Producing theatres

Royal Exchange Theatre

The Royal Exchange opened the year with a new play by Simon Stephens, Blindsided, that was even received cooly by critics who have rated Stephens's previous work (of which I am not one). This was followed by an extremely impressive performance by Suranne Jones in the title role of Virginia Woolf's Orlando in an adaptation that may not have had a great deal of depth but was a lot more fun than many of us expected.

Maria Aberg's Much Ado About Nothing showed some potential but hadn't come together by press night, and Simon Armitage's The Last Days of Troy was a sprawling mess of a play that was still too long even after extensive cuts during the run. Alongside this latter play, Gareth Farr's Bruntwood Prize play Britannia Waves the Rules was revived in the Studio and again for the Edinburgh Fringe.

Billy Liar was entertaining enough but carried mainly by a great performance by Harry McEntire as Billy Fisher. A brilliantly inventive co-production with the New Vic of Around the World in 80 Days took us into the summer break.

The autumn season opened with Maxine Peake as Hamlet in a production that scored very well at the box office and is to be filmed but was rather underwhelming in most respects. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had a mixed response but worked for me and certainly had some impressive performances.

The Exchange ended 2014 on a major high with a production of Little Shop of Horrors that for me was the best Christmas show this year in the region.

Octagon Theatre

The Octagon's revival of classic northern comedy Hobson's Choice was miscast and misconceived, other than an impressive performance by Michael Shelford as Willie Mossop. The same cast returned in David Thacker's slimmed-down production of Twelfth Night, which contained some very good performances but didn't entirely work.

However, after a slow start to the year and not a particularly great previous year, the Octagon stepped up a few gears. The Out of Joint co-production of Stella Feehily's This May Hurt A Bit was a bit of good, old-fashioned agit prop about the decline of the NHS that was very effective at exposing the issues.

Elizabeth Newman, whose previous productions for the Octagon have not often attracted good reviews, directed two Tom Kempinski two-handers, Duet for One and Separation, that were some of the best pieces of theatre seen on the Bolton stage for quite some time, helped by wonderful performances by Clare Foster and Rob Edwards in both plays.

After a good co-produced stage adaptation of popular political film Brassed Off, Newman was back with a very powerful musical adaptation of Love Story, another highlight of the year.

Another of Thacker's play pairings saw Journey's End and Early One Morning sharing the same cast and set, with the former showing itself to be by far the superior play. Newman directed the Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland, which was better than most recent Octagon Christmas shows but still not entirely successful.

Oldham Coliseum

The Coliseum also had a bit of a mixed start to the year, with a very effective production of Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, that I'd thought, from previous productions, was too much of its time to work now. However its next production of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist did prove how difficult it is to make political theatre work outside of its original time and context.

Deborah McAndrew, who adapted the Fo play, wrote the original script for An August Bank Holiday Lark, a touring co-production with Northern Broadsides, which was liked by many but for me contained too many tropes and clichés of Edwardian comedy without enough heart and soul, but my judgement could have been partly affected by being in a rather dead matinée audience with noisy front-of-house staff.

Close the Coalhouse Door is another piece of well-known political theatre, but Kevin Shaw's production was refreshingly accessible and kept the attention better than a recent touring production using the same script.

I couldn't get to see the autumn productions at the Coliseum, but there was a revival of Willy Russell's school musical Our Day Out based on his early TV play, comedy duo Lip Service's latest literary spoof The Picture of Doreen Gray, a new stage production from Susan Hill's ghostly story The Mist in the Mirror as part of a tour and the usual traditional panto, which this year was Aladdin.

Library Theatre Company / HOME Manchester

The last ever production of Manchester's Library Theatre and of its outgoing artistic director Chris Honer was Anya Reiss's refreshing but subtle adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, which worked very well on The Lowry's Quays Theatre stage.

In the gap between the Library's residency at The Lowry ending and completion of the new building for HOME, new artistic director for theatre Walter Meierjohann implemented a three-strand interim season at various locations around the city.

This began with a bang with Angel Meadow, commissioned from Dublin-based ANU Productions and performed in an empty pub building in Ancoats on the edge of the city centre. Tickets for this were hard to come by but well worth tracking down for one of the few "immersive" theatre productions that really resonated with me after the performance had ended.

Meierjohann took the director's reigns himself for Romeo and Juliet in the picturesque but acoustically challenging surroundings of Victoria Baths, another impressive production that sold out in advance of opening.

The third strand of the season built a temporary "pop-up" theatre on an office floor at Number One First Street, overlooking the site of the new HOME, where you could see the Best of BE Festival, featuring short pieces and works-in-progress from the Birmingham festival, short movement piece Insomnia from Riotous Company and, the real highlight, David Greig's The Events from Actors Touring Company, the Scottish playwright's innovative and thoughtful consideration of the killings in Norway by Anders Breivik but not actually based on that event.

This same temporary theatre space will be in use in early January for the ninth annual Re:Play Festival, reviving some of the best fringe theatre in Manchester from 2014.

Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse

There were times when the Everyman building, which at some points in the year seemed to be receiving at least one design nomination per week, was gaining far more attention than any work that was going on inside it.

However it had a spectacular opening with a very impressive Twelfth Night in which many past performers from the old Everyman were either on stage or in the opening night audience.

Other homegrown productions in the new building included Hope Place and Bright Phoenix, but one of my highlights of the theatrical year was a co-production with Cornish company Kneehigh on Dead Dog in a Suitcase. This was Kneehigh on absolute top form in a stunning piece of theatre that I look forward to being revived soon.

Poor Liverpool Playhouse was a bit in the shadow of its sister theatre, but it hosted some acclaimed touring productions including Headlong's Spring Awakening, Eclipse Theatre Company's Sizwe Banzi is Dead and DV8's John, ending with its own production of Sex and the Three Day Week, which didn't go down so well with our reviewer.

Theatre by the Lake

Keswick's lakeside theatre had an interesting Easter double bill, with one of several revivals of Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, which worked very well and toured later to theatres and village halls around Cumbria. This was paired with a very good revival of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.

The summer season in the main house was a bit of a disappointment, or at least the two thirds of it that I saw. Rookery Nook looked very dated and didn't live up to some truly great farce productions in past TBTL seasons, and Dracula was over-long and just didn't work at all.

The studio programme was rather more interesting. Brendan Murray's new play Seeing the Lights was a touch too long but largely worth seeing, and Jez Pike's return to the theatre to direct Jez Butterworth's The Winterling produced another powerful piece of theatre that was a highlight of the studio season.