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Regional Theatre Focus: Theatre beyond the Royal Exchange

From Contact to The Lowry, Andrew Haydon explains how there's more to theatre in Manchester than simply the Royal Exchange

Contact Theatre, Manchester
© Luke and Kate Bosman/Flickr

Given the the recent flurry and fanfare surrounding the Royal Exchange Theatre's (absolutely deserved) winning the Stage's Regional Theatre of the Year Award, it might look to outside eyes as if that's where Manchester's theatrical offer begins and ends.

For a start there's the newly opened HOME theatre. Yes, it's theoretically a replacement for the old Library Theatre, but now – thrown into an elegant wedge-shaped modernist complex with the replacement screens for the much-loved Cornerhouse arthouse cinema – it seems sense to see it as an entirely new beast. Artistic director Walter Meierjohann and his team have set out a bold stall opening the building with his own production of local-boy-turned-Londoner Simon Stephens's take on Odon von Horvath's Kasimir und Karoline, The Funfair. And the subsequent programme has adopted a canny mix of indispensable imports – in particular the UK première of Philipp Quesne's La Melancholie des Dragons – and beautifully conceived home-grown shows. It feels like the building is still awaiting its first full-on home-grown massive sell-out popular success – almost like directors are still getting the measure of the auditorium's full capabilities. But it's only a matter of time, with programming this good, before the experiments yield rich results.

At the other end of the experimental spectrum is Contact Theatre, the massive stage/house that provides Manchester's home for the live art-ier end of theatre (if you wanted a reductive, London-centric shorthand, you wouldn't be entirely wrong to think of the stuff seen at Battersea Arts Centre, Camden People's Theare and The Yard), but beyond providing a committed home for touring new work, Contact's hidden strength is its superlative young company, the facilities it offers them, and the shows they get to devise with leading professionals.

Unlike London, Manchester is a) still incredibly affordable, and b) still not property developed to within an inch of its cultural life

Similarly, while the Lowry's large main auditorium is a welcome home for familiar name large-scale tours – from Curious Incident... to Wicked – it's in its studio and medium-sized, music hall space (last seen by me packed out by a loyal, local audience for Kill The Beast's last show) that its real value to theatregoers and theatre-makers lies. As well as keeping Manchester in the touring loop for young and medium-sized companies, the building has recently begun an artists development programme of its own, providing more enviable resources for local companies.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Manchester's theatre scene seems to be expanding at an exponential rate at the moment is that, unlike London, Manchester is a) still incredibly affordable, and b) still not property developed to within an inch of its cultural life. Exemplifying both trends to perfection is the very recently opened New Hope Mill. A theatre and inevitable accompanying café bar in yet another former mill building (of which there is an apparently inexhaustible supply). Whether the venture, which apparently aims to stage musicals and develop new musical theatre, will find a constituency remains to be seen. Cynics have noted that the £20 tickets (£18 concs!) are the most expensive lowest-priced tickets in the city, and the whole thing feels a bit like it might be an advance glimpse of George Osborne's wettest gentrification dreams. But it seems a bit soon to write it off just yet.

Lowry Theatre, Manchester
© The Yes Man/Flickr

At the less sharp-elbowed end of the fringe spectrum, are cosier venues like fringe mainstay The King's Arms – possibly the most idiosyncratically shaped pub theatre, with a high-vaulted ceiling, lending it the feel more of a small chapel than a pub performance venue. Also worthy of note is the brilliant and diffuse Z-Arts, which alongside operating as a community centre, also has an enviable (Yard-like) fully equipped auditorium playing a surprising range of avant-garde treats.

What's also fascinating for someone used to London (as I was), is that way that performances can just pop up (not hyphenated, not capitalised) somewhere else. One of the first things I saw in Manchester when I moved was held in what appeared to be a squatted dance venue, Antwerp Mansions, while other ventures might just take over gig-spaces in pubs.

All this, and when you take into account both Oldham and the increasingly exciting proposition that is the new leadership at the Bolton Octogan and the short travel times beyond to Leeds and Liverpool, it already feels like you can't quite catch everything that's going on up here. And it feels like that offer is only going to expand as rents and prices continue to rise in London, and theatremakers begin to realise it might not be the only place to make a career.

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