It is while we sit – gridlocked in traffic and debating whether Jennifer Aniston herself may put in a surprise appearance – that I first realise my expectations of Friends Fest may be set (slightly) high.
Little wonder when the show itself is chiefly responsible for every misplaced fantasy about adulthood I have been nurturing since it first aired in September 1994. Approaching 40 (could I BE any older?), I am sadly neither living in New York, nor working as an executive at Ralph Lauren, but at least I’m not sitting in a boat with only a chick and a duck for company yet…
Heady with the promise of unfettered access to replicas of the iconic sets and original costumes from the show, as well as ‘Smelly Cat Karaoke’ and the chance to recreate the ‘umbrella’ title sequence, we have set out for Heaton Park.
Once there, it is no easy task to find the festival itself, which is signposted with a single A4 sheet taped to a lamppost. Therefore, my first tip is: follow the steady flow of people clutching ‘Friends’ merchandise bags, of which there are A LOT.
The outdoor festival site is a bit of a mud bath thanks to the frankly appalling weather and the lack of any matting/straw/sawdust under foot. Tip number two: don’t wear your fanciest clothes or footwear; raincoats and boots or wellies will be your best ‘friends’. (You can always, if you wish, purchase a branded ‘Friends’ umbrella for £15 from the merch shop.)
Tip number three: head straight to the Chick & Duck Bar and get on the cocktails. The fun menu is (naturally) ‘Friends’ themed, with ‘The One with Rum/Vodka/No Hangover etc.’ options available, as well as a good selection of wines, beers and spirits. Suitably lubricated, we then head out in search of entertainment.
‘Friends’ episodes play on a continual loop on the giant cinema screen that dominates the main open-air arena. With the rain pelting down, sadly the plentiful rainbow-coloured chairs and tables are universally empty. (On a warm summer’s day, this will no doubt be an idyllic place to sit and chill – especially with the bar and plenty of food stands close to hand.)
As it is, we head to the nearest covered stand, which just so happens to be the Central Perk set! We plonk ourselves straight down on the giant orange sofa for our first official ‘Friends’ selfie before wandering round – marvelling at being ‘on location’. If you wish, you can pick up a guitar and perch on Phoebe’s stool for a blast of ‘Smelly Cat’, and even take Gunther’s spot behind the counter.
A coffee bar overlooks the Central Perk set, where you can purchase a beverage for around £3.50 and sit and marvel at the attention to detail involved in recreating Comedy Central’s most beloved coffee house. (Thankfully – unlike Rachel – the pleasant staff will get your order right!)
We then head off to sit on another giant orange sofa in front of a fountain backdrop… Twirling our umbrellas, it’s a real thrill to pose for a title sequence photo. (Tip number four: set your phone to your Boomerang app for added fun!)
Then there’s a lull while we wait for our turn to visit Joey and Chandler’s apartment set, and Monica and Rachel’s apartment set. In sunnier weather, we’d have filled this time with fun photos in the outdoor ‘Vegas Chapel of Love’ and ‘Highschool Prom’ booths, which have their own dress-up wardrobes. As it is, we check out the ‘Moondance Diner’, ‘My Sandwich’ and ‘Mockolate’ food stalls, which provide plenty of ‘Friends’ themed culinary experiences for prices of around £5 and up.
Before entering the apartment sets, there’s an amazing opportunity to see show costumes ‘in the flesh’, which is not only a genuine thrill, but confirms that Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox are as teeny tiny as you would expect! Our hands-down favourite is the ‘Holiday Armadillo’ costume Ross wore to surprise his son Ben when he couldn’t hire a Santa suit. Equally fun are the never-seen-before memorabilia and props from the show, which include ‘Smelly Cat’ cat litter, Joey’s VD poster and the ‘Geller Cup’ – a Troll-adorned trophy Monica and Ross fought to win during family touch ball games.
Next, Joey and Chandler’s apartment… This is the show-stopping moment we have been waiting for, and it is with the biggest, silliest of smiles that I seat myself in the Lazy Boy chair – ready to ‘draw’, twiddle with the foosball table and acquaint myself with The Boat. Opening the apartment door, we find ourselves in the familiar hallway before circling the set to enter Monica and Rachel’s apartment.
It is a surreal experience to be in a kitchen that feels somehow more familiar than your own, and it is with real affection that I run a loving hand over the surfaces and furniture – reminiscing about the 85 hours of bona fide belly laughs the show delivered. Sadly, there is no Ugly Naked Guy to poke through the window, but – that aside – it really is all credit to the Friends Fest organisers that they are bringing such a unique, nostalgic full-scale set experience to fans across our country.
With the sets visited, all that remains is to head to the merchandise shop. You can buy branded everything, from aprons and door mats to T-shirts, notebooks and wall art. A Central Perk mug will set you back around £12 to £15, while a beer glass is a tenner.
We were able to cover most of what the festival has to offer in under an hour, as it is, essentially, a series of photo opportunities; however, when it’s open to the public, expect queues and take note of the allotted timeslots available to visit the sets.
Is Friends Fest the ‘ultimate ‘Friends’ experience’? For some superfans, in the right weather conditions, it will be, but others may find it more ‘mockolate’ – a synthetic substitute of something truly beloved that somehow misses the mark.
Friends Fest Manchester is on at Heaton Park until Sunday, 13 August.
Tickets are now sold out, but dates are available in Essex between 1-10 September.
Visit http://friendsfest.co.uk/ to book.