Manchester Royal Exchange
Opened 8 December, 1998

The restored Royal Exchange, reopened almost two and a half years after the IRA bomb which destroyed Manchester's city centre, may boast rather more mock-Victorian pastel paintwork then before, but the heptagonal pod of the theatre itself, perched in the middle of the main hall, is fundamentally unchanged. Its schedule, too, picks up where it left off before the Exchange's exile in Campsfield Market, with the originally planned production of Stanley Houghton's 1911 slice of Lancastrian naturalism Hindle Wakes.

Houghton's play turns on the strength of an independently-minded woman, but one who is scarcely seen or even alluded to for most of the play. When Fanny Hawthorn arrives back from the holiday of "wakes week", her parents discover she was not in Blackpool as she claimed, but spent the weekend in Llandudno with Alan Jeffcote, son of her father's oldest friend and a self-made cotton magnate. Fanny's parents, Alan's father, even his fiancee spend most of the next couple of hours agreeing that he must do the decent thing and marry Fanny... at which point she pops up again to declare that, had anyone bothered to ask her, she would have told them she had no intention of marrying him. Only Alan's mother (Sue Johnston) allows herself a few barely repressed chuckles at the turn of affairs.

Some of Houghton's dramatic notes are over-forced (in particular the romantic morality of Alan's fiancée Beatrice), and other moments draw laughs more because of quaintness than authorial intention, but overall this is a play which continues to work because the prejudices, its stubbornnesses and well-meant misunderstandings it deals with continue to be eminently recognisable. Helena Kaut-Howson's production takes a clear and sympathetic through line; Lez Brotherston's design blends Edwardian period fidelity with modern exuberance (a ring of miniature smoke-belching mills around the gallery, the Hawthorns' parlour being hoisted in its entirety into the flies with Mrs. Hawthorn still in it). To stage the best-known work of the early century's Manchester school of drama at the Exchange's reopening is an entirely justified gesture of pride.

An addition to the complex is a 120-seat studio theatre with that rarity in venues of the size, a decent fly-space as Liz Ascroft's design for its inaugural production testifies. Kevin Hood's So Special, though, never really escapes the furrow of what might be called "Royal Court by numbers": deprived youth, urban squalor, violence and the occasional bit of graphic grotesquerie (in this case an onstage episiotomy). We already know that social depredations are no respecters of intelligence, and that many bright young girls such as protagonist Porsh (Sharon Duncan Brewster) get dumped on; we also know, conversely, that idiot violence knows no class boundaries, and that an intern obstetrician like Edward Purver's Tommy is as likely to go wild as a no-hoper like Sam (Lee Oakes). Hood's overly patterned script, which fills the second act with self-conscious echoes of the first, tells us little new. His climactic scene makes much of Portia's "The quality of mercy..."speech from The Merchant Of Venice, but misquotes it either through shameful negligence or even more shameful intention so as to fit Hood's dramatic convenience.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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