Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange began the year on a high with its extended Christmas production of the Sondheim, Styne and Laurents musical Gypsy, which ran from the end of November until the beginning of February, a real seasonal treat. It followed this up with an adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights by Andrew Sheridan that brought gritty, modern dialogue to the Yorkshire moors in the nineteenth century, but which largely worked well, accompanied by live musicians playing Alexandra Faye Braithwaite's atmospheric, folky score.
In March, Miranda Cromwell's production of the première of Rockets and Blue Lights by Winsome Pinnock opened and was due to have its press night on 17 March, but this was cancelled on the morning of that performance. Hopefully we'll have another chance to see that production at some point in the future.
The Exchange seemed to stay quiet following lockdown until July, when it announced that it was to "enter a period of redundancy consultation", which could result in the loss of up to 65% of its staff. In a statement, the theatre's management said that they could not see how they could open in the near future as, even when it could do so legally, 'social distancing' regulations would mean that "it is just not financially viable within our current structure".
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, said he was "saddened" by the announcement and revealed that, "The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has done what it can to support the Royal Exchange, including paying six months of its grants upfront in April with the aim of providing support in the face of the immediate financial impacts of lockdown."
Since then, the theatre has created a few projects online, including an advent calendar of Manchester stories in All I Want For Christmas and a filmed performance of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop in conjunction with JMK Trust and the Young Vic.
The Octagon seemed, at the start of the crisis, to be the lucky ones, as their theatre was already closed for a major rebuilding project and it was thought that this would all be over by the time it was due to reopen. Of course this didn't happen, and, as Chief Executive Roddy Gauld told me for the BTG podcast, they had the same problems as everyone else but just a bit later, and the refurbishment was slowed down by new regulations for working on building sites.
The theatre company was far from idle while its building was being renovated, performing in a number of local venues, the most interesting of which was the small lecture theatre in Bolton Library and Museum, just across the road from the theatre itself. There, in February, they managed to complete a run of Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine with Mina Anwar perfect in the title role.
In April, the theatre announced that it was putting back its reopening from July to the autumn, postponing its opening production of One Man, Two Guvnors to June 2021 and cancelling the co-production of Marvellous with the New Vic Theatre. They expected to open with A Christmas Carol and then continue with the 2021 productions already announced.
The theatre's appeal for donations for the Octagon Future Fund was supported by stars of stage and screen including Ian McKellen, Sue Johnston, Sharon D Clarke and Matthew Kelly, and the Mayor of Bolton added it to her chosen charities.
In August, it announced that it would open its kitchen and bar on 4 December and that A Christmas Carol would be postponed for another year. In the meantime, it co-produced with Guildford Shakespeare Company a short version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that was performed live over Zoom, which was fun and did its best to involve its remote audience.
Finally, in October, the Octagon was allocated government funding of £620,232 as part of the government's £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, which they said would allow them to reopen sometime in 2021.
The festive production, although deferred until December 2021, wasn't entirely lost for 2020, however, as A Christmas Carol was broadcast online as a reading, performed by eight local actors from various locations inside the new theatre building, which I can't wait to see for myself in person.
Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill celebrated its fifth birthday in 2020 and has been a major local success story: a small, independent theatre committed to producing large-cast musicals and paying everybody properly with a fast-growing national and even international reputation. However, as a young commercial company that invests in its ideals, not in shareholder dividends, it could well have been in a vulnerable position when forced to close. Happily, it seems to be surviving and still producing high-quality work in whatever way it can.
The theatre began the year with a revival of its 2019 production of Rags the Musical at Park Theatre in London, while hosting the inaugural Turn On Fest, its new LGBTQ+ festival, at home in Manchester. The venue also featured work from incoming companies including a sold-out run of new work from female playwrights, Vignettes, and comic drama One Good Night.
The first major musical production from Hope Mill at its own theatre was Zorro the Musical, which opened on 14 March but never made it to its press night on 18 March. Other major productions slated for 2020 were the UK première of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella and a new production of Jonathan Larson's rock version of La bohème, Rent.
Soon after lockdown, the theatre was online with a concert of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, Some Enchanted Evening, from a cast of West End stars, all recording their pieces from their own homes, and they also released Godspell in Concert in a similar format. As well as these musical performances, Martin Sherman's Rose featuring Maureen Lipman had a short online run in September. Rent was postponed until October with the intention of running until December, only to be cut short once again by a second lockdown, and so it was moved online.
Despite the problems of running a venue during a pandemic, Hope Mill has continued to put its money where its mouth is. In July, it held An Evening with Jonathan Harvey and launched a £5,000 playwriting prize, and it has announced its second Turn On Fest this month for which it is to offer £1,000 grants and mentoring to four Manchester-based queer theatre makers.
Theatre by the Lake
Keswick's Theatre by the Lake began the year with the last week or so of its production of A Christmas Carol in January, and had its first ever scratch night, Open Space, in February to bring undiscovered local talent to its audiences. As the first lockdown came into force, the theatre was about to play host to six local youth theatre groups, including its own, for the National Theatre Connections festival.
We hadn't even reached the end of March when the theatre announced that it was to cancel its summer season, which contains the majority of the theatre's own output in any year. In June, it announced that it was cancelling its Christmas production of The Borrowers and making redundancies; after a two-month consultation process, it confirmed in August that 38 people would lose their jobs.
The theatre continued with a few online activities while it was closed, including a play reading club, a network for local artists and a community exhibition.
As usual, the Coliseum saw in the new year with the last week and a half of its popular panto, which has one of the longest runs each year in the country, but I was a bit disappointed by this Jack and the Beanstalk. LUNG visited with its intriguing and very convincingly presented Trojan Horse, which brought to light the abuses of power by politicians and the media at Park View Academy in Birmingham when it was accused of radicalising Muslim pupils without any evidence.
In April, it was planning to open a musical adaptation of The Jungle Book, which it said was its first non-Christmas family show for almost twenty years, but of course that didn't go ahead. However, it did manage to produce, soon after lockdown, a version of its 100 Word Plays (about Oldham) monologue challenge as an online audio piece as the first of what it called its 'Mini Podcast Series', although it wasn't a true podcast. This series continued with further monologues and other audio drama pieces, all available for free.
The Coliseum is famous for its panto, on which it relies (like many theatres) to fund its activities for the rest of the year, so it was quite a major blow to them to announce in August that the production of Aladdin would be postponed until Christmas 2021, followed in November with an announcement that it will remain closed until early 2021. Although both of these decisions would have been made for them by government policy eventually, at the time they must have been tough to make.
Coliseum fans didn't have to go entirely without their panto, however, as regular panto performers Richard J Fletcher and Shorelle Hepkin went online to tell their characters' stories from their own perspectives. They could also access a short play every day from 1 to 24 December in The Advent Plays, filmed on the Coliseum stage.
Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool
Now a thriving home for Liverpool-based comedies, the Royal Court began the year with Lost In Colomendy, written by Court regular Nicky Allt and featuring a few familiar faces in the cast. The theatre's youth group with North West End acting school performed in another new play, The Unlikely Candidate, set in nineteenth-century Liverpool, in February.
There was a planned revival of the theatre's biggest shows, YNWA – Let’s Talk About Six Baby (the initials referring to the song from American musical Carousel that Liverpool fans have adopted as their own), in the summer, but it was not to be. This story of Liverpool Football Club, previously produced in 2011 and 2014, is now scheduled for April and May 2021.
Just before lockdown, Ken Dodd's widow unveiled a mural in tribute to the Liverpool comic outside the Royal Court and it was announced that the first annual Doddy Day would be held on his birthday in November. This did go ahead, but was moved online.
Royal Court regular Les Dennis, to support the theatre during lockdown, arranged to perform and have filmed on the theatre's stage a revival of one-man show Jigsy from 2012 in which he played a faded Liverpool comic, which was made available online in June (and can still be seen on YouTube).
The annual Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, run by the theatre in conjunction with Liverpool Hope University with a top prize of £10,000, was put back a year with a new deadline of 31 May 2021, but the Playwright Development Programme continued with a request for sample scripts in November for a new course to begin in February, free to anyone living or studying in Merseyside.
As the festive season approached, the theatre announced the Royal Court Selection Box, a mixture of comedy and music with a different line-up of familiar faces each night—and strict 'social distancing'. Following lockdown 2, the show was still able to go ahead as Liverpool was put into tier 2, but was cut short by a tier increase (it was scheduled to run until 30 January 2021) and, eventually, lockdown 3.