This Town: why Manchester-based writer Rory Aaron has created a 7,000-word epic poem about small town life

Manchester-based writer and spoken word artist Rory Aaron says his new work This Town is ‘for those from the far-off towns that nobody’s heard of’ ahead of its premiere at Contact.
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A Manchester-based writer and performer has produced an impressive ode to small-town life in the unusual form of a 7,000-word epic poem on the subject which is now being brought to life on the stage at a theatre in the city.

This Town, by Rory Aaron, turns the artistic spotlight away from the bright lights of the city to focus on “the far-off towns that nobody’s heard of” in an exploration of class, family, the military, the working class and life in the wake of the economic crash of the late 2000s and the era of austerity.

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Originally envisaged as a long work for him to recite in settings such as pubs, This Town is now being put on the stage after Rory was commissioned by Contact and Derby Theatre as a two-person show putting him alongside fellow performer and poet Kate Ireland. Rory told ManchesterWorld how he wanted to celebrate the sort of places that do not often get explored in depth in literature and poetry and how he wanted to produce a modern, up-to-date take on a very old form of poetry.

What is This Town about and how was it created?

This Town has been a work several years in the making for poet, writer and spoken word artist Rory and it draws heavily on his upbringing in small towns around Derbyshire and their relationship with Derby city centre as well as his experiences since moving to Greater Manchester.

It starts in a pub with friends Dean and Joe but builds into a complex exploration of the issues and the solidarity that can be found in working-class communities and the way that seemingly innocuous events happening over a couple of days can have an impact that will be felt for years.

Rory, who is 31 and now lives in Reddish in Stockport, said: “I wanted to write a big, long narrative poem diving into the lives of people growing up and living in a small town. Once I discovered the narrative and sorted it out in my head it felt really natural to do it as an epic poem.

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“I write in accessible language and didn’t want to go complicated or abstract, so it’s a very modern way of doing an epic poem. I wanted to write something that would have appealed to myself at the age of 16 or 17 so I could perform it in theatres or schools and it would appeal to people like me growing up.

Rory Aaron and Kate Ireland are taking to the Contact stage to perform Rory’s 7,000 word epic poem This Town. Photo: Audrey AlbertRory Aaron and Kate Ireland are taking to the Contact stage to perform Rory’s 7,000 word epic poem This Town. Photo: Audrey Albert
Rory Aaron and Kate Ireland are taking to the Contact stage to perform Rory’s 7,000 word epic poem This Town. Photo: Audrey Albert

“It’s about growing up in Derby city centre and the towns just north of it like Belper and Ripley. It’s roughly based on these places but I play with it a bit and have some fun with the locations. I definitely think people living in small towns in the north or who grew up in the recession in a working-class town will get it.

“It’s about how the economic crisis since 2008 has affected towns and city centres, it’s about the anger and the claustrophobia of small towns, it’s about friendship and mental health, about the way the working-class body has been seen as the way to success rather than the mind. It’s about people figuring out if they want to stay or leave, it looks at the way the miltary tends to recruit in these towns and the relationship they have with country, state and nationalism.

“I would describe it as angry but mixed with nostalgia and very compassionate as well as funny in parts. I wanted to take people’s lives and voices from these small towns and show they can exist in a theatre show.”

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Kate, who lives in Didsbury, added: “The story is set in quite a short period of time, a couple of quite inconsequential days, but magnifies the political and personal pockets of people’s lives and shows the impact they will have forever. As performers we travel fluidly between characters but there’s an emphasis on Dean and Joe and also on Sarah.

This Town explores the beauty and the difficulty of living in small towns rarely known to people living outside them. Photo: Audrey AlbertThis Town explores the beauty and the difficulty of living in small towns rarely known to people living outside them. Photo: Audrey Albert
This Town explores the beauty and the difficulty of living in small towns rarely known to people living outside them. Photo: Audrey Albert

“Sarah questions the masculinity that determines these towns and how their culture is formed as well as how people speak and interact. She dreams of leaving and acts like the audience’s eyes, she can see it from the outside when a lot of the other characters are very entrenched.”

Rory also took inspiration for This Town from his seven years as a youth worker in Greater Manchester, which included time in Leigh in Wigan borough as well as areas of Manchester such as Moss Side and Harpurhey.

He said: “A lot of that is in there, about the challenges young people face. It’s also about those towns nobody knows about. There are a lot of good and beautiful people living difficult lives and that’s ultimately what this is about. I love these kinds of places, for me they feel like home, but they get a bad rap. There’s a real sense of togetherness and community, although I do highlight the claustrophobia as well, and there are these massive lives that never get talked about.

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“We grew up with the idea that to be aspirational meant to leave, and the piece questions whether that was right. Maybe there’s something in staying as well.”

How did This Town end up on stage and being performed at Contact?

Rory has already brought out a book of poems and This Town will end up in print, and when he began writing the epic poem he originally thought he would tour it around venues such as pubs reading it.

Oxford Road arts hub and self-styled ‘castle of curiosity’ Contact, though, saw something more dramatic in it and together with Derby Theatre commissioned it for the stage. It is now being prepared for its theatrical debut with the help of funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Kate, who Rory had already met through open mic poetry nights and the spoken word scene, was invited to audition for the second narrator-type role and a team was assembled to put it on the boards including director Cheryl Martin, movement director Chris Brown and sound composer Blythe Pepino, who is in the band Mesadorm.

Contact Theatre in ManchesterContact Theatre in Manchester
Contact Theatre in Manchester
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Rory heaped praise on the creative team and said Kate had played a significant role in getting the script through the final writing and editing stages. He said Contact was the ideal venue for a work exploring the relationship between towns and cities because it is in a city but draws people in from less-privileged backgrounds through working with young people and keeping ticket prices affordable.

Kate said: “I’m really excited for this, trying to encapsulate a whole world on stage. Watching people put everything into telling a story in this kind of pared-down setting is really exciting.”

Keisha Thompson, artistic director and CEO of Contact, said: “We’re thrilled to be the home ofThis Town, Rory Aaron’s debut theatre show. As a long-time collaborator of Rory’s, I’m no stranger to his endearing energy on stage and his exceptional vision as a storyteller.

“Rory is unafraid to tackle huge subjects head-on; class, trauma, representation, pasts and futures. His reimagining of the narrative poem for modern audiences is set to be a timely and necessary interrogation of today’s most pressing issues - and what better place than Contact to ask these questions? I can’t wait!”

This Town will be performed at Contact from 22 March to 30 March. Tickets are available to book from the Contact website.