The year began at HOME with its annual PUSH Festival, then Told by an Idiot brought its intriguing The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, telling the stories of its two real-life protagonists in the style of the work for which they are best-known, without any spoken words. Ad Infinitum returned to HOME with Extraordinary Wall [of Silence], then Bourgeois and Maurice's Insane Animals was a fun romp, retelling the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh in a camp cabaret style, but I can't say was as blown away by it as a lot of people seem to have been.
Following lockdown, HOME responded very quickly—just a week later—to the new situation with a series of commissions from companies and artists with whom it has worked before specifically for online audiences, which it labelled Homemakers. HOME’s Associate Director Jude Christian was tasked with commissioning the work, as she explained to us on the BTG podcast. This brought them a large international audience from 34 countries and much greater exposure than anything performed only in their building could have done.
Just as quickly as it had responded to closure, HOME was as quick to reopen as soon as it was able, with the cinemas, bars and restaurant opening at the beginning of September and the theatre and galleries to follow later in the autumn. Executive Director Jon Gilchrist explained on the BTG podcast that, with so many different activities in the same building, their business model is very different from that of most theatres and so opening to much-reduced theatre audiences in a building that is already functioning can be more financially viable. The plan was to put on in the larger Theatre 1 shows that would normally be on the Theatre 2 stage limited to the audience size of the latter space to allow for so-called 'social distancing'.
When the second lockdown came into force, HOME immediately announced that all productions that were due to be performed in November will instead be live-streamed, with tickets priced on a pay-what-you-decide basis. Then, when we came out of lockdown into tier 3, which still would not allow live performances indoors, they put their Christmas shows—Duckie and Sh!t Actually—online as well. Whatever happens over the next few months, it looks like HOME will have a plan for it and be the first to react to any new situation.
The Lowry started the year with the end of its main Christmas show, Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which was fun but expensive and rather 'corporate' in feel. Band of Gold was a successful screen-to-stage adaptation of Kay Mellor's popular TV series, while Manchester-based Green Carnation gave us a rare chance to see Kevin Elyot's wonderful My Night With Reg, although the production didn't show it in its best light.
Kneehigh brought to Salford a production of Jarry's Ubu adapted by Carl Grose that put the standing audience right in the thick of the action in a fine piece of theatre, with great performances as the titular couple from company founder Mike Shepherd and the irrepressible Katy Owens, both playing against gender. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's Ghost Stories was described as "terrifyingly good" by David Cunningham in his review, and the Bristol Old Vic production of A Monster Calls brilliantly realised Patrick Ness's thought-provoking novel on stage.
Northern Broadsides visited with a play by J M Barrie, Quality Street, that was popular when it was originally written but has rather been overshadowed by his best-known character but certainly seemed worth a revival. Octagon Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham had originally directed the production of The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson that David Cunningham found very funny but lacking in a satirical edge. An adaptation of Alex Wheatle's Crongton Knights for Pilot Theatre had a great story to tell and cleverly incorporated beatboxing but could have done with some cutting to keep up the tension. There were also visits from Birmingham Royal Ballet with Swan Lake and Opera North with The Marriage of Figaro, The Turn of the Screw and Street Scene.
There were a great many productions announced for this year that weren't able to go ahead following lockdown. However, Lowry CEO Julia Fawcett pledged in June to continue to top up the government's furlough payments of 80% to full wages for all full-time-equivalent contracted staff and to set up a job retention scheme funded by the venue from November when the government scheme ended. In July, The Lowry Centre for Advanced Training in Dance opened applications for September with dance workshops for potential candidates taking place on Zoom to replace live auditions.
Finally, Salford audiences were given a taste of live theatre when Imitating the Dog brought Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show to a space outside The Lowry in October, and then Six and The Gruffalo were moved from the Quays to the larger Lyric Theatre to allow for distancing for the Christmas season, but neither completed its scheduled run.
Palace Theatre and Opera House
The acclaimed stage adaptation of The Bodyguard completed its run at the Palace early in the first week of the year, as the Opera House was preparing its stage for the much-anticipated world première of Back to the Future The Musical. The press night brought a host of stars including the film's director Robert Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale and composer Alan Silvestri, all of whom had been closely involved with this stage version, to Manchester, but the planned run until May was cut drastically short by the lockdown.
A colleague who works in Manchester told me he saw a very sad sight when he passed the Opera House of the Back to the Future car being loaded onto a lorry to be taken away, never to complete its Manchester journey. This was a great show and it is sad that most Manchester audiences will probably never get the chance to see it except perhaps in a touring version in a few years' time after a West End run.
ATG, the owners of both theatres, have kept all of their theatres closed for most of the year since lockdown, but the Opera House continued to hold out hope for its panto of Sleeping Beauty starring Jason Manford. The opening date was put back to Christmas Eve from 12 December in the hope that Manchester would be moved out of tier 3 allowing theatres to open, but that didn't happen.