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Coventry goes live for Shop Front Festival

In an amazing two days Coventry put on its dancing shoes for the Shop Front Festival - a pilot City of Culture event in the run-up to 2021.

On March 23 and 24 bemused shoppers simply had too much to choose from. One minute they were being invited to a Hot Metal Requiem involving a tour of the old Coventry Telegraph building, the next to take part in a soap opera or watch a knock-your-socks-off performance by a team of professional actors rehearsing what promises to be a powerful new play: You, Me And The Refugee. Watch out for that one.

The rehearsal was by a group called Strictly Arts, who borrowed Theatre Absolute's home at the end of City Arcade to demonstrate their work in progress.

They were just some of a whole host of events under the banner of the Shop Front Festival and the arcade was one of the areas the organisers brought into to play to showcase pop-up performances. They included circus skills, cartoon workshops, dance classes and a whole bureau of silly ideas - at least one of which involved a remote controlled traffic cone chasing kids around Shelton Square.

One empty shop was used for an exhibition of 1950s photographs, many saved from the dustbin by members of the Photo Archive Miners group - a complete contrast to Smithford Way, which featured a virtual reality clubbing experience.

Personally I just couldn't do everything, but I did try A Mile In My Shoes, a unique installation in which you swap your shoes for another pair of the same size, and then walk around the precinct listening to a tape of somebody else's life story. I had a deputy head from Australia, but next year, if the idea grows, I hope to cotton on to a local story.

Perhaps the Aubrey Allen and Allen's taxis families can contribute their late grandfather and great-grandfather's fascinating rise in the business world, which I still vividly remember after many years ago writing his obituary for the Coventry Telegraph.

Nick Walker's contribution to the festival looked more promising for local history as it was entitled Made in Store and involved following a trail of shopping stories - but I worried it would be too time consuming. Unlike the Hands Full performance which only took 10 minutes but felt much longer, on the endless tasks of motherhood.

Nor did I feel bold enough to get involved with Latherland - Coventry's own closed-circuit soap opera being improvised in the Changamini coffee house. Instead I rushed on to hear the Edible Irish Stories in the Old Grammar School which involved cakes but turned out to be completely booked up.

Like 90 per cent of the other attractions, it was completely free.

Even Ikea got in on the act by offering their beds to two dancers intent on reinterpreting the dreams of passing shoppers.

At the end of these packed two days, on Saturday night, the final performance had to incorporate the sounds of passing buses and boy racers as Chris O'Connell's musical collaboration with Derek Nesbit and Talking Birds was given its debut on the steps to the old multi-story car park next to Queen Victoria Road.

Entitled The Unfinished City, this turned out to be an atmospheric mood poem celebrating the evolving new Coventry where halal shares space with the High Street, the Polski sklep with Poundland, reconciliation with verbal abuse....all accompanied by beautiful singing.

Just before the haunting climax the awe-struck crowds were parted by one oblivious, hurrying pedestrian, mobile glued to his ear, saying only by way of explanation: "It's my birthday."

If this whole festival happens again next year - which surely it will - then forget going into the city to shop. Just go in for the fun.

Pictured top: Inflation, an installation by Tangled Feet and Barbara Goulden not quite face-to-face with a street performer

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