It was the year that brought me back to the wonderful world of theatre, reminiscent of that scene in Godfather Part Three where Michael Corleone stands somewhat exasperated and says “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. Obviously my reintroduction to the stage has been somewhat less bloody, but nonetheless, it was not a passion that I had planned to be indulging to the extent that here I am on a blog dedicated to the machinations of my good self and the arts.
In some ways it’s as if I had never been away. It was the same old theatres, showing the same old shows to the same old people.
However, having been forced out of my comfort zone I realised that the theatre scene in Manchester was still as vibrant as my rose tinted glasses had imagined. The emergence of fringe theatres to the more established houses was lovely to see, with the likes of 53Two and Hope Mill Theatre putting on some eye catching productions. Even Manchester Cathedral was getting in on the act and opening up it’s space.
Away from theatre, the arts scene in Manchester continued contributing to the vibe of the city. Several festivals, including the biennial International Festival, saw the city’s inhabitants come together and embrace these events wholeheartedly. Many of these festivals are responsible in not only gaining a lot of exposure for the city but also attracting people from outside of Manchester. Having these types of extravaganzas adds to the vibrancy, culture and the make up of what makes Manchester so colourful in it’s outlook.
No one it seems to be resting on their laurels and no one typified this spirit more than the Royal Exchange Theatre. Under the directorship of Sarah Frankcom, the Royal Exchange has had a momentous and barnstorming twelve months.
An innovative and challenging programme of productions have had critics drooling and the ordinary theatre goer in raptures. There was Jeff James’ much talked about version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Carrying on the good work was Chris Goode’s Jubilee, which was the kind of production that the Exchange has become renowned for in recent years, an eye catching cast list and a subject matter that has the ability to tap into the talking points of today. There was their bold Christmas fare of Guys and Dolls, a glorious musical whose success has seen its run extended. Frankcom herself took the reins for Our Town, which encapsulated everything that sums up Manchester and what it means to its citizens.
Yet, this is a theatre not content to just let its productions do their talking. They’ve put the theatregoer squarely in the middle of their famous round. Not literally mind you. The Royal Exchange has often been one of Manchester hidden gems to just spend an afternoon whiling away. They’ve added to the ambience by joining forces with Rupert Hill and Goska Langrish to launch their new eaterie, The Rivals (named after the very first production at the theatre back in 1976).
2017 also saw the return of the Bruntwood Prize, organised by the Exchange in which they hope to encourage and uncover new writing, was won by Tim X Atack for his play Heartworm.
Yet, for me the shining example of a theatre trying to get out of the comfort zone was their Audience Manifesto, which to the likes of myself – the son of an working class immigrant – was something that was long overdue. The fact that the Royal Exchange want to address issues that have often led to accusation that this particular art form is elitist is something to applaud and encourage.
Manchester and the Royal Exchange may not be the West End, the Mecca of English theatre where devotees flock in pilgrimage, but is in it’s own way showing that there is much to celebrate where the stage is concerned outside of that London bubble.