I went to Manchester's Aviva Studios for the first time and it differs from Co-op Live in one big way

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“Many people, like me, have forgotten about it.”

As the tumultuous debut season of the Co-op Live arena keeps people talking, it’s easy to forget that it is not the only multi-million-pound arts venue to open in Manchester over the last 12 months. 

At £210m, Aviva Studios cost around half the Co-op Live, which is now estimated to have cost £410m in total. But like Co-op Live, the multi-purpose arts venue part-opened to much fanfare. The big day coincided with the start of Manchester International Festival, the flagship event of the venue’s owner Factory International, which was also the venue’s original name until increased construction costs forced the organisation to sell the naming rights.  

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The second phase of the opening came in October 2023, with Free Your Mind, an immersive dance show based on modern sci-fi classic The Matrix and directed by Danny Boyle – now also available to watch on iPlayer, along with a documentary on the opening of the venue. 

Since then, Aviva Studios – backed by both the Arts Council and Manchester City Council – has welcomed music gigs, children’s shows, a fitness festival, comedy, art and dance performances. Located at the site once occupied by Granada Studios, the futuristic-looking arts space was lauded as the continuation of the area’s cultural legacy and an important next chapter for the city’s art scene. 

Manchester Council

So, having missed out on Free Your Mind tickets at the end of last year, I had been checking the event schedule on and off, waiting for the right opportunity to finally check out this state-of-the-art venue. Despite all the excitement around its opening, however, it kind of fell off my radar. 

I went to cover the Manchester Culture Awards there in December, but it wasn’t until recently that something truly caught my eye.

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My experience of Aviva Studios

The play in question was Robin/Red/Breast and it got my attention for two reasons: Maxine Peake and ‘folk horror.’ The former is a local, if not national, treasure and the latter is a genre that is very much in my wheelhouse – think the Wicker Man or Midsommar.

The ticket specified that we had to be punctual as there was strictly no admittance once the performance started at 7:30pm. There was also a note that the production required audience members to wear headphones – a sign that this was not theatre in the traditional sense. To make sure we made it on time, and to avoid the chaos of people leaving the Great Manchester Run and arriving for the Manchester City parade, we decided to make an evening of it. 

When we arrived at 5:30pm, it was already quite busy. The foyer is a large, open space, with a contemporary industrial aesthetic, accented with pops of orange and complemented by red brick arches in a nod to the city’s history. The façade of the building, on the other hand, is modern and angular, as if crafted in paper like origami. If you’re approaching the venue from Salford across the river, it’s certainly the first thing that catches your eye on the Manchester skyline. 

Along one side of the space is a bar that has a café section, a pizza slice counter and an accessible bar. There’s a reception desk towards the centre next to a bookshop selling a curated selection of books, mainly by female authors, probably to coincide with the Women of the World (WOW) festival that was taking place at Aviva.

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Most of the tables and sofas were occupied by diners and people who had just popped in for a drink. Some people were just sat reading books. Elsewhere, there were people in hard hats and paint-splattered overalls coming in and out of the building, who looked like they were preparing for an upcoming show or installation. In fact, most of the people there looked like they worked in media or the creative industry, which is to be expected as the building is also home to the Factory International and MIF offices.  

The food menu includes brunch and fry-up options, served until 4pm, and a Manchester Mezze menu, served until 8pm. This includes a selection of small plates with names like ‘Curried Mile’ broccoli, Cauli-nation Street and Irwell Caviar (king prawns and black pudding), priced between £4.95 and £7.95. When we went to order, they had run out of many of the items, it was busy day in Manchester after all, but we found three we liked, as well as a couple of slices of square Romana-style pizza. Together with two glasses of wine served in trendy stemless wine glasses, the bill came to £40. As we were finishing, a queue to the North Warehouse was already forming. There were no allocated seats for Robin/Red/Breast, and people were getting ready to grab a spot so we decided to do the same. 

Once inside, I was taken aback by the set and layout of the space. Last time I was here, it was a giant warehouse space with a stage and circular tables for an awards ceremony. This time, the room was small and intimate; tiered benches had been set up in the round and there was a wooden frame of a house on a dirt floor in the centre – it felt more like the Royal Exchange than one of the biggest arts spaces in the city. This is one of the selling points of Aviva Studios, the moveable walls which can be adjusted for each event. 

Aviva Studios as seen from above. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesAviva Studios as seen from above. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Aviva Studios as seen from above. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images | Getty Images

The performance itself was only 55 minutes, which was all my back could take sitting on a bench. God knows how the people sat on the floor felt. Nonetheless, I was totally captivated throughout. Peake, who has worked with Factory International for many years and is stalwart champion of the local arts scene, was utterly mesmerising in this dark and sinister performance, that also included an all-female brass ensemble and water falling from the ceiling. This was not the kind of programming you’ll find at the Opera House or Palace, for sure. And if you were wondering what the headphones were for, we used them to listen to the protagonist's thoughts at the start of the play as Maxine Peake moved around the stage in silence.

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The verdict

My first proper experience of Aviva Studios was definitely a success and I will no longer walk past and wonder what goes on in there. There’s a clear audience for places like Aviva Studios, not unlike the crowd you see at Home, or Ancoats and Chorlton, and I would begrudgingly say that I fit that demographic. In other words, it’s no surprise that I had a good time. 

There is definitely a need in Manchester for a venue like Aviva Studios, which is, according to its website at least, striving for inclusivity. Unlike the Co-op Live, it has seemingly been made with the people of Manchester in mind, providing a space for local creatives, running public educational programs, bringing international artists to Manchester and even offering affordable ticket schemes.

But there is still a disconnect between what goes on here and the people of Manchester, many of whom will still be oblivious to its existence or, like me, have simply forgotten about it. I only know two other people who have been to a performance here, for example. Aviva Studios is perfectly poised to address this issue of access to the arts, that’s why it has council backing. At the moment, it lacks mass appeal but it does offer some hope for the Manchester arts scene.

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