Best of 2015

It’s been a very good year for theatre in Manchester.  From the International Festival through mainstream theatres to fringe and university productions, there really has been something for everyone.  At times there have been many more things to see than anyone could possibly manage and for that reason this review can never be truly comprehensive.  Still, hopefully it gives a picture of what has impressed this year.

Manchester International Festival was a mixed offering this year.  Standing well above the rest was contemporary ballet Tree of Codes, which brought together the extraordinary talents of Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx to create one of the most compelling shows of the year.  The Skriker took time to get going but was worth the wait, as the Royal Exchange was transformed into a mythical England.  In contrast, Neck of the Woods and both disappointed.

The surprise success at the same time was Flare Festival, a week long showcase where theatre met performance art.  I only wish that I could have seen everything that was on offer, and I look forward to the next one in 2017.  Highlights for me included the thought provoking and challenging The Privileged (not reviewed, impossible to do so without spoilers!), and neon-pop Figs in Wigs.

New theatre venue HOME opened in April and has offered something different to the theatre landscape in Manchester – on the face of it a more European, director focused offering.  Personally I think that HOME’s output has been excellent, from the Simon Stephens adaptation The Funfair to the excellent touring productions of Golem and Dead Dog in a Suitcase and the Christmas show Inkheart.  Looking forward, 2016’s programme continues to offer innovative theatre, particularly look out for The Encounter, which I saw elsewhere.

The Royal Exchange has produced some excellent shows this year.  In the main house The Crucible proved a successful interpretation of a classic text and Pomona showed an alternative future for modern playwriting.  In the studio, Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation was powerful and moving, and Yen showed that new writing can produce theatre that creates impact with a story that is very relevant to today.

Contact Theatre continues to offer consistently high quality innovative theatre.  This is How We Die from Christopher Brett Bailey was breathtaking, Vesper Time from Stacy Makishi surreal, and Tim Crouch and Andy Smith proved their ability to make compelling drama out of silences with What Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening.

It’s probably not on most people’s radar, but the work of Contact Young Company is always worth making the effort to see.  Working in collaboration with cutting edge artists and theatre makers, these are thoughtful, well designed shows.  The Shrine of Everyday Things took over empty flats in Beswick, producing a work of such sensitivity that you could not help but be moved.  Under the Covers was a thoughtful and intelligent look at modern sexuality.

Manchester School of Theatre (MMU’s acting programme) excel at producing visually stunning and well acted performances, although the need to use large casts sometimes restricts the work.  Highlight this year was the original and stunning Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass, which drew heavily on physical theatre.  Now moved into the HOME studio, recent productions of Brutopia and 13 have continued this high quality.

The Lowry pitched the innovative Roundabout in the square, and the Lowry Studio continued to produce a fascinating mix of work.  In the main theatres, there was Circus in the Quays and DV8’s John in the Lyric.  I don’t go to the Lowry enough; I’ll change that next year.

Maybe performance art isn’t your thing, but it’s frequently going to influence the future direction of theatre.  Excellent productions this year have included Domestic II in a block of flats in Salford and Emergency at Z-Arts.  Both were presented by the exceptionally talented Word of Warning, and I’d recommend subscribing to their newsletter.

Around Manchester, specific shows stand out during the year.  What’s the Matter With You? at Sale Waterside was a beautifully constructed and sensitive verbatim performance looking at how mental health is important to all of us.  Early Doors, performed in the Royal Oak in Eccles but part of the Lowry Studio programme, took us into the close knit family of the local pub.  Pinter’s The Room was brought to the claustrophobic setting of the Joshua Brooks.

2015 has been an excellent year for theatre in Manchester.  Looking back, there were five stand out productions, pieces of theatre and performance that were not only well made, but exceptionally moving and intelligent.

Best theatre performances:

Shrine of Everyday Things (Contact), an exceptional piece of site specific theatre.

Confirmation (Royal Exchange), powerful, engaging, thought-provoking theatre.

This is How We Die (Contact), challenging convention to produce a stunning performance.

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass (Manchester School of Theatre), well devised, perfectly delivered, drawing heavily on physical theatre.

Pomona (Royal Exchange), fascinating writing and outstanding direction.

And one dance performance:

Tree of Codes (Manchester International Festival), yes it’s dance but it was technically almost perfect, emotionally strong, MIF at its best.

Best event:

Flare Festival, well organised, great use of studio spaces, showing something new and different.

Here’s to 2016!

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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