New plays were one of the casualties of the pandemic. Producers anxious to attract audiences but made timid by recent events cannot be blamed for relying on tried-and-tested old favourites. This makes the launch of the 2022 season programme by The Royal Exchange Theatre so very interesting—they are the main producing house for the Manchester region. Besides, in a somewhat perverse gesture, the launch is being held at breakfast time offering the chance to glimpse ‘proper’ journalists, who do not normally venture outdoors at such a time, well and truly out of their comfort zone.

The launch is approached with a degree of apprehension. The last time I was at the Royal Exchange, Joint Artistic Directors Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise set out the mission statement of their Disrvpt programme: a series of special events seeking to disrupt the equilibrium of the Exchange’s Great Hall. The concept was to offset the impression the building in which the venue is sited is offensive due to historic links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its architecture being perceived as elitist and imperialist. Worried, therefore, the new season might amount to inflicting a guilt trip on unsuspecting audiences.

Actually, the new season promises to be a mixture of the classic and the audacious which is pretty much the approach The Exchange has always taken. Ironically the most radical, well downright weird, play, Betty! A Sort of Musical, comes not from the new team but from former Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom and Exchange regular Maxine Peake. Peake writes and stars in the story of Betty Boothroyd, former member of the Tiller Girls dancing troupe and first female Speaker of the House of Commons. One can see how this might work as a tragedy—someone descending from a life-enhancing trade as an entertainer into a politician—but making it a musical is a real challenge.

The classics are not ignored in the new season. Atri Banerjee directs Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is adapted by Stef Smith to carry the character Nora forward through a series of events illustrating female empowerment. Nora: A Doll’s House will be directed by Bryony Shanahan.

The craft of acting is reflected in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet based on the real-lie story of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play the role of Othello. The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is represented by Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary which won the Judge’s Prize. Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart, the play is unusual in bringing science fiction to the stage. Genre fiction—specifically horror—pops up again (and just in time for Halloween) with Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Let the Right One In which had been scheduled before lockdown turned everything upside down.

A schedule for the Studio theatre was not announced; one suspects such an intimate venue may have to wait until pandemic fears have well and truly died down. The Exchange’s mobile theatre unit—The Den—which this year was sited in Leigh, will return in 2021 based in Cheetham Hill as part of the theatre’s Local Exchange programme.

The Exchange’s resident companies—the Young Company and Elders Company—will be involved in The Den. The latter company will also take part in The Dream Project led by award-wining theatre artist Cheryl Martin, involving older African and African Caribbean Diaspora people from Greater Manchester who want to tell their story. Director Anna Berenzten will direct an epic summer production for the Young Company.

The Exchange’s latest digital project will be series of short educational films created by the theatre’s Wigs, Hair and Make-up Lead Joanna Shepstone and Consultant Hair Stylist and Co-creator Gege Uboma of The Afro Curly Hair Coach on theatrical wigs and hair care for performers with afro and multi-textured hair.

The full season for The Royal Exchange is as follows:

  • 4 March–2 April 2022 Nora: A Doll’s House by Stef Smith and directed by Bryony Shanahan
  • 23 April–14 May 2022 Electric Rosary by Tim Foley and directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart
  • 27 May–25 June 2022 Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Roy Alexander Weise
  • 2 September–8 October 2022 The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and directed by Atri Banerjee
  • 22 October–19 November 2022 Let the Right One In by Jack Thorne and directed by Bryony Shanahan
  • 3 December 2022–14 January 2023 Betty! A Sort of Musical by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies and directed by Sarah Frankcom