Manchester Theatre Awards kick-starts the cultural year with its shortlist announcement.
There are few who’d argue with the idea theatre lovers in Manchester have never had it so good. From new playwrights and a whole new outlook at the Royal Exchange to a new home for the Library Theatre Company, if performance is your thing Manchester, is where it’s at. It makes sense, then, that when the MEN ditched its 30 year-old theatre awards in 2011, someone should step into the breach. That “someone” turned out to be a group of nine enlightened theatre critics, who banded together to re-launch the now independent awards. And, given that this bunch live and breathe local theatre, they are perhaps better placed than most to comment on what’s good about the scene.
“London aside, Manchester has the largest theatre-going audience in the country,” says Kevin Bourke, one of the band of nine (and one of our regular contributors). “In fact, forget London. You could quite reasonably say that Manchester’s theatre-going audience is actually the biggest and smartest in the country, given that London figures are artificially boosted by tourists going to a few big shows in the West End, whereas throughout Manchester, huge numbers of people go to local theatre, in Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Salford, pretty much anywhere you can think of.”
Forget London. Manchester’s theatre-going audience is actually the biggest and smartest in the country
Bourke reckons that Manchester’s love of theatre goes way back (“it was the birthplace of British repertory theatre”), but it is known now as much for new writing as it is for blockbuster shows. “The success of the 24:7 Theatre Festival is proof of the massive amount of writing, performing and backstage talent that’s bubbling away in Manchester,” says Bourke, “and that’s why these awards cover the whole scene, from first-rate, homegrown productions coming from the likes of the Library Theatre Company and Bolton’s Octagon Theatre to the spectaculars that visit venues such as The Lowry or Opera House.”
With an exhausting 19 categories, plaudits will be handed out to both the big boys as well as the smaller, fringe venues and ventures. Actors in line for an award include the ever-excellent Maxine Peake (for her performance in Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange) and Imogen Stubbs, who won rave reviews for her role in Orpheus Descending late last year. Winners will be announced in March; until then you’ll just have to console yourself with the latest plays gracing the city’s stages – of which there are many. “After all,” says Bourke, “the theatre scene in and around Manchester is the envy of almost everywhere else, so it’s only right to celebrate it.”