When people learnt I was moving to Manchester, I was often asked whether I would miss the London theatre scene. 18 months in and the answer is a clear “no” – it may lack some of the big names and shows of the West End but Manchester’s theatre scene more than makes up for this with its creativity and its fearless pushing of boundaries. But at the same time as being innovative, the 30 pieces of drama I saw in the North West in 2017 and a further 30 odd at the Edinburgh festivals, it seems to me that this has been a year that has both had its fair share of retrospection, too.
Musically Back to the Future?
2017 ended as it started: with a collection of musicals. The Royal Exchange has revived old classics over the festive seasons with Sweet Charity in the 16/17 programming and Guys & Dolls in 17/18. Both were good, solid interpretations of classics which didn’t quite set my world on fire. The Palace likewise welcomed the usual touring productions: Billy Elliot remembered the miners strikes of the 1980s through powerful dance whilst Beautiful remembered the social and musical changes of the 1960s and 70s through the songs of Carole King. They were strong productions – though sometimes let down by the Palace sound system – but could hardly be described as cutting edge theatre.
At the same time as finding refuge in the past, there were some attempts to bring classic musicals up to date. Of note was Bolton Octagon’s Threepenny Opera which discussed current political corruption and social poverty by updating Weill’s 90 year old score and including 2017 references.
However, it was newer musicals tackling older stories where we saw the most innovation. Yank at Hope Mills Theatre told the story of two US army officers who, movingly if predictably, fell in love in World War Two. How to win against History (Edinburgh then Home) emotively remembered the late 19th century Marquis of Anglesey whose love for performing shows & frocks eventually was his undoing. Both attempted to take somewhat familiar narratives and, by coupling them to music, make them resonate today, particularly when timed with the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality; How to win against history was particularly successfully in this endeavour.
Avoiding Style Over Substance
Although there were some highlights, 2018 was a somewhat mediocre year. For me, I didn’t see anything that was truly dreadful but there was a noticeable lack of the top, 5 star gold that normally glistens during my theatre year. Many of my picks from the Manchester International Festival all seemed to lack narrative content, even when the staging was engaging: Cotton Panic (Upper Campfield Market Hall) starring Jane Horrocks disjointedly tried to tell the story of the cotton bubble bursting with modern music, Fatherland (Royal Exchange) told men’s stories about their fathers but lacked a common thread & diversity, Returning to Reims (Home) felt very staid and, as part of the Manchester Fringe, Rory Bremner’s new translation of A Respectable Wedding (53Two) seemed to have lost any social commentary.
Near misses weren’t exclusive to the Manchester festivals: the attempts to use graphics in Paul Aster’s City of Glass (Home) and WhatsApp in The Believers are but Brothers (Edinburgh Fringe) actually detracted rather than adding to narratives. As with many of the things this year, none of these had me walking out but just resulted in this viewer being less engaged. Indeed, there was only one show where I failed to make the end: I left at half time at The House of Bernada Alba (Royal Exchange) not because I was offended but because I was a tad bored and thought the sofa at home might be more comfortable. Innovative stories and staging are essential in the theatre but, as always, the best directors did not lose sight of the narrative, message and experience of the viewers.
But there was some very good stories being told and issues raised this year.
Theatre at its Best
At the Edinburgh festivals, I saw a collection of performances questioning identity and belonging. The acrobatic Kin showed how friendship wins over the hunt to win a girl. Jess & Joe Forever looked at growing up, love & learning about who you are. Labels questioned which labels we chose and which are imposed on us. And my fringe highlight, Letters to Morrisey, tells the story of a man whose fandom provided support & helped form his identity through a difficult upbringing. As I’ve written elsewhere, the festivals’ programming seemed to reflect a need to look at who we are and where we are going but then seemed to proffer few answers.
Such themes of identity and belonging also featured in many of the plays I saw in Manchester. Mina (Home) was a remarkable piece of physical theatre bringing together the themes of coming out and gay cure. Three modern plays at the Royal Exchange Studio theatre told stories about loneliness and community. The protagonist in How my light is spent looked for friendship found on a telephone chat line; Growing Pains explored why someone might leave Salford but the city has left its mark on him; Cosmic Scalies explored disability and friendship as old friends meet up once again. Each one was simply staged, nicely scripted and held my attention.
There are a couple of pieces that – although interesting at the time – have been ‘growers’, leaving me thinking and reflecting for weeks afterwards. Firstly, £¥€$ (Lies) at the Edinburgh Fringe explained the financial crisis by making each audience member in to a gambling banker and the eventual disaster that ensued. Secondly, I saw My Country: A work in Progress (National Theatre/Home) on the evening that Theresa May had called here ill-fated general election and was struck by its conclusion, demanding visionary leadership for our country. In both cases, I was reminded that there is still much to learn from our recent economic & political history but that theatre can sometimes provide more nuance & light than our media and politicians do.
And, I suppose, that is my residing thought as I look back on 2017’s theatre and look forward to 2018. There will be some hits and some misses, once again. But whether in Manchester, London, Edinburgh or anywhere else in the UK, theatre at its best is innovative, engaging, nuanced and thought provoking. And during this time of social, political and global change has never been more needed.