I didn't seem to see as many visiting productions as usual in 2016. Part of this was due to some producers deciding that they didn't want their productions reviewed by "national" publications until they got to London, which effectively meant that they were preview performances—although they weren't advertised as such and this was certainly not reflected in the ticket prices.
I can understand wanting to go back to the days of the out-of-town try-out when a production can be tested away from the glare of the London critics, but in the age of the web a review from the Manchester Evening News—considered "local" and therefore eligible to review—is just as visible as one from us or from The Guardian from anywhere in the world. One even said that they didn't want publications parachuting in their London critics to Salford, but we have critics in most regions whom we rate just as highly as our London reviewers.
No matter, but this may explain my short list of visitors. In fact I only have one on my list that I was able to review at The Lowry and it was a good one: The James Plays from the National Theatres of England and Scotland. It was a phenomenal achievement and a wonderfully entertaining whole day at the theatre. I was allowed to see Breakfast at Tiffany's as a Manchester Theatre Awards panellist as long as I didn't review it, which was probably just as well.
I saw a couple of musicals at the Palace Theatre. Tell Me On A Sunday was a fairly entertaining piece and a great vehicle for Jodie Prenger, but its shortness meant a second half of chat to fill out the evening, which wasn't really worth staying for.
Billy Elliot spent Christmas in Manchester (in fact it's still here) and was a very impressive piece of popular political theatre, although I'm not convinced it needed to be a musical. There were great performances from Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson and Martin Walsh as Dad, but the one that stood out was young Samuel Torpey (also played by Henry Farmer and Elliot Stiff at different performances) as Billy's cross-dressing friend Michael who stopped the show with his song "Expressing Yourself".
At the Opera House, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III was quite interesting but a bit self-consciously "clever" with its sometimes-stilted Shakespearean verse and rather shallow satire. However some genuine Shakespeare was much more entertaining in the form of the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing, which was at least as festively funny as anything else on approaching the Christmas period.
In fact I found it far more entertaining than this year's panto, Aladdin, which had a script that just seemed very old hat (even when trying to be modern—I mean, does anyone still "poke" on Facebook?)—and stars that looked quite under-rehearsed.