Mark Shenton’s top venues: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
No city outside London is quite as well provided for, theatrically speaking, as (to quote a song from the musical Hair) in “Manchester, England, England, across the Atlantic sea”.
Okay, it’s probably just me, but I can’t think of Manchester without thinking of that lyric. But I also can’t think of Manchester, England, England without thinking of the theatrical jewel at its very centre, the Royal Exchange Theatre, which this year received The Stage Award for Regional Theatre of the Year.
Yes, the city has many other performance spaces, including the brand-new Home (which I recently visited for the first time: a multi-cultural, three-floor centre containing two theatres, five cinemas and an art gallery, created by the merging of the former Library Theatre and the Cornerhouse cinema), the venerable Manchester Opera House and Palace Theatre and the Lowry in Salford.
Home has just announced its new season, which includes a new play On Corporation Street, that will mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA bombing of Manchester’s city centre. It detonated less than 50 yards away from the Royal Exchange and caused it serious structural damage, leading to a two-year closure.
When it re-opened – with new corporate facilities and a second studio space added – it did so with a production of Hindle Wakes, the play that should have opened the day the bomb was exploded. Out of the rubble, the theatre itself came out of the ashes and woke up again, though the company continued to operate during its closure at other pop-up venues; I’ll never forget a 1997 production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea that Marianne Elliott directed with Susan Wooldridge as Hester Collyer.
Elliott is now back at the Royal Exchange with a transfer of her National Theatre production of DH Lawrence’s Fathers and Sons. I saw it recently in Manchester, and was overwhelmed by Elliott’s intuitive command of this forever-challenging in the round space, with her production animating and inhabiting every corner of the space with a sense of real life unfolding there.
But then she has a strong bond with the building: her late father Michael Elliott was one of the founding artistic directors when the theatre was first officially founded in 1976, along with Braham Murray (who remained at the helm until 2012, the longest-serving of all the directors to have worked there), Richard Negri, James Maxwell and Caspar Wrede. The company used to regularly operate with a team of co-artistic directors in the succeeding years, which saw Greg Hersov, Marianne Elliott herself and Matthew Lloyd variously also come and go, before Sarah Frankcom came in 2008 – and stayed, becoming sole artistic director in 2014.
Like every theatre, the Royal Exchange has had its peaks and troughs – but the Exchange has recently hit another peak(e), with actress Maxine Peake making her theatrical home here alongside Frankcom, who directed her in the title role of Hamlet in 2014 that was subsequently filmed and broadcast to cinemas around the UK, and last year’s co-commission with Manchester International Festival of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker.
But the Exchange is also a place to find emerging young talent, too: it was here that Cush Jumbo first came to national attention (and where just a few years ago I saw her in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in 2013, interviewing her for The Stage at the time here). She’s since appeared on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in The River and is now a series regular on TV’s The Good Wife.
Through its Bruntwood Prize, it also nurtures young playwrights – Anna Jordan’s Yen, premiered there last year, has transferred to the Royal Court, London. As well as Husbands and Sons, I also saw the Christmas production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods directed by another fast-rising star, associate director Matthew Xia, a show I know very well indeed but saw through new eyes here.
As the citation for The Stage Award, presented in January put it: “This was the year that artistic director Sarah Frankcom really hit her stride at the Royal Exchange. The Manchester theatre in the round’s output during 2015 delivered its best year in quite some time. Over the last 12 months, the Royal Exchange created 13 productions, as well as transforming its 2014 production of Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake, into a film… With a strong team of artistic associates behind her, including Peake, Matthew Xia, Benji Reid and Chris Thorpe, Frankcom has transformed the theatre into one that nurtures its artists as well as its audiences and is creating work that deserves to be recognised.”
Hear, hear. And the thrill of entering the classically pillared, former 19th-century trading hall it is situated in, like a glass spacecraft that has landed within it, is there every time I visit, amplified now by the expectation of seeing a great show.
The Royal Exchange Theatre
St Ann’s Square, Manchester M2 7DH
Box Office 0161 833 9833
Administration 0161 833 9333
Artistic director Sarah Frankcom
Associate artistic director Matthew Xia
Executive director Fiona Gasper
Finance and administration director Barry James
Development director Val Young
Casting director Jerry Knight-Smith
Company manager Lee Drinkwater
Producer (senior) Richard Morgan
Head of production Simon Curtis
Wardobe (head of department) Nikki Meredith
Box office manager Sue Partington
Marketing and communications director Claire Will
Press and communications manager Paula Rabbitt
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