Manchester Theatre – Best of 2018

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This year I ended up seeing lots of great theatre in Manchester as well as in Leeds, Liverpool, London, Sheffield and, for the first time, Huddersfield. The following are my favourite Manchester shows of 2018. In compiling the list I’ve restricted my choices to productions that were either premiered in Greater Manchester or could only be seen here. What I’ve not included are shows that were passing through on tour or that were revivals from elsewhere. It may seem an odd approach but it worked well for me last year, and when I sat down to think about everything I’d seen, those parameters allowed me to compile a list that made total sense to me as my Manchester favourites of 2018.

So in no particular order, here are my top ten Manchester shows…

Circle Mirror Transformation pic 04 (PROD-173)

Circle Mirror Transformation (HOME, March 2018)

Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning play was a joy and Bijan Sheibani’s taut and seductively intimate production handsomely repaid close attention (and repeated viewings). Powered by five beautifully natural and emotionally direct performances, it was my HOME highlight of the year. Someone somewhere please be planning to bring more Annie Baker to Manchester soon. Here’s my review.

Water Seeds Not Stones (Contact at STUN, October 2018)

Elmi Ali’s Water Seeds Not Stones was inspired by the anonymous on-the-move street sellers of Market Street. A lyrical outpouring of stories, allusion, wordplay and wisdom kept afloat by an infectious and charismatic performance – it was a richly rewarding experience. Here’s my review of the show. Back in January, Ali also showcased a work in progress Said the Seismograph About the Tremor which confidently and distinctively mixed words and music to create a hypnotizing meditation on love, loss and life in 1970’s Somalia and present day Manchester. He is one of the most exciting artists currently developing work in the city.

The Almighty Sometimes (Royal Exchange, February 2018)

Kendall Feaver’s Bruntwood Prize winning play about a young woman’s decision to stop taking her prescribed medication for a severe mental health condition, was a tough watch – it was also thoughtful, funny and very moving. Norah Lopez Holden gave a  performance of exceptional power. In a year of great productions at the Royal Exchange, this was my personal favourite. Here’s my original review.

The Maids (HOME, November 2018)

Lily Sykes’ production of Genet’s The Maids excelled in its ability to create an unsettling dream-like world. Dark and compelling, it refused to serve everything up neatly for its audience, creating a smouldering atmosphere of ambiguity and transgression. The radical transformation of HOME’s Theatre 1 by designer Ruari Murchison, created an intimate in-the-round space which added to the intensity of the experience. Here’s my full review.

Three Sisters, by RashDash, after Chekhov (Royal Exchange, May 2018)

Why is it men who make the speeches?” asked RashDash, in one of the most exhilarating shows of the year. Their Three Sisters was both a rejection of the period drama drawing-room, and an emancipation from the ennui which often emanates from within. It was thrilling, inventive and inspiring theatre. Here’s my review. As if Three Sisters wasn’t enough pleasure for one year, RashDash also delivered the breathtakingly ambitious Future Bodies at HOME in October, which looked and sounded ravishing.

[insert slogan here] (HOME, January & July 2018)

I saw YESYESNONO’s [insert slogan here] in development at  HOME’s PUSH Festival in January and loved it. It felt like an urgent call to live the best life you can, to not waste a moment. To be more than what you buy. To really feel. I found it deeply affecting and wrote something about it at the time. When I saw it again in July it had inevitably evolved, to become bigger, brighter and sleeker (in a good way). Blending moments of simple human interaction with carefully orchestrated sequences of euphoria, it deconstructed the language and techniques of advertising to expose their annexation of our deepest desires and fears. Eve Allin wrote a great review of the show, in its new streamlined form, at Edinburgh, for Exeunt.

Over My Dead Body (Royal Exchange CO:LAB Festival, July 2018)

Ali Wilson’s quietly wonderful show premiered as part of this year’s excellent CO:LAB Festival. What started out as a seemingly casual tête-à-tête with her mother Julie about the format of funerals became a portrait of a mother/daughter relationship, a snapshot of one woman’s life and a trial run for Julie’s eventual send off. It was a very clever piece of work – reminiscent of Quarantine in its carefully constructed spontaneity, its enquiring nature and the thoughtful use of real people and their lives. I wrote about the show as part of an overview of what I saw and enjoyed at CO:LAB.

The Mysteries (Royal Exchange, November 2018)

Chris Thorpe’s cycle of six plays was quite something. To see them performed one after the other, over a single day, felt like a ceremonial unpacking after a (not so) random road trip around England – with shared memories, overhead conversations, new friendships, journal entries, souvenirs and the weight of history. Raw, reflective & bursting at the seams with humanity it was a wonderful experience. So much so, after seeing the first day-long performance of the full cycle, I immediately booked to see it all again the following week. James Varney wrote a longish review of it in Exeunt which is worth a read or there’s an enthusiastic (and shorter) review from Fergus Morgan in The Stage.

The Fishermen (HOME, July 2018)

HOME brought some amazing directorial talent to the city this year, and their collaboration with New Perspectives meant we were treated to Gbolahan Obisesan’s lean and lithe adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s novel (before it headed to Edinburgh). It was a production blessed with much to admire and it artfully pulled you into increasingly murky depths. With its impressive design, sharp direction, elegantly honed script and hugely accomplished performances, The Fishermen was a powerful and engaging piece of theatre. Here’s my original review.

The Newspaper Boy (53two, February 2018)

Based on writer Chris Hoyle’s real-life experience of being ‘outed’ by the tabloids while appearing in Coronation Street, Dibby Theatre‘s The Newspaper Boy deservedly played to sold out audiences when it was programmed as part of Queer Contact in February. The play appropriated the tropes of soap to good effect with gritty stories and sparky dialogue, while blending humour and pathos. Relishing the 1990s Manchester setting, it delivered a hugely entertaining modern morality tale with a cast of vivid characters. Here’s my full review.

Some people, plays and things that also left an impression.

The following are a few other shows that I really admired and enjoyed in Manchester this year.

  • If I was picking a top 11 shows of 2018 then Nathaniel Hall‘s First Time at Sale Waterside would be in there! It was a generous and exceptionally moving personal account of being diagnosed as having HIV at 17 years old. Caroline Steiner’s review for Unrestricted Views beautifully captures what made the show so special.
  • The passion and power of the singing in Bread & Roses at Oldham Coliseum, back in early summer, took your breath away. Ian Kershaw’s play was a call for social justice that hymned the strength to be found in solidarity, and Amanda Huxtable‘s rousing production deployed her talented cast to full uplifting effect.
  • Chanje Kunda’s Plant Fetish was the highlight of this year’s Emergency at Z-arts. Even though it was still in development it felt startlingly original – a collision of art and performance imbued with healing qualities and a dry sense of humour. Plant Fetish can be seen as part of PUSH at HOME in January.
  • At the Octagon, All I See Is You, Kathrine Smith’s tale of two men falling in love for the first time in 1960s Bolton was moving and unashamedly romantic. Its strength lay in its ability to powerfully evoke the not too distant past and leave us haunted by what gay men endured at that time.
  • Monkeywood’s Trial at Bolton Town Hall, as part of the Octagon’s Reveal Festival, was a collection of four new plays primarily focused on women’s experiences of sexual exploitation and violence.  Muck (written and performed by Nisa Cole), about a young woman destroyed by insidious abuse, was the show’s standout element – a highly accomplished piece of writing delivered with fearless commitment.
  • And last but not least. Back in April, Emily Louizou‘s in development production of Alejandro Ricaño’s The Love Of The Fireflies at HOME was astonishing. Dreamy, sensuous story-telling delivered with humour and style, superb ensemble work, clever use of music and an incredible central performance from Hannah Donelan as Maria. 

01 RET The Almighty Sometimes L-R Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Vivienne), Norah Lopez Holden (Anna) & Mike Noble (Oliver) - Image Manuel Harlan

Image credits

Three Sisters, by RashDash, After Chekhov – The Other Richard

Circle Mirror Transformation – Marc Brenner

The Almighty Sometimes – Manuel Harlan

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