The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester celebrates its 45th anniversary this month, making me realise how central it’s been to my theatre going experience over the years.
I first stepped inside the iconic in-the-round auditorium in 1977, a year after its opening, and have been a regular attendee since. My first visit was to see Michael Hordern starring in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a play by Ronald Harwood based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, a production reflecting the ambition and determination of the founding board to experiment, push boundaries and to entertain in equal measure. Thankfully, the theatre’s artistic directors have continued to fulfil that mandate over the past four and a half decades, true to the theatre’s northern roots and delicately balancing commercial and creative factors as each season is planned, rarely falling into the trap of blatant box office bait (Will Young in The Vortex aside).
The IRA couldn’t stop the show
Of course, not all of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s productions have taken place within the confines of the historical great hall. Damage caused by the IRA Manchester bomb in 1996 saw a move to Upper Campfield Market on Deansgate for two years and the recreation of an overnight in-the-round theatre experience there, nights that I remember with fondness. The location may have been different but the spirit was very much alive.
150 x programmes and counting
As a self-confessed hoarder, I find I have around 150 x programmes of productions at the Royal Exchange, going right back to September 1977. As I didn’t buy many programmes in the early years it’s difficult to calculate exactly how many plays I’ve actually seen in that famous ‘lunar module’, but it’s a lot!
The run of plays over forty-five years has seen a rotation of Shakespeare, classics, costume drama, world premieres, portrayals of northern life, collaborations and international blockbusters. Many plays have been attempted more than once over the years but never in the same way twice. The circular open space casts its own magic, and presents opportunities as well as challenges for actors and directors alike – that, surely, is half the fun, and much of the appeal.
The play’s the thing
The who’s who of actors who’ve performed at the Royal Exchange is often stellar – Pete Postlethwaite, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Courtney, Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren, Richard Wilson, Michael Sheen, Maxine Peake all spring to mind – but it’s fair to say whoever treads the boards is there to serve the production they’re in, not the other way round.
Take me to the Mountain
After eighteen months of enforced darkness the theatre is stirring to life once more, something it has had practice of in the past. I’ve just booked to see the next production – The Mountaintop – next month and can’t wait to reacquaint myself with this most inspiring and familiar of spaces.
The Royal Exchange: it’s round, perfectly formed in every way, and it’s on my – our – doorstep. Roll on the 50th anniversary and the next fifty years after that.
MY ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE TOP TWELVE
The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1980, Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Pete Postlethwaite)
Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1981, Ben Kingsley)
Animal Crackers (1995, Emil Wolk/Gregory Hersov directed Marx Brothers farce – physical theatre at its best)
The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1996, Maureen Lipman)
Poor Superman by Brad Fraser (1997, world premiere at Upper Campfield Market)
A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2002, directed by Lucy Bailey)
Port by Simon Stephens (2002, world premiere)
Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse (2003, Trevor Peacock, Joanna Riding, John Thompson)
The Tempest (2007, Pete Postlethwaite)
Little Shop of Horrors (2015, Christmas season blockbuster)
Happy Days by Samuel Beckett (2018, Maxine Peake)
Tao of Glass (2019, part of Manchester International Festival)