Posted on

Royal Exchange Theatre

One of my favourite places is the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, though not entirely for the theatricals.

I find it at its best in the mornings, especially when the music has been muted so as not to interrupt rehearsals. The silence is somehow embellished by distant voices ricocheting around the theatre round, and the echoing urgency of lines being learned fortifies the stone calm of the building proper, contributing to an atmosphere of insistent quiet that I doubt you’ll find anywhere else.

Royal Exchange Blue
Royal Exchange Blue

Above and beyond the stage, the Royal Exchange Theatre has many interesting tales to tell. For starters, it is a magnet for budding thespians, who keep the restaurant and bar stocked with great staff and if you want the low-down on the latest production, they’re the ones to ask. Many come in the belief that any job within the Exchange might open a fast track to the stage, but I only know of two aspirants who’ve made the transition from bar to boards. Each was in an Arthur Miller play, and one of the longer serving lads on the bar got a part in the production of The Crucible.
Alas, they all eventually move on in pursuit of their dreams but not before they’ve freshened up the overall atmosphere with their enthusiasm.

Steve Coogan is one notable Thesp who worked at the Royal Exchange (though not behind the bar), before steering his career onward and upward. Part actor, part mimic, one of Coogan’s best performances apparently went unrecorded some years ago, when he got up at a school reunion and impersonated his old teachers. Oh, and his Alan Partridge character is reputedly based on one of the (still-serving) theatre staff… but delicacy forbids!

A full house at the Royal Exchange Theatre, which straddles St Ann's Square and Cross street.
A full house at the Royal Exchange Theatre, which straddles St Ann’s Square and Cross street.

In days of plain and plenty, the Royal Exchange Theatre used to have a satellite branch of the Waterstones book store chain in its innards, which the book chain used to for major Manchester book signings.
I can recall the curious spectacle of Michael York in a packed theatre, passionately telling adoring ladies how he got the blood of stigmata on his hands whilst walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This caused an uncomfortable hush, for the ladies had put on blood red lips merely to drool passionately over the eternal blonde, or ask inane questions about The Three Musketeers, not to encounter that other, less mentioned Passion (you know, the one with a capital ‘P’ ?).

RoyalExchange_Theatre_0306The late/great Alec Guinness had adoring fans queuing down the pavement and around the block when he came to sign copies of his autobiography. But the Jedi faithful, who made up the bulk of the crowd, were warned in advance of his distaste for ‘nonsense’.
A note on the doors to the theatre read: ‘No Star Wars questions’.

And who could lose the image of Will Young, eating his lunch on one of the cafe benches, beneath a huge poster of himself in Noel Coward’s The Vortex? Or living the life around town with his on-stage mother, Diana Hardcastle, as they made merry in the better restaurants as decadent mother and son just might.
When Will Young began rehearsals some weeks earlier, one of his few concerns was getting the password for the WI-FI and for the first weeks in Manchester he was left alone in blessed anonymity.
But it’s a strange thing, fame. Whilst those in its grip find justification by light of stage and screen, not in the anonymity of shadows, they often pine for whichever half of the deal currently eludes them.
I’d say old Oscar wasn’t far wrong, when he stated that the one thing worse than being talked about was NOT being talked about.

Anyhow, it wasn’t long before local paparazzi started snooping around rehearsals, looking for the shot of Will with his head resting in his then boyfriend’s lap (which gladly they missed)…and any others that ensured Will would stay in the collective pulp-consciousness.
More scary a spectacle than the snoops was watching grown women  emptying the ash trays containing Will’s dog-ends (this pre-dated the modern Prohibition), and, with mad-eyed glee, they tucked them into handbags for pointless posterity (even as you read, a dimp might be being passed around a tidy living room like a latter-day blood relic).

Glass dome of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Glass dome of the Royal Exchange Theatre.

A more edifying spectacle happens when Eoin Colmer is in the Royal Exchange Theatre, doing one-man shows like ‘Fairies, Fiends and Flatulence‘. Such is the popularity of his Artemis Fowl series of books, that the author fills the theatre with paying customers, and he performs with relish and to rapturous applause from his young audience. He also signs a mind-numbing number of books and always with a smile, clearly aware of what else he might be doing for a living if he weren’t lucky enough to be doing what he most loves.

Royal Exchange Theatre. Theatre bar staff take a break under a poster of Pete Postlethwaite, who was always encouraging to anyone hoping to tread the boards. .

I’ve seen many plays down the years, though I don’t go as often as I might because Shakespeare and the late Pete Postlethwaite don’t / didn’t appear often enough.
Not only was Pete Postlethwaite the best actor I’ve seen at the Royal Exchange, he had a clear grasp of what great acting is – his job was to adapt to the words of those who have something to say, and the gift to render it pliable.
As the guys on the bar may tell you, good actors don’t need to shout and stamp and posture and impose. It needst only that they take wordsworth saying, and allow them to draw flesh from within.
At rehearsals, for a performance I can no longer recall, one of the male Thesps was bellowing ferociously like the overbearing omnipotent he was acting out. After roaring out his line, he slipped back into a more natural Posh Camp and addressed the play’s director:
‘Would you like it a little more shouty?

Pete Postlethwaite worked very hard to make his craft seem effortless, and he had the increasingly rare gift of giving life to the one supreme art (writing), and this egotistical smallness was an integral part of his skill. Acting shouldn’t be about the life it can furnish for you – it should be about the life you fleetingly bring to that art which will out-live all of us.

It was also a feat of modesty that (unlike many who pass through the Royal Exchange) he who outshone many in Hollywood, always had time and encouragement for the aspiring thespians behind the bar.
But then Pete did like his Guiness poring properly.
Hey, did I ever tell you about late nights at Manchester’s legendary Press Club?
Mmm. Maybe another time! 🙂

Royal Exchange Manchester
Royal Exchange Manchester