Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre is about to join the big time. Herb Greer looks back on 40 years of achievement and welcomes the company's latest productionby Herb Greer / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Has anyone noticed? A regional theatre company in Manchester has been steadily building toward national status. Founded in the mid-1950s at Chorlton-cum-Hardy by Frank Dunlop, it played as the Piccolo Theatre Company in the top half of the local Conservative club; growing quietly through other incarnations and venues, it settled at last into a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, taking the venue’s name. A second house at Islington is now in the design stage. This will be shared with the Royal Shakespeare Company, confirming that the Royal Exchange Company is to attain the rank so far reserved for the RSC and the Royal National.
The IRA bomb which wrecked the Royal Exchange should have put a severe crimp in the company’s activities. In fact it had the opposite effect. Despite an administrative splintering into five sites and the exile of its stage to a smaller 400-seat house at Upper Campfield Market, the atrocity gave impetus to plans already under way for the remodelling of the Royal Exchange, evoking a new vision: no longer a provincial “cathedral of culture,” but a “magical palace” where people can shop, eat, relax and enjoy themselves outside as well as inside the performance. As described by director Braham Murray it is rather like the “pleasure palace” planned but never achieved in London by Joan Littlewood. With the help of the Lottery, her vision may become reality.
Murray hopes this fresh spirit of enterprise will help to combat the marginalisation of regional theatre in the national press, and crystallise the continuity of 40 years which has fed the morale and growth of the Royal Exchange Company. Unlike other prominent provincial troupes it has pursued a policy of encouraging risky new writing-underscored with a playwriting competition sponsored by Mobil Oil. That sponsorship has now lapsed, along with the competition, but the Royal Exchange’s pursuit of new and foreign work is due to continue with pieces by…