Manchester celebrates the show that went on, despite the IRA's best efforts

A YEAR AFTER THE BOMB: Daniel Rosenthal on the Royal Exchange's spectacular rebirth
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A year after the IRA bombing which might have destroyed it, the interior of Manchester's Royal Exchange theatre looks more like the set of a sci-fi film than the home of one of Britain's most respected stage companies.

The auditorium, a steel-and-glass module which sits in a cavernous hall once filled with Victorian cotton traders, is encased by an eight-tiered, 32-metre-high lattice of scaffolding. Fluorescent lights illuminate the eerie gloom; a few workmen provide the only signs of life in a space that should be filled with 700 theatregoers.

Pat Weller, the general manager, still finds it painful to visit the abandoned offices, bars and workshops that flank the hall. But with the aid of a pounds 17m lottery grant that will go towards a pounds 30m programme of repair and redevelopment, the darkest 12 months in the company's 25-year history are ending in a spirit of optimism which, says Ms Weller, is typical of the city.

The Exchange stands at the heart of the city centre. It is less than 250 yards from where, on 15 June last year, an IRA bomb devastated the Arndale shopping centre, causing pounds 500m-worth of damage and leaving 220 people injured.

The Exchange escaped the worst of the damage by a few feet, but, within days, Braham Murray, its joint artistic director since 1976, was told by engineers that the stresses inflicted on the 1870s building were so bad that it would have to be demolished. "It was an absolute nightmare," he recalls.

That crushing prognosis was revised after "endless" tests, but, at the time, it failed to disturb the company's "show must go on" policy. The city council agreed to the company's mobile auditorium (a replica of the Exchange's theatre-in-the-round) being set up at Upper Campfield Market, a 10-minute walk to the east. The company's production of The Philadelphia Story opened on schedule on 11 July. "After the bomb, we had offers of help from every conceivable source," says Mr Murray.

The theatre became "a kind of rallying point" for the city - a status acknowledged in the choice of Upper Campfield as the venue for a public debate on "Rebuilding and Reconciliation A Year After The Bomb" which takes place on the anniversary of the bombing next Sunday.

The redeveloped Exchange (which will include a new, 120-seat studio theatre) should re-open in November 1998 - the month in which much of the city centre reconstruction is also expected to be completed.

Ironically, the Exchange had applied for pounds 12m of lottery money before the bomb. "What we had in mind then was, essentially, a refurbishment," says Mr Murray. "Because of the bomb we are going to have a spectacular rebirth."