Manchester's receiving houses for large-scale touring productions have busy schedules of visiting shows and so our local team shares reviewing duties for them. Obviously I can only comment on the ones I saw.
I began the year by catching up at last with English Touring Theatre's wonderful revival of Conor McPherson's The Weir, which was well worth the wait. I followed this quickly with Paapa Essiedu's young and lively portrayal of Hamlet for the RSC in Simon Godwin's very full production whose 3¼ hours passed remarkably quickly.
My next visit to Salford (other than for the Manchester Theatre Awards) was for my first experience of a James Graham play as the National Theatre brought This House, which I described as "a thrilling and often very funny ride through '70s politics at a time of great turmoil", to the region. There was more political theatre of a different kind with Sting's musical The Last Ship, set against the backdrop of the demise of the shipbuilding industry in the North East in the 1980s, which managed to be a theatrical spectacle, partly due to the stunning visuals of 59 Productions, and a powerful political statement with a bit of romantic comedy thrown in for good measure.
I've seen quite a few sitcom-to-theatre transfers, many of them at The Lowry and most not very successful, but Craig Cash and Phil Mealey's Early Doors, with most of the original TV cast, took naturally to the stage in a very funny feature-length episode that surprised everyone with just how quickly it sold out. Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art was revived by Original Theatre Company in a production that may not have been quite as slick as the original Nick Hytner production but which was built around some very strong central performances from Matthew Kelly and David Yelland as Fitz / Auden and Henry / Britten.
Finally, for Christmas, Dr Doolittle featured Mark Williams, perfect in the title role, and some nice ideas in the staging, but, although entertaining for the festive season, was a little disappointing overall as there was the potential for something much greater.
Palace / Opera House
I saw very little at ATG's Manchester theatres this year. The RSC mega-hit musical Matilda, the songs for which (by Tim Minchin) I fell in love with long ago through the original cast recording, finally came to the region and did not disappoint. Another West End hit touring for the first time was Kinky Boots, which pipped Matilda to the Best Musical Tony on Broadway, and this also lived up to the hype to a large extent with a good old-fashioned innocent romantic comedy musical with added drag.
As a fan of the books, I was a little disappointed with the first stage appearance of Ian Rankin's greatest character in Rebus: Long Shadows. To me it seemed quite thin as a story and some of Rona Munro's dramatic devices didn't really work, but very strong performances from Charles Lawson in the title role and John Stahl as his nemesis Cafferty, both perfect realisations of the characters in the books, just about carried it off.