A year in theatre: Our guide to the stage in 2014

Kevin Bourke

New writing, adult content, song, dance and gender swapping all feature in this year’s theatre scene. We highlight some of the best yet to come.

As the big musicals and other seasonal extravaganzas wind down, some rather more adult fare can soon be seen across the stages of the North West. One of the most notable is likely to be Alexi Kaye Campbell’s daring, love-triangle drama The Pride, playing at the Manchester Opera House from 20 January. It’s coming direct from a critically-acclaimed run at London’s Trafalgar Studios; theatre managers ATG deserve to be congratulated on their determination to support drama at their big venues.

Anyone who, like me, has been wondering “whatever happened to the Broadway adaptation of that hilarious amorality fable Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?” can find out at the Opera House from 12-22 February as Robert Lindsay, Rufus Hound and Samantha Bond take on the roles so wonderfully essayed by Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Glenne Headly in the film. Genital cuffs not compulsory.

If you want to catch up on some of the very best new theatre from Manchester and Salford’s thriving fringe scene, then the Library Theatre-curated re:play festival at The Lowry (20 January to 1 February) is the ideal opportunity. It’s followed by what will be the last show under the Library Theatre Company banner before the countdown to the launch of HOME really begins: much-admired LTC Artistic Director Chris Honer helms a new version of Chekhov’s The Seagull (21 February to 8 March at The Lowry). Several of the shows at re:play were first seen at 24:7, Manchester’s ground-breaking celebration of new writing. Stay cool and catch the stars of the future early at this year’s event, staged at various Manchester city centre venues from 18-25 July.

It’s looking to be quite the year for gender swapping

If new writing is your thing then look out for Pests, a new play from Vivienne Franzmann, the Bruntwood Prize-winning writer of Mogadishu. Pests runs at the Royal Exchange Studio from 12-22 March before heading out on a national tour. The Royal Exchange follow its crowd-pleasing That Day We Sang with a far tougher proposition: writer Simon Stephens’ (Punk Rock, Port) Blindsided, directed by Sarah Frankcom, has its world premiere later this month. Blindsided stars the redoubtable Julie Hesmondhalgh. That actress also reprises her Manchester Theatre Award-winning role in Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster, a deeply moving tale of the hate-killing of a 20 year-old “Goth”. Black Roses returns to the Royal Exchange Studio from 26 February, before touring to North West community venues so it can be seen by the widest possible range of audiences.

It’s looking to be quite the year for gender swapping for high-profile, Manchester-born actresses. Not only is acclaimed TV and stage actress Suranne Jones set to star in a stage version of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando at the Royal Exchange from 20 February, but also the great Maxine Peake, who steps up to become Associate Artist at the theatre in the Autumn, will be taking on the title role in Hamlet, an undertaking that will reunite Peake with her Masque of Anarchy director, Sarah Frankcom. “I’m so excited how gender swapping can affect and throw up new ways of looking at this theatrical masterpiece,” Peake says, adding that “in this climate of savage cuts we need to support our wonderful regional theatres. I feel no need to compete with London – more than ever, local people need a voice and a creative outlet in these extreme times and I feel the Exchange has a huge role to play in that.”

Other highlights at the Exchange include Simon Stephens collaborating with four of the most exciting emerging playwrights from the UK – Miriam Battye, Brad Birch, Alistair McDowall and Kellie Smith – as part of a major international initiative Hunger For Trade, a response to the global food crisis. There’s also poet Simon Armitage’s The Last Days Of Troy, a new version of The Iliad, literature’s oldest war poem. The Exchange will also host a new production of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, a stage version of iconic 1950s novel Billy Liar and Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days, a co-production with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

In fact, co-production is increasingly the name of the game in what, as Peake rightly observes, are troubling times for regional theatre. The New Vic partners with Bolton Octagon and Oldham Coliseum for a new version of Hobson’s Choice, premiering in Bolton later this month before playing the New Vic Theatre and then Oldham Coliseum. The Life Of Mitchell & Kenyon, a new play with songs that’s based on the lives of the pioneering filmmakers, is co-produced by The Coliseum and The Dukes in Lancaster. Award-winning Amy Leach directs, combining theatre and film with the help of production company imitating the dog, for what could well be one of the year’s most intriguing world premieres. Mitchell & Kenyon will be at The Dukes from 19 April; it comes to Oldham Coliseum from mid May.

Dance fans won’t want to miss The Prince of The Pagodas, a rare outing for Benjamin Britten’s only commissioned ballet, performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet (30 Jan-1 Feb, The Lowry). The Lowry is also bringing back that record-breaking show War Horse from late July until September.

Over in Liverpool, the most exciting news has to be the re-opening of the iconic Everyman on the first weekend in March. After the festivities, Director Gemma Bodinetz’s Twelfth Night opens, performed by an inspired ensemble cast. The new space hosts world premieres of a new Michael Wynne play, Hope Place and “a new Beggar’s Opera” that’s rather splendidly titled Dead Dog in a Suitcase (And Other Love Songs), which will be a collaboration with Kneehigh theatre company. Not to be outdone, the season at Everyman’s sister theatre, the Playhouse, features A View From The Bridge and a regional première production of Betty Blue Eyes.

Oh, and if you’re already thinking about next Christmas, the Palace Theatre will be tempting families with Shrek The Musical, while The Lowry is bringing back the hilarious One Man, Two Guvnors. They’re both great shows, of course, but there’s a lot more than that to look forward to before then.

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