Manchester theatre: Lyn Gardner on a city reaching beyond the theatrical peaks

Lyn Gardner

Theatre in the UK has changed beyond all recognition in the last 15 years, argues Lyn Gardner, and at last Manchester theatre is catching up, and reinventing both itself and the future of British theatre.

When Maxine Peake stepped onto the stage of the Royal Exchange to play Hamlet for the first time in September 2014, all eyes were on Manchester. Here was an actor at the peak of her powers, tackling one of the greatest roles in the Western canon, in a play that is deeply rooted in English theatrical heritage. Yet it was being given a unique contemporary spin. Past and present were in glorious collusion with each other.

The iconic in-the-round Royal Exchange – one of the world’s most distinctive spaces – was the theatre where the Bolton-born Peake, now a hugely successful TV and stage actor, first discovered theatre as a member of the company’s youth group in the 1980s. Now she had come home, playing Hamlet at that very same theatre, in a radical reinvention that put women centre stage. It was a production that several critics remarked made the play seem newly minted.

Peake’s Hamlet debut was and is a reminder of the way that Manchester is tackling the challenges of making a theatrical future for itself. In the process it is not turning its back on a rich theatrical legacy that has served it so well – but it is no longer in thrall to the theatrical ghosts clanking about in the basement, to a theatre tradition that stretches back to 1907 when, via the establishment of the Gaiety Theatre by Annie Horniman, it became the founding city in the UK’s repertory theatre network.

Nor is Manchester simply relying on local affection for theatres such as the Exchange or Contact. Or the real hunger that there is for the West End musicals and plays that can be enjoyed (and often premiered) at the Palace Theatre, or the new work and quality touring shows that are showcased at The Lowry in Salford. The fact that theatre going is so deeply rooted in Manchester is reflected in the fact that the National Theatre’s War Horse – co-directed by one of the city’s favourite theatrical daughters, Marianne Elliott – galloped around The Lowry for a full nine weeks, over twice as long as in any other UK city.

Manchester is no longer in thrall to the theatrical ghosts clanking around in its basement

The Royal Exchange has always been a flagship, but under Sarah Frankcom’s vibrant direction it understands that it must be part of the fleet too. As do others working in theatre in the city, including Manchester International Festival (MIF), which has been so important in encouraging local theatre to look beyond UK borders to Europe and further afield, and brought companies such as Punchdrunk and artists such as Jeremy Deller to the city to work in non-theatre spaces and out on the streets.

Before the new initiative, HOME, has even taken up residence in its new, £25 million residence, it has been out and about in the city, unearthing stories, reanimating old industrial sites and inviting in international companies -such as Dublin’s ANU who created Angel Meadow – to re-examine Manchester’s relationship with itself. Although HOME has its roots in the historic Library Theatre Company, sometimes it takes an outside eye to do that, which is why the arrival of the Amsterdam-born Walter Meierjohann, the artistic director for theatre at HOME, is so important.

At a time when investment in the arts is tight, both via the government and local authorities, theatre buildings and institutions can no longer operate as silos. They must look outwards, not inwards. The health of a city’s theatrical landscape must now be measured not just in what happens on its funded theatre’s main stages but also by the amount of theatrical activity that bubbles up in the city elsewhere.

Manchester has sometimes lagged behind in this respect. While Bristol has seen increasing amounts of independent theatre activity, including circus and outdoor work, and Sheffield and Leeds both have thriving performance scenes with lots of young companies who are changing the face of British theatre, Manchester has been less vibrant. It has always been very good at producing drama and plays, in particular classic plays, but it has been less engaged in producing theatre or performance. The closure of the greenroom in 2011 robbed the city of a venue for a strand of alternative and fledgling work that has only recently got a new lease of life via Word of Warning and Emergency.

The Exchange has always been a flagship, but under Sarah Frankcom’s direction it understands it must be part of the fleet too

That’s not to say that Manchester hasn’t produced great theatre-makers. It has, in droves. Look around current British theatre and the influence of Manchester is everywhere. Former Salford resident, Josie Rourke, who heads up the internationally renowned Donmar and who has guest directed for MIF, has talked extensively of the influence of Manchester’s theatre output on her own development as a director. Marianne Elliott, who began her directing career at the Exchange, is now famed for her productions, including international successes such as War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Simon Mellor, one time general director of MIF, is now executive director at the Arts Council. John McGrath, who successfully ran Manchester’s Contact theatre and made it one of the most thrilling, open door theatres in the UK, is now artistic director of National Theatre Wales, an organisation that is constantly pushing at the boundaries of what theatre can and might be, and promoting the idea of a theatre organisation as a community.

Quarantine’s theatrical excavations of everyday life have influenced a generation of theatre-makers, both in the UK and abroad. The Stockport-born Simon Stephens is just one of a raft of feted playwrights whose work increasingly gets seen on national stages. Manchester’s significance as a place that offers real opportunities to playwrights can be seen through the support of local property developer, Bruntwood, and on a smaller scale through the new writing festival 24:7, and venues such as the King’s Arms.

Yes, Manchester has always been a player in the theatre world. But in the new theatre culture, funded organisations must also be measured in how widely they hold their doors open for local and emerging theatre-makers, actors, directors and designers. Also in how much they view audiences not just as spectators but also as collaborators, via participatory activities and different kinds of performances that explore interactivity, happen across different platforms and make use of new and everyday technologies.

Look around 21st British theatre and the influence of Manchester is everywhere.

They must be judged on a willingness and ability to co-operate and collaborate with others, not just via brilliant co-productions such as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (a co-production between the Exchange and West Yorkshire Playhouse) but through a spirit of generosity and an ability to ask not “what is my organisation getting out of this?” but what are we offering of value to our collaborators, whoever they are. An institution, whether it’s a festival or a building, must be judged by what it does for its local community and in its continuing efforts to serve not just those who are already connected in to its activities but those who do not think that theatre and performance will ever be for them.

In the past, Manchester’s theatre organisations might have failed some of these tests, but no longer. Those running buildings and organisations know that their own survival is based on an ability to share their resources, set up genuinely collaborative projects, and welcome everyone in – and take their place not just as part of the cultural community but at the very heart of everyday life.

Manchester may be playing catch-up, but the benefits are already apparent. A few months ago I met a group of students who had recently graduated from Manchester universities and who were setting up a theatre company. Not so long ago they would probably have immediately headed to London, or to Bristol or Sheffield. But this lot were staying put. They saw Manchester’s changing theatre scene as a place of possibilities and opportunities, a place where they could find a niche and make a future.

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