This year I saw over 240 pieces of theatre. From those, I’ve chosen my 10 favourite Manchester shows of 2019. As in previous years, I’ve focused on productions that either premiered in Greater Manchester or could only be seen here. So I’ve not included any shows that were passing through on tour or that were revivals from elsewhere. Although it may seem an odd approach, it’s one that makes sense to me. It also feels especially important to celebrate Manchester-made work and productions that start their journey in the city at a time when theatre outside of London is becoming increasingly homogenous, with an over-reliance on co-productions and the same touring shows popping up in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and everywhere else.
So in no particular order, these are my top ten Manchester shows of 2019…
Hobson’s Choice (Royal Exchange, June 2019)
Tanika Gupta’s inspired adaptation refreshed and reframed Harold Brighouse’s tale of family expectations, entrepreneurial ambition, and strong-willed women. Stepping in to take over as director a week before rehearsals began, Atri Banerjee delivered a lively and very loveable production and deservedly went on to win the Best Director award at The Stage Debut Awards. Esh Alladi, as reluctant suitor Ali Mossop, was a joy to watch.
You can read my original review here.
The Nico Project (Manchester International Festival, July 2019)
Inspired by Nico’s The Marble Index, Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake’s collaboration for MIF might have defied categorisation but its power was undeniable. EV Crowe’s splintered script scratched away in search of something else beneath the surface. Frankcom’s almost cinematic production bravely refused to be restricted by either expectation or form. Monologue blurred into concert performance, while something akin to a séance took hold, and Peake was a woman possessed.
Forest (HOME, January 2019)
James Monaghan’s Forest was one of the first things I saw in 2019, and it has stayed with me throughout the year. The blurring of audience and performer, the ambiguity of the narrative, and, of course, the broccoli! Ambitious and risky, it was exhilarating to experience. As the show unfolded, it was hard not to look for themes and patterns, but in an age where many shows too eagerly spill their guts, Forest was brave enough to leave so much unexplained.
Mame (Hope Mill Theatre, October 2019)
Tracie Bennett starring as Mame at Hope Mill Theatre was always going to be an event. Nick Winston’s energetic production went for broke with lots of big entrances, eye-catching choreography, lashings of humour and a clutch of strong supporting performances. Bennett was on top form, taking the show to another level – her comic timing as impressive as her dancing skills and vocal prowess.
You can read Matt Barton’s full review of the show in What’s On Stage.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Hope Mill Theatre, July 2019)
Manchester-based Play With Fire know how to pick an interesting and surprising script, and John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was no exception. The play’s two lonely and damaged protagonists were difficult to love but the two full-on but note-perfect performances from Hannah Ellis Ryan and Danny Solomon made you feel totally invested in the characters and their lives. Fiercely-focused and emotionally-charged, the production was truly compelling.
Maggie The Cat (Manchester International Festival, July 2019)
MIF has been on a bit of a roll when it comes to programming dance (with Tree of Codes in 2015 and 10000 Gestures in 2017). This year was no exception, and Trajal Harrell’s Maggie The Cat was the main attraction. Harrell’s work celebrated elements of underground culture and deployed a dizzying resourcefulness to tell stories about power, representation, race and resilience, in the process creating something genuinely thrilling. As soon as the performers had left the stage, I desperately wanted to experience it all again one more time.
A Skull In Connemara (Oldham Coliseum, March 2019)
Director Chris Lawson deftly blended the poteen-soaked black comedy of Martin McDonagh’s play with a growing sense of unease as the past refuses to stay buried in a small community on the west coast of Ireland. Liam Heslin was gloriously funny as “young shite” Mairtin, and Lawson’s pitch-perfect production was atmospheric and absorbing. An unsentimental and strangely satisfying blend of intrigue and brutality washed down with a generous glug of gallows humour.
You can read my original review here.
The Salford Docker (The Lighthouse Centre, Eccles, July 2019)
Staged as a promenade performance, with a large cast of community actors, and running at over 3 hours long, Salford Community Theatre‘s dramatisation of the industrial decline of Salford Docks was an ambitious undertaking. Up-close moments of family drama drew you into half a century of social struggle, and a well-researched script was brought to life by some strong performances and striking set-pieces (the street party was especially good).
You can read about the development of the play in an interview with writer Sarah Weston and members of the cast in Tribune magazine.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (Royal Exchange, July 2019)
Sub-titled Scenes From The Luddite Rebellion, Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman’s production was a rousing collection of voices, sounds and stories from unsettled times. Imaginatively staged, it established a crystal clear connection across the centuries, and its stirring storytelling generated a surprising undercurrent of urgency. For me, it was the Royal Exchange’s standout production of the year.
You can read my original review of the show here.
A Fast One (Royal Exchange, June 2019)
Ali Wilson is one of Manchester’s most exciting theatre-makers. A Fast One was the swaggering highlight of this year’s CoLAB festival. As much endurance test as performance, it fearlessly surged forward at breakneck speed firing off a breathless barrage of punchlines, confessions, memories and myth-making. The sinuous and surprisingly rhythmic ending suggested there was an element of score-settling going on. Whatever the motivations behind it, the show was a total energy rush.
Wilson’s excellent Over My Dead Body returns to the Royal Exchange in April 2020.
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.
- With Utopia – After Thomas More Atri Banerjee used the Royal Exchange’s new pop-up theatre The Den to full effect and helped the Young Company pull together their strongest work in quite some time. Mace Maynard’s performance as the show headed towards its conclusion was quite something.
- Ransack Theatre‘s Catching Comets which previewed at Waterside before heading to Edinburgh was thoroughly enjoyable – entertainingly mocking Hollywood heroics, celebrating bravery over bravado, and questioning the nature of manhood. Alistair Michael kept it all afloat with a charming turbo-charged performance.
- Over in Bolton, the Octagon’s new Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham is shaking things up. So far her programming has been a breath of fresh air, with a hat trick of strong productions in her first season. Suba Das’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Kimberley Sykes’ Beryl and Wakeham’s Seagulls were all worth braving the shocking train service to Bolton for – and that’s saying something.
- Chris Hoyle’s incisive Tinned Up got a timely revival from 53two at Oldham Coliseum. With it’s cracking story, down-to-earth dialogue and real sense of place it was a bit of a crowd-pleaser, but the play’s mission to entertain was never at the cost of the issues it was seeking to explore. Karen Henthorn and Keaton Lansley excelled in a strong cast.
- For some reason Studio ORKA’s Tuesday didn’t get the attention it deserved as part of this year’s MIF. Maybe people dismissed it as a children’s show or perhaps it was because it was happening outside of the city centre? Whatever the reason, it was a shame because the show was a thing of beauty, with great use of a community choir and cleverly staged in a Grade 1 listed Victorian church.
- (M)OTHERS (created and performed by Christopher Brown, Yandass Ndlovu, Helen Andrew and Jordan Skelly) was another highlight of the Exchange’s CoLAB Festival. Seamlessly combining movement, promenade performance and wonderfully vivid spoken word it cleverly wove together reflections on nurture, nature, the state of the planet and the cycle of life.
- Word of Warning’s wonderful Emergency spread itself generously across two venues this year and among the many pieces of work-in-development on show, I especially liked Katy Dye & Craig Manson’s The Memoirs of a Fag Hag, Holly Spillar’s Hole and Will Dickie’s b4 history.
- Three other works-in-development that I saw this year that I’m really keen to see more of were Cheryl Martin’s One Woman (due at HOME in July 2020), Amy Lawrence’s KINGS and RashDash’s Mary vs Elizabeth.
- Faith Yianni has been doing a great job as one of Hung Theatre‘s directors. Her work on Jade Fox’s Sorry & Amends Take The Bus and Choe Weare’s Neighbourhood Watch allowed both pieces to shine as part of Bypass. More recently she gave Eleanor Cartmill’s impressive Rotting a striking physical dimension (it felt almost choreographed at times).
And (almost) finally – here’s a quick list of some amazing shows that I also really rated in 2019 despite them not meeting the strict (and admittedly slightly arbitrary) criteria for inclusion in my Manchester Top 10.
- Peeling from Taking Flight Theatre at 53two.
- There Are No Beginnings at Leeds Playhouse.
- When It Breaks It Burns from coletivA ocupação at Transform Festival and Contact.
- It’s True, It’s True, It’s True from Breach Theatre at HOME.
- Kourtney Kardashian from Sleepwalk Collective at HOME.
- Sweeney Todd at Liverpool Everyman.
- Smack That from Rhiannon Faith at The Lowry.
- Bottleneck from Hiding Place Theatre at Oldham Coliseum.
- The Antipodes at the National Theatre.
- Life By The Throat from Most Wanted at HOME.
If I had to choose one performance that stood out this year it would be Eve Steele’s in Life By The Throat, she was astonishing. Finally, my two favourite theatre moments in 2019 were the gold leaf eating scene in Kourtney Kardashian and Tessa Parr dancing to Supertramp’s Dreamer in There Are No Beginnings. And that’s it.
Here’s to 2020, and Flare Festival, and Bryony Shanahan directing Andy Sheridan’s Wuthering Heights, and Contact finally reopening, and everything else the year has in store…
Images – Hobson’s Choice by Marc Brenner, The Nico Project by Joseph Lynn, Forest by Kate Elizabeth Daley, Mame by Pamela Raith, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by Mark Russell, Maggie The Cat by Tristram Kenton, A Skull in Connemara by Joel Chester Fildes, The Salford Docker by Beth Redmond, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out by Manuel Harlan, A Fast One by Chris Payne, Tinned Up by Shay Rowan, Kourtney Kardashian by Ricardo Espinosa.