Review of the Year 2017 - The North West Stage

Reporter: David Chadderton

Dateline: 31st December, 2017

Producing theatres

Royal Exchange Theatre

Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre did not begin the year too well, as February's co-production with Graeae of The House of Bernarda Alba by Lorca looked under-rehearsed and was littered with technical issues, except for a powerful central performance from the inimitable Kathryn Hunter.

This was followed by another female-led co-production, but one that couldn't have been more different. David Greig's adaptation of The Suppliant Women succeeded where many have failed by giving a modern theatre audience something approaching the experience that Aeschylus was trying to give his Greek audience some two and a half millennia ago with some very clever updating of the original script. This was accompanied by possibly the most well-drilled and compelling "community chorus" I will ever see, and one that carried the bulk of the storytelling with ease.

This year's Shakespeare production was a quite entertaining Twelfth Night with some notable performances and an interesting design, but a modern-dress adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion proved controversial, especially for Austen enthusiasts, but was fresh and funny and told a clear story.

The revival of Thornton Wilder's American classic Our Town attempted a similar updating to Greig's Aeschylus, apparently relocating it to modern Manchester and reflecting on a bonded community after the Arena bomb, but it didn't entirely work. There were plenty of directorial concepts that seemed fine in theory but in practice held back the drama, but the profundity of Wilder's remarkable script still came through.

James Fritz's Bruntwood Judges' Prize-winning script Parliament Square was experimental (in an interesting way) and harrowing in places and told a story that seems very modern, but ultimately the vagueness of the politics seemed a bit of a cop-out, the experimentation became a bit repetitive and the ending was dramatically striking but morally extremely dubious (I was told it had been changed before it transferred, but I don't know whether that is true).

Derek Jarman's Jubilee was transferred from screen to stage with one of the film's original stars, Toyah Wilcox, rather underused in a different role. While it was quite clever in its updating of the events of this revolutionary film of the punk era, there was nothing in the stage version to give the middle-class Royal Exchange audience sleepless nights.

The year ended with the return of Michael Buffong to direct an all-black cast in a pretty entertaining version of Guys and Dolls, supposedly relocated from Broadway to Harlem but not really, as a great bit of family entertainment for the Christmas period.

I only saw a couple of productions in the Studio this year. The one worth mentioning was another Bruntwood winner: Alan Harris's How My Light Is Spent. It was a jumble of lines performed by two Welsh actors that added up to a touching and often very funny story about a man who falls for a chatline operator with touches of absurdism.

Octagon Theatre

The Octagon began its year with a couple of two-handers, starting with a decent revival of Willy Russell's classic Educating Rita, followed by David Rudkin's dense and wordy Ashes. Both were done reasonably well but neither would set the world on fire.

Next came two literary adaptations. Deborah McAndrew's adaptation of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was enjoyable and clearly directed. However Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle failed to realise its potential as a stage production and was needlessly (and not very well) turned into a musical.

Much more disappointing was Winter Hill, specially commissioned from great playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and with an amazing all-female cast, but it just didn't come together as a play at all and its supposed Bolton setting didn't really extend further than the title.

A revival of Alan Bennett's original series of Talking Heads had its moments but missed many of the nuances of humour brought out by the voices for which they were written, but a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, in conjunction with Out of Joint, was a really high quality and entertaining piece of theatre—sadly now controversial after the news broke about its co-director.

The year ended with a production of The Threepenny Opera which had its entertaining moments but was not really Brecht and a production of the same script of A Christmas Carol they used ten years earlier by Neil Duffield in a production that went for broad humour over the subtleties and moral messages of the original.

Oldham Coliseum

The first production I saw at the Coliseum this year was a reasonably effective revival from director Chris Honer of Spring and Port Wine by Bill Naughton, a name that can still sell tickets in this region but I often feel his plays would benefit from some ruthless editing.

The adaptation of Dickens's Hard Times by Stephen Jeffreys used by director Chris Lawson was clear and complete, cleverly giving the impression of covering the whole story without any feeling of superficiality. It was staged very effectively in a great all-round production.

Florian Zeller's The Father was an intriguing piece that very cleverly dealt with the issue of dementia by showing the audience what it is like to be affected by it. There were issues with the production and I know I won't make any friends in Oldham by saying I thought Kenneth Alan Taylor's performance in the title role lacked subtlety and engagement, but it was nevertheless well worth seeing.

The revival of Oh What A Lovely War not only missed all of the World War I anniversaries but also rather missed the point of the show, muddying both the political message and the humour, although it can never again have the effect it had in 1963 when to suggest that the First World War was badly handled was still treason to many.

The year ended on a comic note, with a pretty slick revival of John Godber's rugby comedy Up 'n' Under and the usual "traditional" panto of Dick Whittington from the usual panto team.

HOME Manchester

HOME launched the year in spectacular style with City of Glass, an adaptation by Duncan Macmillan of part of the New York Trilogy of American novelist Paul Auster in a co-production with 59 Productions and Lyric Hammersmith. Those not familiar with Auster's work couldn't fail to be impressed by the amazing design, slick direction and stunning technical wizardry in this production but many were baffled by the story. However those of us who are fans of Auster saw a production every element of which got the author's style absolutely spot on and contributed to a stunning piece of theatre.

Dame Janet Suzman visited HOME with Martin Sherman's one-woman piece Rose, telling the story of the plight of Jews worldwide throughout the twentieth century through a single character over two and a half hours. It was a memorable performance, although the play itself felt a little too long.

Operation Black Antler in collaboration with Blast Theory sent its audience in teams out into the streets and a pub in Manchester as undercover police trying to infiltrate a suspected right-wing extremist group. It was fun and quite exhilharating at times for those willing to throw themselves into it, but I'm not convinced it was effective as political theatre and not everyone had the confidence to properly join in.

People, Places and Things had a list of co-producers including HOME but was really a National Theatre production on tour, although it was the second Duncan Macmillan script performed in this building in 2017. The play dealt very effectively with the subject of addiction in a very impressive and affecting piece of theatre with great performances all round.

As part of the Russian Revolution centenary season, Walter Meierjohann revived Chekhov's Uncle Vanya for a largely very interesting production that was modern if not modernised, and I was fortunate to get the chance to have a fascinating chat with the director about it for the BTG podcast.

For Christmas, HOME presented an interesting range of incoming productions and one-off performances; I saw The Tiger Lillies visit with its adult show A Cold Night In Soho (although perhaps more restrained than I've seen them in the past) and Little Angel's solo show for much younger audiences Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which put a new spin on a familiar tale.

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