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Honouring 60 years of Manchester Library Theatre


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Manchester Central Library - the theatre was in the basement. Bottom, left to right, former artistic directors Chris Honer, David Scase, Roger Haines, Paul Kerryson and Howard Lloyd-Lewis

A plaque commemorating the 60-year history of Manchester's Library Theatre will be unveiled by the city's Lord Mayor tomorrow.

Former co-director Roger Haines and other members of the Library Theatre Company will be present as the plaque is revealed on the lower ground floor of Manchester Central Library – the theatre's home from 1952-2014.

The ceremony will come 10 years after the Library company moved out of the central library during a major transformation to relocate to new venue HOME, a few hundred yards away. The plaque has been prompted by the death, last year, of Chris Honer, the influential and much-loved artistic director of the company for 27 years, from 1987-2014. The plaque commemorates not just a fondly-remembered theatre, but also the Library Theatre's unique role in the cultural life of the city. The inheritor of impresario Annie Horniman's first UK repertory theatre tradition – a tradition that began in 1908 across the road from the Library at the long-demolished Gaiety Theatre - the Library was also, for many years, the only major UK theatre company funded entirely by a local council .

David Scase, from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, became artistic director in 1954 and in two spells over 26 years was the driving force who put the theatre on the map. Among many other productions, he staged Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins made his professional debut and a young Sir Patrick Stewart took the title roles in Henry V and Billy Liar.

Others from those early days include Laurence Harvey, Janet Suzman, Richard Griffiths and Alison Steadman.

Over the years the Library Theatre very much did its own thing as a production house. Even in difficult financial times, the city council remained steadfastly proud of it as one of Manchester's great civic achievements. One-time city librarian David Colley famously 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.”

The city council also financed the 500-seat Wythenshawe Forum, an idea proposed by Scase back in the 1950s and which opened in 1971, providing a theatre for a district with a population of 100,000 and, under the same management, one that complemented the Library’s repertoire.

In the 1980s, under the guidance of artistic director Howard Lloyd-Lewis and supported by two highly talented associate directors, Paul Kerryson and Roger Haines, the Forum built an international reputation for pioneering Stephen Sondheim European premieres, including 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. The Forum lasted just 30 years and, like the Library Theatre itself, is still much missed.

A scene from one of the Library's late-period hits, Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"
A scene from one of the Library's late-period hits, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

The Library's last artistic director, Chris Honer, arrived in 1987 and steered the theatre with great success for more than 25 years, maintaining it as a beacon of regional theatre and winning many awards for its productions, reaching out internationally as well as well as into local schools and the wider community.

Under Honer's leadership, the Library Company produced 14 shows a year including, in his early years, some at the Wythenshawe Forum. From the start he placed an emphasis on reaching out to communities with limited access to the arts, and on fostering new talent. Plays produced in London as British or world premieres would often see their first performances outside the capital as Library Company productions.

After the move from its basement home in 2014, Honer 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 inner-city Ancoats, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at The Lowry, remain unforgettable landmarks.