Theatre: More than a fair Exchange

Manchester's Royal Exchange reopens next week on time and on budget. But will its artistic vision match its architectural flair?

For two-and-a-half years, the Royal Exchange Theatre Company has been absent from its home in the heart of Manchester. Forced out by the IRA bomb that devastated the city centre on 15 June, 1996, it has stayed away for a pounds 23m lottery rebuilding and refurbishment programme. While similar capital projects at other venues have been dogged by fundraising and construction delays, the Exchange's architects, Levitt Bernstein, have smoothly fashioned what one leading architecture critic has hailed as "the most fabulous modern theatre in Britain".

Happily, the unique theatre space has been left intact. Instead, the design has concentrated on a superb refurbishment of its surroundings and technical facilities, all of which has been matched by a declaration of intent from the artistic directors, Braham Murray, Gregory Hersov and Matthew Lloyd.

Last June, on the second anniversary of the bombing, they unveiled a 13-month season, which runs from now until January 2000. Over that period the 750-seat theatre-in-the-round will offer world premieres by Peter Barnes and Jim Cartwright alongside A-list revivals, including Tom Courtenay in King Lear and David Threlfall in Peer Gynt. An inaugural seven-month season in the 120-seat Studio theatre includes new plays and children's shows.

It is doubtful that any other regional company has ever committed itself so far in advance, yet, in commercial terms, the decision has already been resoundingly vindicated. Some 3,600 season tickets for the main house have been sold, bringing in more than pounds 400,000. At the end of a troubled decade - heavy financial losses, some pedestrian programming, the bomb - the Exchange, says Lloyd, is ready "to cut a swath through the future".

Such confidence is partly explained by the fact that the Exchange maintained a strong profile during the redevelopment. Within two weeks of the bombing - which caused extensive exterior damage to the Victorian Exchange building but, miraculously, did not harm the seven-sided steel module housing the theatre - the company's mobile 400-seat, tented replica of the theatre- in-the-round had been set up at nearby Upper Campfield Market.

The remaining performances of Stanley Houghton's 1912 generation-gap drama, Hindle Wakes, were cancelled but The Philadelphia Story opened as planned a few weeks later.

"We were the first big organisation to be up and running after the bomb," recalls Murray. "That created a lot of affection for us." Lottery plans drawn up before the bombing were revised, and the company continued performing. "If we had not had the mobile, I don't think this company would still exist. The Arts Council would never have kept subsidising us."

With so much of the retail space beside the Exchange still a mass of post-bomb reconstruction, the symbolic value of the company's return to the city centre should not be underestimated - its link with the bombing has been deliberately enhanced by the choice of opening production: the aborted Hindle Wakes.

The trio leading the company into the next century offer an interesting mix of age, experience and personalities. Straight-talking Murray, now in his mid-fifties, has been with the company for 30 years and has directed more Exchange productions - 48 - than anyone else. Hersov, in his early forties and an artistic director for 11 years, provides bubbling enthusiasm. The 35-year-old Lloyd, appointed earlier this year, offers you calm, earnest consideration.

This triumvirate system enables each of them to work in rehearsals knowing they can safely leave any administrative cares to the other two. Hersov likens the alternating current of responsibilities to jazz: "You mostly play within the structure, then solo and improvise on your own productions."

This partnership sustains the collaborative tradition on which the company was built, beginning in 1976 in the huge hall that was once the hub of Manchester's cotton trade. Early productions saw Tom Courtenay in the premieres of The Dresser and Alan Price's Andy Capp musical, both of which - and numerous others - transferred to the West End. There were also successful seasons at the Roundhouse.

Associates who benefited from the challenge of directing in a space which, says Lloyd, "tests and exposes actors like no other venue", included young talent who swiftly emerged as some of the country's most important directors: Nicholas Hytner and Steven Pimlott (both ex-Manchester Grammar boys), Phyllida Lloyd and James Macdonald.

Ian McDiarmid, who was an Exchange associate director before he and Jonathan Kent took over the Almeida, recalls: "The weekly meetings revealed that the directors had a novel way of running a theatre: it was oligarchic rather than democratic. What I liked about the Exchange then - and I'm sure it's true now - was that it was a terrific theatre for Manchester. It produced very high-quality work and never felt in the shadow of London."

Indeed, in 1988, this very newspaper described it as "Britain's other national theatre". However, between then and 1996 it lost its way, the limelight shifting to West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The low point came in 1994. "We had been through recession, a cut in grant, and had done an adventurous season, including The Count of Monte Cristo, which lost us a fortune," explains Murray. The response was to produce Julius Caesar, Absurd Person Singular, Charley's Aunt and Look Back in Anger - a conservative selection you would expect from any provincial rep. "That was a panic season and we could have been anybody," Murray concedes. Bolder programming ensued but then came the bomb, which one critic goes so far as to say was "the best thing that could have happened" to the Exchange. It certainly forced a searching examination of artistic priorities.

The results are definitely eye-catching, but so too are the ticket prices: pounds 23 for the best seats on a Saturday, compared to pounds 19 at Birmingham Rep, pounds 17 at West Yorkshire and pounds 15 at Nottingham Playhouse. When I suggest this is pretty steep, Murray provides a characteristically clipped rejoinder: "Not to the Cheshire set." His idea of sound pricing is to keep the bottom down, and push the top up. "There are an awful lot of people in this area who can pay pounds 23 and not think about it," he says. "But a lot of young people used to look at the Exchange and say `It's not for us'. Well, it is for them, and we have to price things so that students will come."

True to his word, tickets for the Studio cost pounds 5 or pounds 7. Murray believes that this "found space" in the Exchange's former set workshops will allow the company to nurture "a seedbed of creativity we have never tried to include: plays we can feel relaxed about experimenting with, without the pressure of having to fill 750 seats". Lloyd, whose critical stock is high after well received productions such as The Illusion, has nabbed the first Studio show, So Special, by Kevin Hood.

"It's a good play with which to inaugurate a venue we hope will attract younger audiences," he says, "because it focuses on four young characters. The older generation is only heard in a sidelined way."

Hopes that the Studio will have a fresh, distinctive identity, and Lloyd's suggestion that "whenever we think about the Studio we become a bit lighter on our feet", are backed up by innovative marketing. It is being promoted as a separate venue, rather than an adjunct to the main house, and there are plans to stage free trailer extracts at 5.30pm on weekdays, bringing people in as they leave work.

Levitt Bernstein have provided the directors with a spectacularly refurbished base. Daylight pours in through three huge domes in the roof, illuminating the colonnades that surround the module; plasma lighting takes over at night. I defy any visitor not to go "Wow!" when they first see the interior. Murray and Co must now ensure that audiences have the same reaction when they leave.

`Hindle Wakes' is in preview, opening next week; `So Special' previews from tomorrow (0161-833 9833)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones