News summary

In my round-up of 2018, there were several theatres in the North West which had lost artistic directors or other senior managers. 2019 was more about appointments, although notably some of the posts vacated last year have still not been permanently filled.

The Royal Exchange had a change of Executive Director last year due to differences in vision with Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom. This year, Frankcom herself announced she would step down to become Director of leading London drama school LAMDA. Frankcom remains the only sole artistic director the theatre has had since its inception in 1976—it has always had joint artistic directors before—as her replacements, already in post, are young directors Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan.

At the Octagon in Bolton, Elizabeth Newman vacated the Artistic Director post in 2018 to take over at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland, just as the theatre was closing for a major refurbishment programme. She was succeeded in February by Lotte Wakeham, who took over a season of productions in nearby venues including Albert Halls and Bolton Library and out of town at the Bolton Wanderers football ground. Wakeham will lead the company’s return to the Octagon when it reopens in spring with a season to be announced early in the New Year.

Over in Keswick in May, Conrad Lynch, who left in 2018, was replaced as Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake by another young, female, up-and-coming director, Liz Stevenson, who has directed a couple of productions for the theatre before and announced her first season at its helm for 2020 in November.

Oldham Coliseum’s Artistic Director Kevin Shaw departed suddenly after seventeen years just before the opening of the 2018 panto to be replaced by Chris Lawson as Acting Artistic Director, a title he still holds as there have been no announcements about a permanent replacement to date. Similarly, HOME Manchester has not replaced Walter Meierjohann, who stepped down as Artistic Director for Theatre in autumn 2018, and in fact doesn’t appear to have any staff with the word “theatre” in their title (unlike the film side of the venue), although it does appear to be moving almost exclusively towards being a receiving, rather than a producing, venue.

Manchester’s 53two fringe venue, currently home to popular biannual show JB Shorts as well as to several local fringe companies, announced in April that it would have to close the following month as the building’s owners were to develop the site. However in October, the company announced it had succeeded in obtaining planning permission to convert another two old railway arches just 100 yards away under Manchester Central (which most of us still know as G-MEX) into a 6,000 sq ft theatre and bar.

Hope Mill Theatre is going from strength to strength and in fact it could be questioned whether it should still be thought of as a fringe venue; while it does host a number of local and touring fringe companies, its in-house productions certainly give the more established local theatres a run for their money, not to mention an enviable number of London transfers and a few West End stars in its recent casts. This year, the theatre announced it was creating a charity to take over operating the building, which may open up more possibilities for funding, and that Russell T Davies will join Denise Welch and Tracie Bennett as patrons. It is also to establish a new LGBTQ+ theatre festival to run for three weeks in January 2020.

2019 was the year of two biennial Manchester-based events: Manchester International Festival and the announcement of the winners of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, sadly the last for long-standing supporter and founder of property company Bruntwood Sir Michael Oglesby who died soon after the ceremony. Earlier in the year, it had been announced that The Oglesby Charitable Trust had donated £1m to the Royal Exchange for a new pop-up theatre space (some may remember the Royal Exchange Theatre Company had a touring theatre modelled on the ground floor of the permanent theatre once before, which became its primary performance space for a while after the Manchester IRA bomb made it homeless).

MIF19, the second with John McGrath as Artistic Director, featured more than a thousand ticketed events and attracted more than 302,000 visitors, delivering an economic impact to the city of Manchester, it claims, of £50m. The Bruntwood panel, which featured for the first time this year an International Award, presented the £16,000 first prize to Phoebe Eclair-Powell for her play Shed: Exploded View at the Royal Exchange Theatre in November.

The following summary is based only on the shows I saw myself during 2019, a year in which I didn’t really get outside Greater Manchester (not even to Edinburgh), and so isn’t by any means a complete picture of theatre in the North West over the whole year, but should give a flavour of what was happening in the region. You can find different perspectives from some of my colleagues in their picks of the year, and of course you can always find the latest news and reviews from the region on the North West page.