Liverpool and Manchester
The problem with such a large and diverse region is where to begin. It would seem sensible to start with the major conurbations and - just to avoid recriminations from the inhabitants! - we'll deal with them in alphabetical order.
World-famous for, above all, the Mersey Sound of the sixties, and in particular, of course, for the Beatles, Liverpool can be regarded as the capital of England's north west coast (I remember it also being described by a Belfast landlady I once knew as the capital of Ireland!). As you would expect, it is well provided with theatres of all sizes, from the huge to the tiny. The biggest is the Empire, which, like all of the biggest theatres in the provinces, is a receiving house. A 2348-seater, it takes national tours. Originally built - as all the biggest were - as a lyric theatre, it is well suited to the big touring shows.
Next in size is the Royal Court, which is not to be confused with the theatre of the same name in London, for it is very different, being both theatre and concert hall, and seats 1525.
After the Royal Court, there is a major drop in size, with the next in line, the Neptune, having 445 seats. The Neptune is also a receiving house, taking middle-scale tours, whilst the Everyman, not dissimilar in size at 402 seats, is both a producing and a receiving house. The Everyman has now a sister theatre in the newly re-opened Playhouse, one of the oldest rep theatres in Britain. It has just undergone a £1.5m refurbishment and is run by a new trust which also has responsibility for the Everyman.
Finally in the "pure" theatre category there is the Unity Theatre, a small studio-style venue which provides a mixture of small-scale professional, aspiring professional and local theatre. It has two houses: Unity I seats between 150 and 182 depending upon the configuration chosen, whilst Unity II seats just 88 people.
Liverpool is also well provided with arts centres, two of which warrant a mention here because of their theatre programming. The Blackie has two performance spaces, seating respectively 200 and 250 people, but as they are essentially the same room with a thin dividing wall, only one can be used at a time. Finally there is the Bluecoat Arts Centre which can seat 170.
We cannot, however, leave Liverpool without mentioning LIPA, the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. Set up with massive funding from ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, LIPA aims to give first class training in all aspects of the performing arts, including courses and qualifications in arts administration.
Manchester, of course, is at the southern end of the region and has its fair share of receiving houses. The biggest is Labatt's Apollo, with a capacity of 2634, but it tends to be more of a music venue, specialising in big rock concerts, although it does present the occasional drama or opera.
The Palace is the biggest - just! - of the purely theatre receiving houses. It seats 2000 whilst the Opera House has a capacity of 1920.
Ashton-under-Lyne, once a separate town but now part of the Greater Manchester conurbation, also houses a large receiving house, the Tameside Hippodrome, with a seating capacity of 1262.
Small-scale touring productions are catered for by the Dancehouse Theatre, a new(ish) venue, which seats 430. However, as its name suggests, it does concentrate on dance. Although built in 1930 (as two meeting halls, which were later converted into cinemas), it did not become a theatre until 1994, when one of the cinemas became the theatre and the other dance studios. Drama productions have to be content with the Green Room Arts Centre (seating 166) or the Abraham Moss Centre in Crumpsall, which seats 230 in its main house and 75 in the studio. It is also used for community theatre productions.
Manchester is also well provided with producing houses with a national - and, in some cases, international - reputation. The best known is probably the Royal Exchange, damaged by an IRA bomb some years ago but now back in business after what amounted to a total rebuilding. It has what is claimed to be the laregst theatre-in-the-round space in the UK and presents productions by the Royal Exchange Theatre Company for 48 weeks of the year. Is main house seats 750 and its studio 120.
The Forum Theatre is a 488-seater and the Library has a capacity of 308. And then there is Contact Theatre which has two performance spaces: Space 1 seats 360 and Space 2 100. Contact provides theatre for children and young people and is the only specialist building-based young people's theatre outside of London.
The Surrounding Areas
The surrounding areas of both Liverpool and Manchester also have their own theatre provision, sometimes, beause of their closeness to the cities, regarded as part of their theatre scene, but we will deal with them on the next page.
The North West Arts Region: Introduction