thu 15/11/2018

Final curtain for the Library Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Final curtain for the Library Theatre

Final curtain for the Library Theatre

The Manchester company which introduced great actors and new work is losing its name

The auditorium of the old Library Theatre, where the last performance was in 2010

We are witnessing the end of an era in the long history of Manchester’s theatreland: the disappearance, after more than 60 years, of the treasured Library Theatre. Coming full circle, it is ending as it began, with a production of The Seagull.

Modestly located in the basement of the city’s grand Central Reference Library (pictured below), where it was opened by King George V in 1934, the theatre has a distinguished history, boasting European premieres of Sondheim musicals and quality productions, especially of plays by Neil Simon and Bertolt Brecht. Some successfully transferred to the West End. It nurtured many young actors who later found wider fame, such as Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, Laurence Harvey, Janet Suzman, Richard Griffiths and Alison Steadman (in Abigail’s Party, directed by local lad Mike Leigh).

When the theatre opened, it blazed the trail for municipal theatre, paid for by the ratepayers, whether they liked it or not. And many did not. Among the objectors, for instance, was the Theatrical Managers’ Association, who saw it as a threat. However, after the war, the 1946 Manchester Corporation Act empowered the Libraries’ Committee to use the 300-seat basement lecture theatre “for the performances of stage plays”. So it was that in 1947 a production of The Seagull was put on.

It was not until 1952 that the Library Theatre Company name came into being. The sense of purpose and adventure was enhanced when David Scase from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop took over as Artistic Director in 1954. He put on Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, in which Anthony Hopkins made his professional debut, and a young actor called Patrick Stewart took the title roles in Henry V and Billy Liar.

In two spells spanning 26 years, Scase  was a driving force who really put the theatre on the map. Manchester’s long theatrical history (the Theatre Royal opened in 1775) was perhaps dominated by the music hall tradition, attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, although the big theatres, the Palace and the Opera House, brought in the full range of touring shows and pre-West End productions. But the Library Theatre did its own thing as a production house. Even in the difficult financial times of the 1960s, the local authority stood by it. City Librarian David Colley said, “Should we let live theatre die in the provinces? Should we confine our local entertainments to the brisk trade in vulgarity of twice-nightly revues, farces and nude shows to fill for tired businessmen and women the gaps which inevitably occur on radio and TV? I think not.” (David Scase, pictured above left, courtesy of the Theatre Collection at Manchester Central Library.)

In 1971, the City Council boldly sanctioned a satellite theatre, the 500-seat Wythenshawe Forum, an idea which had been advanced as early as the 1950s by Scase. The aim was to provide a playhouse for a district with a population of 100,000 people, and to complement the Library’s more highbrow repertoire. Mind you, the first season included Waiting for Godot and David Mercer’s After Haggerty. In the 1980s, under the guidance of the then artistic director Howard Lloyd-Lewis, supported by two talented associate directors, Paul Kerryson and Roger Haines, it built a reputation for pioneering the Sondheim European premieres of Merrily We Roll Along, Follies and Pacific Overtures, as well as other musical productions, such as Kander and Ebb’s The Rink and Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. Heady days. That theatre lasted for 30 years.

The present artistic director, Chris Honer, for whom The Seagull (in a new version by Anya Reiss) is his farewell production, arrived in 1987. He has steered it with great success for more than 25 years, keeping it a beacon of regional theatre and winning many awards for its productions across the range of plays classical and new. He has also seen it reach out internationally, linking with the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, Manchester’s twin city, as well as locally to schools and the wider community. Over the past three years, having to move from its basement home due to a major refurbishment of the Central Library, he has masterminded innovative site-specific productions, as well as shows at the Lowry. His award-winning production of Dickens’s Hard Times in an old textile mill in the very non-theatrical inner-city area of Ancoats was unforgettable. (Chris Honer pictured above right by Gerry Murray)

In 2012, the Library Theatre, no longer part of the local authority, merged with the Cornerhouse film house. Together, they are due to move into the city’s new production centre and venue for international contemporary art (three galleries), theatre and film under the name of HOME (artist's impression pictured above left). There they will have a 500-seat theatre and a 150-seat studio under artistic director Walter Meierjohann. It is a £25 million development, with £19 million coming from the city, £5.5 million from the Arts Council and the rest from fund raising. It is due to open next spring.

No one is more positive about the future than Honer. “Of course, I’m sad that the Library Theatre name is disappearing,” he says, “but Walter Meierjohann will bring a fresh perspective to theatre in Manchester. So, although this marks the passing of an era, it also heralds the start of an exciting new one.”

The Seagull has landed, but for many of us the Library Theatre will always have a special place in our theatrical memories.

  • The Library Theatre Company's The Seagull at the Lowry Quays Theatre from 21 February to 8 March
Should we confine our local entertainments to the brisk trade in vulgarity of twice-nightly revues, farces and nude shows?

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