When I previously wrote a top 10 of Britain’s theatrical cities, Manchester was second only to London. It’s still my favourite city to visit outside London for the theatre (if not the weather).
Here are my six favourite reasons to go there:
There’s hardly a more striking ‘found’ theatre in Britain than Manchester’s Royal Exchange (which I’ve previously written about here). It sites a theatre capsule – like a landing space craft or Tardis – inside the classically pillared, former 19th-century trading hall.
In 2016, it won The Stage Award for regional theatre of the year, and it’s an absolutely essential part of the national theatre landscape. As artistic director Sarah Frankcom told me when I interviewed her for The Stage: “There’s nowhere else like it. It also reflects the spirit in which it was created, when its founders walked into an abandoned building that had been mothballed and no one knew what to do with, and decided to turn it into a theatre. It was the first gesture in the regeneration and re-appropriation of industrial spaces.”
The phenomenon of regenerating former industrial spaces that Frankcom spoke of has stretched out across the city. Another theatrical example is the Hope Mill Theatre, located in a former cotton mill in Ancoats. The theatre, just two years old, has a gathering head of steam for its musicals: last summer its production of Yank! transferred to Charing Cross Theatre, Hair is currently at London’s Vaults and next up its recent production of Pippin moves to Southwark Playhouse in the new year.
As co-founders Joseph Houston and William Whelton told me in an interview for The Stage, they found the venue on Gumtree and launched it with a business loan of £5,000 each. Both former actors themselves, they are determined to pay people to appear there. As Houston said: “One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to provide actors and creatives with more work, and if you’re going to do that, it’s not work really unless they are at least covering their costs and getting something out of it.”
This multicultural, three-floor centre containing two theatres, five cinemas and an art gallery opened in 2015. It was created by the merging of the former Library Theatre and the Cornerhouse cinema. The main theatre space is like a version of the Royal Court, an intimate three-level house. I’ve just seen my first show there, Uncle Vanya, and the artistic ambition of artistic director Walter Meierjohann looks set to create a truly European theatre in Manchester.
The biennial festival, which specialises in the creation of new work that crosses boundaries, is another reason to visit Manchester, at least every two years.
The ATG-controlled pair of grand Manchester receiving theatres the Palace and Opera House are sometimes the launch pad for national touring shows, such as the recent The Band that premiered at the Opera House. Coincidentally, that was also the place where I saw a previous Take That musical, Never Forget, also open. Nearby, too, is the Lowry at Salford Quays, which also takes touring product.
Manchester-based theatregoers also have Bolton and Oldham on their doorsteps, where two producing theatres, the Octagon and Oldham Coliseum, also do great work. The latter has just been given the go-ahead for a new £27 million home.