The Royal Exchange has announced a 25th anniversary season that features four stage classics starring four of the biggest names from the Manchester theatre's acclaimed history - Tom Courtenay, Amanda Donohoe, Patricia Routledge and Pete Postlethwaite. Between September 2001 and March 2002, the four stars will feature in major new productions of works by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, JB Priestley and Harold Pinter.

Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre was officially opened by Lord Olivier in the autumn of 1976. Twenty-five years, 224 original productions and one bomb later, the Exchange - described by the Financial Times as the "National Theatre of the North" - is widely regarded as one of the country's most important producing theatres.

Tom Courtenay, who last appeared at the Exchange in 1999 in the title role of King Lear, will open the season with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, translated by Michael Frayn and directed by Exchange artistic director Gregory Hersov. The tale of two obsessive love affairs was memorably staged at the Exchange in its opening year by founder artistic director Michael Elliott. The new production will open on 10 September 2001 and continue to 20 October 2001 (previews from 5 September).

Uncle Vanya is followed by Ibsen's portrait of a beautiful but tormented woman trapped in a middle class marriage, Hedda Gabler. It stars Amanda Donohoe who has just finished her run in the West End production of The Graduate. Donohoe made her professional stage debut at the Exchange in the early 1980s and was last seen here five years ago in as Strindberg's Miss Julie. Hedda Gabler, directed by one of the Exchange's founder artistic directors Braham Murray, runs from 29 October to 1 December 2001 (previews from 24 October).

The third play of the season is JB Priestley's portrait of a family in decline, Time and the Conways. A family celebrates their 1919 reunion at the end of the Great War with hope and optimism, but a fast-forward to 1938 finds bitterness and blight have befallen the Conway children. In 1973, the Exchange mounted the first major revival of the 1937 play. In this new production, Patricia Routledge - recently seen in the West End in The Importance of Being Earnest - plays the role of the grand matriarch, Mrs Conway. Time and the Conways, directed by Braham Murray, opens on 5 December 2001 and continues to 19 January 2002 (previews from 10 December).

Harold Pinter's 1965 play The Homecoming brings the first half of the anniversary season to a close. Pete Postlethwaite stars as Max, the foul-mouthed and bullying head of a cruel family. Postlethwaite first appeared at the Exchange more than two decades ago in The Duchess of Malfi and The Emperor Jones. In 1996, he received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for the film In the Name of the Father. The Homecoming, directed by Gregory Hersov, runs from 23 January to 2 March 2002 (previews from 28 January).

The second half of the Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary season will be announced in early December 2001.

- by Terri Paddock