Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange opened the year with a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children that seemed to want to steer clear of anything that Brecht himself suggested or advised for his own play but didn’t have any ideas of any substance with which to replace it, and so, despite having the wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh in the title role, it proved a bit of a damp squib to open a season that had some real gems to come.
The Fuel and National Theatre production of Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles was just absolutely joyful. With humour, politics, music, sparkling dialogue, fabulous characters and fascinating interweaving stories on two continents, it was a loosely plotted tour around barbers’ shops around Africa and in London in which black men just talked, but it proved to be one of the highlights of the year.
Outgoing Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom brought us a production of West Side Story that had new choreography by Aletta Collins, not the Jerome Robbins original, but it worked really well, with the in-the-round staging seeming to bring out more intimacy between the characters than broad spectacle, although the set did cause me some sightline problems (and not for the only production this year). The show was so successful that it is to be revived in 2020.
Tanika Gupta’s 2007 adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s classic Salford comedy Hobson’s Choice, which was transplanted into a British Asian family in the 1980s but still contained all of the humour and conflict of the original, was brought to Manchester by Atri Banerjee in a wonderful production, with an especially notable performance from Esh Alladi as Ali (originally Will) Mossop.
There is a Light That Never Goes Out took us back to the Luddite Rebellion for a devised co-production with Kandinsky that was never as imaginative, informative or politically relevant as it promised to be but had some nice touches. The next production also failed to follow up on its promises: Macbeth made its title role female while keeping Lady Macbeth also female, but the interesting questions this threw up, and many others in the production, were never dealt with in a production that was too long, slow and ponderous.
Following this was a production that was certainly a surprise to me: a play by Simon Stephens that had depth and humour and that I actually enjoyed. Light Falls may have a grim premise—it takes place at the moment of a woman’s death in a shop and we see what her husband and children are doing at that time—but there was comedy, touching characters, tight direction from Sarah Frankcom and music by Jarvis Cocker.
The Royal Exchange continued its recent tradition of a Christmas musical to conclude the year with Gypsy, the classic tale of the showbiz mother who could cause sleepless nights for any theatre producer (though apparently not as bad as the person on whom she was based). Some people I spoke to were a bit dubious about the production, but I loved it (apart from more problems with scenery obscuring my view for parts of the performance) and thought it was a highlight of a pretty decent year for the Royal Exchange to end Sarah Frankcom’s tenure.
There was one more lovely production I saw for Christmas: Ducklings from The Herd Theatre in the Studio for very young children, which took the familiar Hans Andersen Ugly Duckling tale as a starting point and turned it into a fifty-minute piece with a similar moral but with a few more layers of story to it. And the audience got to have a snowball fight with the cast.
The Octagon hasn’t produced many plays this year as the venue has been closed for refurbishment, but it has kept its audiences entertained at other local venues.
A revival of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, only seven years after its previous production of this play with the same person in the title role, was just around the corner from the Octagon at Bolton’s Albert Halls. It featured a strong cast, but problems with sightlines and the appalling acoustics in the venue (not helped by thumping music from a wedding party downstairs on press night) didn’t do anything to help a fairly flat production. I didn’t see the next production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the same venue, but I believe this was also dogged by issues of audibility.
After an extended summer break, the company set up temporary home at a much more intimate and atmospheric venue in Bolton Library and Museum with Beryl, Maxine Peake’s play about world champion cyclist Beryl Burton, which was a very lively piece with a strong cast in a play that was educational if a little rough in construction. At the same venue, Seagulls by Beth Hyland was a UK première of a ‘gig theatre’ piece about an up-and-coming pop band based on the play of a similar name by Chekhov, which kind of worked and made for an entertaining, if not especially demanding, evening.
For the Christmas production of Treasure Island, we had to trek through stormy weather up to the University of Bolton Stadium, whose Premier Suite was turned, rather impressively, into an 800-seat theatre. The production itself was lively and colourful, but the script didn’t entirely work, despite a song about cheese featuring cows in tutus.
After a disruptive end to 2018, losing both its Artistic Director and its planned new theatre shortly before building was due to begin, 2019 has been a quiet one in terms of homegrown productions under Acting Artistic Director Chris Lawson.
Lawson’s first production as director after temporarily taking the helm of the theatre was A Skull in Connemara, a pretty decent, unfussy production of Martin McDonagh’s distinctive brand of dark, Irish humour. He followed this up with his production of Visitors by Barney Norris, which had its moments and featured some strong performances but had a plot that promised much more than it delivered.
A revival of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse and York Theatre Royal, has been acclaimed elsewhere but to those of us who lived through the Thatcherite ‘80s it told us nothing new and the humour in the often preachy dialogue was a bit thin and repetitive. However it did feature a stand-out performance from Susan Penhaligon as our current Queen.
A pretty decent revival of the Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall musical The Hired Man was another three-way co-production that began at Queens Theatre Hornchurch and ended in Oldham, telling this novelistic, meandering story with a strong cast of actor-musicians. After this, London Classic Theatre baffled us with Pinter’s No Man’s Land, a play that doesn’t offer anything as mundane as plot or meaning.
The year ended, of course, with the Coliseum’s regular panto, which was Lawson’s first here as both director and co-writer for Jack and the Beanstalk and featured a few other changes of regular personnel, but, despite a great hippy cow, a lot of it felt underwritten and underworked.
Hope Mill Theatre
The partnership between William Whelton and Joseph Houston of Hope Mill Theatre and Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment gets more productive each year, generating a string of high-quality productions of musicals we don’t often see revived and sending them on the road to other parts of the country.
The first of these this year was Rags, a show with an impressive list of writers but which has never really taken off despite multiple reworkings over thirty years. This version was pared down to focus mainly on a single family, but, despite some strong performances, still looked like a work-in-progress as far as the script was concerned.
Hope Mill’s production of Hair from three years ago visited Manchester’s Palace Theatre on its tour of large-scale venues, then for summer they presented Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer the Opera, which I described as “loud, brash and fast-moving”, but for me it was spoiled by painfully harsh sound that gave me a headache.
Just a glance down the cast list of Mame shows the reputation that this small theatre now has in the industry, bringing to Ancoats West End stars Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe as lead actors and Tim Flavin in a fairly small role. This enjoyable production of a rarely revived musical from the great Jerry Herman, who died over Christmas, is worth catching when it visits Northampton and Salisbury in January 2020, and a West End transfer may well be on the cards after that.
To finish the year, we were given a twist on a Christmas staple, as The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit presented a sequel to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol when Tim was no longer Tiny and was making his way in the big wide world. While not the greatest of shows, it was entertaining enough for a Christmas show and continues Hope Mill’s record of reviving musicals that we rarely get the chance to see on the professional stage.