Receiving theatres

HOME Manchester

I’ve moved HOME to the receiving theatres section this year as I’ve not seen anything there that was solely produced by the venue, only productions for which they have been credited as a co-producer or have developed with another artist or company.

Manchester-based new writing company Box of Tricks produced one of the year’s highlights in SparkPlug, an autobiographical solo piece written and performed by David Judge. Judge is now, deservedly, in demand at the moment as a performer, but the company has hinted that a revival of this show is planned at some point; catch it if you can.

Former Kneehigh director Emma Rice’s new company Wise Children paid two visits to HOME this year—the first with the show after which the company was named, based on Angela Carter’s Wise Children novel, and the second with another novel adaptation of the Enid Blyton children’s classic Malory Towers—both displaying Rice’s brilliantly imaginative storytelling in joyful displays of theatricality.

Headlong brought its production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to Manchester with Tom Mothersdale in the title role, but I found its storytelling rather confused and incorporating parts of Henry VI Part 3 didn’t help. Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road is a wonderful read with some similarities to Judge’s story, but this adaptation by Tanika Gupta for National Theatre of Scotland sadly didn’t begin to do it justice.

There was some interesting political theatre with Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, which looked at how the rich offspring of the leaders of repressive regimes contradicted their parents’ message with their lavish lifestyles, which they broadcast on Instagram. A show rather too stuffed with ideas to deal with any in sufficient depth, but still an interesting show that was worth seeing.

It was great to see Monkeywood Theatre return after two years with the sequel to its The Manchester Project with a festive selection of new plays by local writers about their home towns in Greater Manchester but with a festive twist, The Manchester Project at Christmas. There were one or two real gems amongst these 14 short plays, and some that had the potential to become something bigger.

Finally, this year’s offering for very young children was Little Angel Theatre’s adaptation of the story by David Walliams of The Slightly Annoying Elephant, who certainly lived up to his name and more in a piece that was entertaining but felt like it could have been a bit punchier.

The Lowry

My first visit to The Lowry was for Pilot Theatre’s production based on a powerful novel for young people by Malorie Blackman, Noughts and Crosses, a clever allegorical tale about racism, which could have been smoother in parts but still had the power to shock and thrill at its best.

English Touring Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus was already highly acclaimed when it arrived in Salford, and this was certainly deserved for a compelling production with a superb cast and a brilliantly effective new way of representing the horse that couldn’t be further away from War Horse.

Playing at the same time in the other theatre was the National Theatre’s production of Home, I'm Darling by Laura Wade, a comedy with a clever conceit that looks at gender roles in the home and at work with a perfect central performance from Katherine Parkinson, but which was rather too long and, as a few others have pointed out, light on laughs for a comedy (it won the Olivier for Best Comedy).

Daniel Kanaber’s Under Three Moons was brought to The Lowry’s Studio stage by Box of Tricks with an interesting story of male friendship over two decades but there was too much vagueness in the plot for the story of their relationship to come through clearly.

Cordelia Lynn’s Hedda Tesman from Headlong was a clever reworking of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to look like a modern play set in modern times with the wonderful Haydn Gwynne in the title role that worked well until towards the end, but that may have been because there was a desk on stage right in front of me for the whole of the last act so some of the most significant moments I could only hear and not see. That makes three productions this year in which my view of important parts of the action were blocked by pieces of scenery.

My last visit to The Lowry of the year was for a pretty decent production of Dr Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical, which was good fun if rather expensive even for a Christmas show—and my journey home reminded me why it is a very bad idea to ever visit The Lowry when there is a match on at Old Trafford.

Opera House

While the Opera House isn’t ideal in terms of atmosphere and acoustics for plays, a great cast for David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, led by the wonderful Mark Benton as Shelly Levene, managed to grab their audience with this biting satire on free-market capitalism and the American Dream full of fundamentally unlikeable characters.

Horror isn’t an easy thing to pull off in live performance, especially in a 2,000-seat proscenium theatre, but this adaptation of classic horror book and film The Exorcist, while flawed in many respects, did manage to achieve some real tension in parts, which is quite an achievement.

John Osborne’s The Entertainer was updated from the ‘50s, when the world of the music hall comic was shrinking, to the ‘80s, when ‘alternative’ comedy was putting the old sexist, racist stand-ups out to pasture, which is an interesting idea in theory but I didn’t see how it would make a play that was written about hot political events of its time relevant to 2019 by moving it from 60 years ago to 30 years ago. Although there was some awkwardness in the updating, there were some great performances, particularly from Shane Richie as Archie Rice and Pip Donaghy as his father Billy.

To finish the year, Strictly Come Dancing nasty—some would say ‘honest’—judge Craig Revel Horwood topped the bill as the wicked Queen Lucretia in the Qdos panto Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which also featured panto veteran Eric Potts as the dame, but the star of the show was Ben Nickless as Muddles with his variety of comic routines, all executed with a real awareness of his audience.

Palace Theatre

The Book of Mormon, from writers with CVs that include TV’s South Park and hit musical Avenue Q, arrived in Manchester surrounded by hype, which ensured that it was extended even before it opened, but for once the hype was justified. It had both the musicality and the shock comedy you might expect from that pedigree and, though clearly not to everyone’s taste, was very funny. For anyone who likes to get offended on behalf of other people, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a sense of humour about it, as it showed with its own witty advert in the production’s programme.

A show from the great Kander and Ebb that remained unfinished at Fred Ebb’s death, Curtains proved to be far from a classic from that great musical theatre partnership but a perfectly entertaining attempt at marrying the musical with the whodunnit.