Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange kicked off its main house programme with a bang with the riveting Bruntwood Judges' Prize winning The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver, a play ostensibly about the treatment of young people with mental health issues but with a lot more going on beneath the surface, featuring stunning performances from Julie Hesmondhalgh and Norah Lopez Holden as mother and daughter. While one of these is a very experienced actor and the other a recipient of the Best Newcomer at the Manchester Theatre Awards only the year before, I would have difficulty separating them if I were still on an awards panel.
Following this, the Exchange marked the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's most famous work with April de Angelis's adaptation of Frankenstein, which was enjoyable and shocking in parts but over-wordy and literary at times. This was followed by a fairly unremarkable production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in a translation by Rory Mullarkey, and then director Sarah Frankcom and actor Maxine Peake continued their long partnership with a production of Becket's Happy Days that failed to bring the play to life.
Peake was back with the next production but this time as writer as her radio play Queens of the Coal Age was brought to stage, looking at the fight against coal mine closures through the real actions of a group of women at Parkside Colliery in 1993. Despite some clunky dialogue, it was an interesting story with some good performances. Jeanie O'Hare's Queen Margaret followed, creating a new play from one of Shakespeare's characters who appears in the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, Margaret of Anjou, and reconstructing the narrative around her, which largely worked, helped by a powerful performance in the title role by Jade Anouka.
Don Warrington returned to the Exchange opposite Maureen Beattie in Miller's Death of a Salesman to form a powerful partnership, surrounded by some other very good performances, in a strong revival. The year ended with the musical of the great Mel Brooks film The Producers, which everyone else seemed to be raving about, but for me what was lost (unnecessarily in most cases) from the film was much better than what was added to nearly double its length and the rhythm and the timing in the production wasn't there when I saw it on press night.
I didn't see many productions in the Studio in 2018; of those I did, Black Men Walking and Mountains were both enjoyable but not quiet hitting the heights that they promised, but the almost wordless Sleepyhead from Little Angel Theatre was a perfect little piece for Christmas for the under-5s—and for this very much over-5.
The Octagon began the year with an adaptation of Jane Eyre that failed to hit the romantic high notes, despite a cast of good Octagon regulars, which was followed by a perfectly watchable and enjoyable if slightly disjointed Hamlet, which saw the return of director David Thacker and of David Ricardo-Pearce in the title role. The revival of Ayub Khan-Din's East Is East divided opinions, but for me this was perhaps the highlight of the Octagon's main house programme for the year with powerful performances from Kulvinder Ghir and Jane Hazlegrove as the parents and a great supporting cast.
Another former artistic director, Lawrence Till, returned to the Octagon to direct The Big Corner, which Till adapted himself from the short stories of the late Bill Naughton, still celebrated as Bolton's most famous playwright. It seemed that most of the good parts had already been pillaged from these stories by Naughton himself, mostly for his play All In Good Time, and so, despite some good performances from the cast, it only served to show how inconsistent Naughton could be as a writer.
Originally planned as the first production after the theatre closed for refurbishment, Summer Holiday ended up partly in the theatre and partly in the bus station, on a fleet of buses and outdoors in Bolton as the works were postponed. It was a fun piece of frothy summer entertainment that was a remarkable feat of organisation but of course a little disjointed due to the nature of the staging.
Following the closure of the building and the summer break, the Octagon began its season of revivals of productions it staged very recently transferred to new locations, beginning with And Did Those Feet by Les Smith and Martin Thomasson (performed at the Octagon in 2010 and 2007). A local story by local writers staged in the function room of the current home of Bolton Wanderers Football Club, which is at the heart of the story, it worked well enough in its non-theatre venue but with a new director shifting the focus away from the comedy, the weaknesses in the script felt more exposed. This revival season continued for Christmas with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 2011, which I didn't see but wasn't keen on the first time round.
Some of the most interesting work I saw at the Octagon in 2018 was in the studio. Sherbet, written and performed by Sarah McDonald Hughes and Curtis Cole, was a lovely tale of two siblings bringing one another up due to an absent father and an incapable mother, and Kathrine Smith's All I See Is You a touching tale of a budding but tentative relationship between two men prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
The Coliseum's season opened with Tom Wells's The Kitchen Sink, which takes the traditional Northern comedy and gives it a more modern twist. Performances were variable, with some actors who didn't quite get the style falling back on familiar comic business, but there were some very good performances and plenty of laughs. Following this was an adaptation of Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore that just didn't work at all—and it went on a short tour after debuting at the Coliseum.
A revival of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey was variable in terms of performances on press night but had some strong moments, although this is very much a play of its time. For its next production, though, the Coliseum put its resources into a brand new play, as Ian Kershaw's Bread & Roses took us to the labour disputes in the mills of New England more than a century ago. While not everything in the story was convincing, this was a well-told and important story in a pretty lavish production.
Following the summer, the Coliseum opened its main stage to fringe companies for its "Main House Takeover". Play With Fire's revival of Lucy Prebble's The Effect had a few inconsistencies but was worth seeing, whereas Rifco's Dishoom! could have done with rather more script development on a piece that showed some promise. As always, the year ended with the Coliseum's 'traditional' panto, which this year was Cinderella.
Since the Library Theatre Company merged with Cornerhouse to become HOME, the balance between the proportion of in-house productions to incoming work from other companies has been skewed considerably towards the latter; even those with HOME as co-producer seem to mostly be led by their partner companies. This has resulted in a programme that features a lot of variety, even if many productions only run for a short time.
My first HOME production of the year was a catch-up with Manchester Theatre Award nominee (and later winner) Rosie Fleeshman with her wonderful solo show—a collection of her own confessional poetry and prose directed for theatre by her mother, Sue Jenkins—The Narcissist in the Mirror. Even more local theatre makers were featured in The Manchester Project, a sequence of 19 short pieces by different writers, each about a different town in Greater Manchester, all put together by local theatre company Monkeywood. Six actors performed a varied collection of stories and scenes, some more successful than others, in an interesting and worthwhile project that could certainly merit a sequel.
The first HOME-grown production was Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, a well-performed piece set in a drama class in a community centre in Vermont, which was entertaining enough but wasn't the greatly innovative and groundbreaking drama that we were led to believe it would be.
A series of incoming productions that followed this were far more interesting. It was great to see again Kneehigh's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, the company on top form with its story of the painter Marc Chagall in a piece I first saw in Edinburgh the previous year. Cult band The Tiger Lillies debuted a spectacular new show, Corrido de la Sangre, set on the Mexican border that combined new songs from Martin Jacques with impressive visuals and the band's unique musical style. Sh1t Theatre's tribute to the queen of country and western, Dollywould, was a clever mish-mash of different ideas in a very entertaining show that, it seemed from the packed Theatre 2, could have had a longer run.
The next HOME production was a co-production with Glasgow's Citizens Theatre directed by that theatre's artistic director, Dominic Hill. George Costigan superbly led the cast of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, with an extremely impressive performance by Bríd Ní Neachtain as his alcoholic wife and flawless performances by the rest of the cast.
Some more incoming shows were next on my HOME menu, with Elysium Theatre Company's very brief revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis, which lacked a bit of polish but was certainly worth seeing, then a double dose of HoiPolloi, with their old favourite The Duke and new show Me & Robin Hood both demonstrating the wonderful storytelling of writer and solo performer Shôn Dale-Jones. In a co-production with Lyric Hammersmith, director Jude Christian combined two Shakespeare plays in othellomacbeth, which was partially successful—the second play more than the first in my opinion—but wasn't the major feminist revisionist Shakespeare that we were promised.
Acclaimed company RashDash debuted its intriguing philosophical examination of the future of body enhancement in Future Bodies, then we finally were given another sole HOME production in a revival of Jean Genet's The Maids that had some interesting elements but wasn't an easy watch overall.
My final visit was for show I described as "a curious combination of Samuel Beckett and Teletubbies for the under-5s". Scottish company Catherine Wheels brought its acclaimed show White to a reconfigured Theatre 2 for Christmas, a wonderful theatrical experience for adults as much as for kids.