possible but after doing a one man hour long show with so many variables it’s pretty exhausting. Its very emotionally and physically draining, and then he had to come out and talk to 30, 40 people about suicide and he found that quite overwhelming.’

‘I now realise that it’s important to talk about things. Particularly the things that are the hardest to talk about.’

The events around the show can also elevate it. Robin Williams took his own life around the time of their first performance in Edinburgh. ‘As he was often at the festival, and because everyone is a fan, it was crushingly sad.’ Audiences would leave the theatre after Jonny had talked about the ways the  media shouldn’t present suicide, only to see it all splashed out on the front pages. ‘To see it immediately in the cultural moment and to have that immediate frame of reference gave us new purpose.’ Towards the end Jonny, to keep the spirit of Robin Williams in the show, Jonny would often include a reference to Mawk and Mindy or Jumanji.

Every Brilliant Thing relies on audience interaction and improvisation. ‘He makes it so the audience they can’t fail and you’re not being cruel or humiliating that person, you’re allowing them to flourish.’ Jonny is the safety net for the audience. ‘He thrives on things going wrong. The shows where the unexpected happens,’ Macmillan notes, ‘they’re sort of the most magic ones.’ In part it’s down to Jonny’s casting of the audience. ‘The show always gets up late because he’s spending time getting to know everyone in the room and trying to work out who he can call on to do various bits and pieces.’

  1. Planning a declaration of love.

Comedian Josie Long played Sam, the girlfriend, in one of the first shows in Edinburgh. ’She basically sobbed throughout the whole thing, from where Sam is asked to read the list entries from 1000 to 1005 or 6. When she proposed to Jonny she made found a receipt in her pocket and she made this ring and he then wore it for the rest of the show. Moments like that, Jonny is alive to.’

Macmillan mentions another variable that depends more on where the show is being performed. ‘Sam can be a man or a woman which we did quite a lot in New York. Jonny doesn’t often choose male Sams here as it does different things in different rooms. In New York West Village it is radical in a slightly different way. Here’s a show about a gay man where we don’t know his sexuality until 45 minutes through the show, and I’m in love with this person and we never refer to the fact that we’re the same gender. And that was exciting and radical and exciting in its own way.’ He is working on several shows at the moment where those sorts of variables are inherently imbedded in the structure, ‘because I find that thing really exciting as an audience member’.

  1. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

In general, Every Brilliant Thing is apolitical. Suicide and depression do not only affect one political party, and the gesture of this show is to be as inclusive as possible. However sometimes in ad libs it just slips out. ‘At one point in the play Jonny asks if anyone has a book. ‘I think it happened in Chipping Nauton. It was quite a small audience, just after the election. He asked if anyone had a book, they said no and he said, ‘this is why we’ve got a Tory government’.’ They cut a line for New York that says there are more suicides under right wing governments. That was fascinating to me, but we decided to cut that line because everything else in the show is very apolitical and if you are a right wing person you are with the show up until that line and its meaning something to you and then you think this isn’t inclusive.’

Macmillan’s favourite number on the list constantly changes. ‘There’s one I really like which was invented by one of the designers I worked with, which is about idioms in real life.’

  1. When idioms coincide with real-life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.

‘I really like the word plinth. I really like bed, particularly at the moment when I’m not getting much sleep. I also really like the very specific ones. I really like palindromes, which is number 123321.’

***

ON DENISE GOUGH, JONNY DONAHOE AND THINGS GOING WRONG

‘The shows where things go wrong, they’re sort of the most magic ones. Hopefully it’s always good because Jonny’s always great and he thrives on things going wrong, sort of like Denise Gough does. Things happening live in the room she’s like great this is what’s happening and can respond to it really well. When traps and furniture doesn’t come up or down in the way that it should she can deal with it, she doesn’t get phased by that at all, whereas sometimes actors go, not necessarily in that show, but they go I learn my track, I learn where I stand and how I go about it, and if something throws me off I don’t know what to do, I’m panicking. Whereas Denise and Jonny- I’d love to just put them I a show together and just give them loads of instructions.’

ON MIXTAPES

‘I also love making mixtapes for people.’

‘How do you even make a mixtape anymore?’

‘Because I’m very old and I have my old technology. Or I love making playlists for people or making CDs,’ he pauses, ‘which are these old disks that old people have’.

‘I’ve heard of them’.

‘I love placing things. And I love how you place things which belong to different genres or categories but somehow collating things and looking at things in different contexts. God that’s a really boring way of saying I make mixtapes’.

ON LISTS

‘I’ve always had a short attention span as you can probably tell from interviewing me. But I also love really really long form novels. It’s just having the time to actually read it. But I love making lists, that’s how I break things down and make sense of them.

There’s something called the list in new York so we had to give the best something and I did the 10 best break up songs and Jonny did the 10 best places to get waffles in Manhattan.’

Duncan Macmillan’s 10 Best Break Up Songs:

(From The Culturalist)

  1. Love Will Tear Us Apart- Joy Division
  2. Against All Odds- Phil Collins
  3. No Children- The Mountain Goats
  4. Ex-Factor- Lauren Hill
  5. Total Eclipse of the Heart- Bonnie Tyler
  6. Someone Great- LCD Soundsystem
  7. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself- Dusty Springfield
  8. Back To Black- Amy Winehouse
  9. Bring It On Home To Me- Sam Cooke
  10. I Changed My Mind- Lyrics Born

ON LISTICLES

‘I’m way too old to know what that is.’

*I explain*

‘I have no massively strong opinion on listicles.’

‘Fair enough. Let’s move on.’

ON ACTING VS WRITING

‘What was interesting for me at the point of doing the short story [Sleevenotes] for the first time was that I still maybe at that point harboured ambitions of being an actor, and it was a really interesting point of having an audience in front of me but realising that I must more trusted what I had written than my own capacity to act it.’

ON EVERY BRILLIANT THING, PP&T AND EXTERNAL CONTROL

‘With all my writing there’s an interest in feeling like I’m authenticating my own ideas and thoughts and feelings and actually the more you learn that there is no- and I go into this a lot with People, places and things, there really is no such thing as objective truth or the self, when you really interrogate what that is. You’re being controlled by all sorts of external factors and there was something really interesting and empowering about that knowledge.

ON ROBIN WILLIAMS AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

‘[Robin Williams taking his own life during the run of Every Brilliant Thing in Ediburgh] was a bit like working on People, Places and Things and Philip Seymour Hoffman dying of a heroin overdose, and that causing such a ripple in the fellowship, in AA meetings, and so many people knew him because he’d show up at meetings wherever he was working around the world. His death was a big reminder to everyone how close they are to it at any time. Again an enormous talent that everyone loved and it was just so crushingly sad.’

ON ICE CREAM

‘What’s your favourite ice cream?’

‘Vanilla. That’s really boring.’

‘That’s really boring. That’s not going in the interview.’

‘God no. I mean ice cream is partly there as well as a reference to Wallace Shawn. I don’t think anyone else knows that. Wallace Shawn who’s one of my favourite playwrights. He’s an amazing actor too, you’d recognise him from The Princess Bride and Manhattan. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know him over the past few years and his work has always been an inspiration to me- him and Caryl Churchill, so its amazing to be at the same season as them at the Dorfman. But he just loves ice cream and will always talk about that as one of the joys and pleasures of the world. And so that’s sort of a reference to him. And it’s also a pretty indisputable thing. There are very few people who go ‘eurgh, ice cream? No.’ And it’s also the title of a Caryl Churchill play. So there are lots of things that no one will know but little literary references all the way through.’

‘I wasn’t expecting such an interesting answer from ice cream’.

***

After almost an hour of talking about theatre, clubbing and ice cream, an interruption from the police and a debate about the reputation of Drama courses, I have to run off to a lecture.

‘I hope you enjoy the show. It would be awful if you hated it now.’

***

P.S Every Brilliant Thing is in Bristol 6th-10th October. Macmillan used to go clubbing in the space that now holds The Tobacco Factory, ‘like many, many years ago’.

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