London and Manchester’s vibrant theatre scenes give rise to greater experimentation and diversity

London and Manchester’s vibrant theatre scenes give rise to greater experimentation and diversity


As the curtain rises, Sir Ian McKellen stands steadfast and solitary, back to the audience. He turns for his encore to an already cheering crowd, all in standing ovation. McKellen beams with pride as he takes his bow and later, outside, casually wearing a crew jacket with The Hobbit logo in the front, he is equally beside himself as he signs autographs for adoring fans.

The performance is significant not just for the legendary actor’s triumphant turn as the mad king Lear. McKellen’s return to the role that he first performed under the direction of Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007, and for which he is reprising in London from his critically acclaimed performance at the Chichester Festival (the London transfer is also directed by Jonathan Munby), is reported to be the 78-year-old’s last major Shakespearean role.

Sir Ian McKellen headlines King Lear in his last major Shakespearean role.Pic: Mindy Teh

“King Lear again,” he had announced on his website. “For 100 performances at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London where I made my West End debut in 1964. It’s a small theatre but we shall make it even more intimate by removing half the stalls seats, so everyone is closer to the actors. There will be 100 tickets for each show under GBP30 each. If you are between 16-25, you can sit on the front or back rows for GBP5-10.”

The role has predictably won rave reviews and is sold out until the end of its run in November, but it hasn’t stopped fans, young and old, from lining up in the hopes of scoring returns or the aforementioned youth-friendly and more than reasonably priced tickets. The production sees inspired staging: a spirited McKellen rails and rages, running up and down a runway planted right smack in the middle of the hall for an even more immersive experience. The play itself is engineered as a political thriller.

Diverse casting, too, has made an incredible difference, with Sinead Cusack playing the role of Kent (traditionally accorded to men) and Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Cordelia adding depth to Lear and his two older daughters’ motives.

The staging of King Lear may well present an important reflection of theatre in the UK. Inventive, distinct, inclusive – and, yes, exciting – there’s never been a better time to explore the theatre scene not just in London but also in Manchester.

A trip exploring both cities’ rich theatre landscape courtesy of VisitBritain saw Theatre Land in full Olivier Awards swing with nominations announced the week after. “In the main theatre categories not including opera or dance, 108 productions were eligible for nominations,” says Julian Bird of Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and Executive Producer of the Olivier Awards. “That gives you an idea of how many new productions there are every year. Very interestingly, this year, the new writing in plays, comedies and musicals hugely outweighed the revivals – that’s what is making theatre here exciting. The fact that we’ve got a lot of new playwrights, new people and new musicals coming through makes it interesting.

“The other thing that we continue to see in London is that you can still do a 10 to 12 week run of a really good play. You can make it commercial and you can make it work. On Broadway now, it’s very difficult to do a limited-run play unless you have a serious A-list star signed up,” he says. “London still has a large play-going audience here who thrive on going to see new stuff – and where they don’t necessarily need a big star to head the cast.”

Meanwhile, the push for more egalitarian prices also makes London and its neighbouring cities still the more affordable places to enjoy top-notch performances. Those familiar with Theatre Land already view TKTS as their first go-to for discounted seats. “Unlike Broadway, TKTS here also sells discounted tickets for up to two days ahead,” says Bird. SOLT’s own Theatre Tokens are a popular gift card voucher option, allowing audiences access to almost 240 theatres nationwide.

There’s really no excuse then not to celebrate 2018’s bicentennial of that great Gothic novel Frankenstein with a Matthew Xia-directed staging at the Royal Exchange in Manchester that ran for a month in spring. Victor Frankenstein zapped his monster to life in an all-view theatre that made this new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece at once modern and contemporary, despite its Victorian setting, underscoring its ideas on God and Science, Man and Monster. In October, Don Warrington adds nuance to Arthur Miller’s best known character, Willy Lomax, in Death of a Salesman.

It’s that or a throwback to epic shimmering tapdance routines via 42nd Street, Broadway’s biggest show that has arrived in London in grand style and is still showing at Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

For a more contemporary take on the musical art form, the sleeper hit that is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (garnering five Olivier award nominations this year), based on the true story of a 16-year-old exploring his gender and sexuality in the testosterone-fuelled, steel-producing county of Sheffield.

Cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Pic: Alastair Muir

Earlier this year, National Theatre Director Rufus Norris had a muchanticipated and large-scale, albeit grisly, interpretation of Macbeth that placed Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff fighting for power and control of a post-apocalyptic fiefdom far beyond even Shakespeare’s imagination. This month, English playwright David Hare debuts a new play entitled I’m Not Running, harking to Shakespearean characters in the throes of a modern political dilemma.

Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at the National Theatre Pic: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Those hell bent on chasing their Shakespeare fix will no doubt pay a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe, the reconstructed Elizabethan playhouse on South Bank that was the brainchild of American actor and producer Sam Wanamaker. Tours inside the playhouse give visitors a glimpse of how theatre was staged back in the day (with a lot less formality and a lot more drinking, it must be said).

The Bard’s popularity, of course, shows no sign of waning. Apart from the two plays mentioned, Nicholas Hytner’s reinterpretation of Julius Caesar, with David Calder and Ben Wishaw, had the audience participating as part of a mob that Mark Antony addresses.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, Beatrice Scirocchi as Witch and Anna-Maria Nabirye as Witch in Macbeth at the National Theatre. Pic: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Of course, beyond the main headliners in Theatre Land (Phantom of The Opera has been packing in audiences since 1986, and good luck with tickets to Hamilton and Harry Potter & The Cursed Child), plenty of equally tantalising and experimentational offerings are happening in the fringes.

Up in Manchester, William Whelton and Joseph Houston founded Hope Mill Theatre, situated in a Grade II listed former cotton mill, to highlight local independent theatre and provide a platform for up-and-coming Manchesterbased theatre playwrights as well as exposing new theatre- especially musical theatre – to Manchester audiences. The young duo’s passion for the art form has since seen them ranking amongst the UK’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Theatre. One of this year’s highlights saw a triumphant adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. The end of October marks the theatre’s inhouse debut of Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together.

Off West End, over in Hackney, Arcola Theatre has been steadily building a staunch audience base. Founded by Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen and together with Executive Director Dr Ben Todd and Executive Producer Leyla Nazli, the theatre has since had luminaries like Sam Shepherd and Frank McGuinness premier their work. Actors such as Gemma Jones, Clare Higgins and Toby Jones have graced their stage and the theatre has provided a launch pad for artists like Joe Sims and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. This month, Moongate and Yellow Earth Production explore the little known story of the 140,000 Chinese labour corps, who travelled halfway across the earth to help the British and Allies in World War I, in a play entitled Forgotten.

The success of immersive theatre still sees audiences flocking to Sleep No More in New York and, lately, in Shanghai. At the Vaults, a multidisciplinary space in underground Waterloo, London, a popular eightweek run of Neverland encouraged visitors to explore hidden nooks and crannies even as the Lost Boys were trying to fend off Captain Hook.

With a scene as vibrant, electric and prolific as this, the dynamics of Theatre Land would clearly have shape-shifted once again by the time this story appears. In theatre, as in life, change is the only constant. Just get your tickets ready, enjoy the show and don’t expect an intermission!

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