Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre celebrates 45 years of great drama in the city

The iconic arts venue is marking its birthday with a major fund-raising campaign as well as celebrations of its achievements.

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is marking a major birthday as it celebrates 45 years of great drama in the city centre.

The arts venue, which first opened its doors in 1976, is looking back on four and a half decades of cultural achievements in its unique space.

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It is also running a major anniversary fund-raising campaign which lasts more than a month and is planning a range of other birthday activities.

A unique cultural venue for Manchester

The theatre is located in the Royal Exchange, which was a centre of the global cotton trade dominated by its colossal Great Hall.

It was damaged in World War Two but was repaired and continued to trade until 1968.

Memories of those days are still very much in evidence, as theatre-goers today can still look up and see the original trading board with the day’s closing figures on it.

The building then lay unused and empty and its future looked increasingly questionable until 1973, when a theatre company moved in.

The Royal Exchange Theatre Company was officially founded in 1976 with the creation of the largest in-the-round theatre space in the country.

Sometimes compared to a spaceship, the seven-sided theatre placed in the centre of the old trading hall is an extraordinary feat of engineering.

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Photo: Andrew Brooks

At 150 tonnes, the module is far too heavy to be supported by the floor of the Great Hall, so instead it is suspended from four enormous columns, leaving only the ground-floor seating and stage area resting on the floor.

However, in 1996 the building was devastated by the IRA bombing of Manchester, with the explosive detonating less than 50 metres from the exchange.

Two years, a massive fund-raising effort and £32m from the National Lottery later, the building reopened with a production of the same play that had been running when the bomb went off.

How is the theatre celebrating its 45th birthday?

The Royal Exchange Theatre is marking 45 years under the title of RXIGNITE.

The theatre is sharing stories from some familiar faces who have been part of its journey and inviting audiences to see the company’s story brought to life in an exhibition in the Great Hall.

It has also produced a film celebrating its first 45 years.

The theatre is also looking for public support as it holds a major fund-raising campaign to secure a bright future for the venue.

Starting on 15 September, the theatre began its quest to raise £45,000 in 45 days to mark the anniversary, with the campaign ending on 30 October.

This will kickstart a year of fund-raising to help it continue producing top-class drama for years to come, the theatre said.

What has the theatre said about the milestone?

Joint artistic directors Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise gave a speech to mark the beginning of RXIGNITE in which they explained the significance of the big birthday.

They said: “The first ever performance of The Rivals took place in our iconic module on 15 September 1976.

“The principals that inspired the start of this journey still stand today – art happening in the middle of a city, occupying and disrupting the grand architecture, a democratic space where audiences and actors come in through the same doors, where front of house becomes back stage with the ringing of a bell, a place to be imaginative and collectively imagine different possibilities, stories that help us understand the world we’re in and most importantly a public space for the communities of Manchester to come together and have a live, shared experience.”

Royal Exchange Theatre artistic director Bryony Shanahan. Photo: Benji Reid

The speech also included discussion of the importance of continued financial support for the arts, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which has heavily affected the entire cultural sector.

Bryony and Roy said: “It’s been a year and half like no other, and we’ve had to fight incredibly hard for our survival and continue to fight for our future to ensure that this theatre not only continues the legacy of the last 45 years, but moves forward, evolves, opens its arms wider than ever before, truly becomes a space for everyone, with the broadest of offers.

“We both know first-hand how important and transformative theatre can be, whether that’s finding a place for yourself in the world, making friends and connections, being challenged, being inspired, finding a career path, trusting that who you are is enough, or simply coming together with friends and family and forgetting about the world for a few hours.

“We truly believe that we need that more than ever.

“The future is exciting, and necessary, and with your help we can reignite our brilliantly unique, quite strange, and like no other spaceship-style theatre as we celebrate 45 years in Manchester and look forward to 45 more!”

A place for the UK’s top acting talent

The list of British cultural A-listers who have graced the stage of the Royal Exchange Theatre is a long one.

It has welcomed generations of top talent to Manchester, starting with the likes of Albert Finney, Leo McKern and Tom Courtenay in its early days.

The Royal Exchange Theatre from St Ann’s Square. Photo: Andrew Brooks

They were followed by stars such as Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Robert Lindsay, to top contemporary actors such as Maxine Peake and Cush Jumbo.

The theatre has also developed a reputation for spotting young talent, with Manchester theatre-goers getting to see Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant on the stage at the Royal Exchange long before they became household names through cinema stardom.