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Mary Barton at the Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange has chosen to open its 30th anniversary season with an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's classic Manchester novel, Mary Barton.

Published on September 12th 2006.

Mary Barton at the Royal Exchange

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Adapted by Rona Munro

This play, adapted from a novel that is Manchester through and through, is the opening salvo to the 30th Anniversary Season at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The novel, and thus the play, depicts the City in the mid 19th century. By day Mary works in a dress shop in St Ann’s Square, a stone’s throw away from the Royal Exchange. As Mary strives to better herself and join the gentrified class, murder, romance and intrigue form an integral part of her story.

Social inequality was the Gaskell inspiration. Her story is that of Manchester at the birth of the industrial revolution - a period when our City was amongst the most important in the world. A time when cotton barons ruled an exclusive roost. Her story revolves around the historic Royal Exchange Building, adding to the play’s atmosphere and sense of relevance.

Does the novel translate to the theatre? William Shakespeare put it very succinctly and particularly appropriately to this production in saying ‘the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together’.

This is a wonderful production directed marvellously by the most talented Sarah Frankcom. Her outstanding work for this theatre has added both to the status and credibility of recent productions, her interpretation of ‘Separate Tables‘ contributing greatly to the wholesale and continuing reassessment of the works of Rattigan.

Together with Rona Munro (currently a Senior Playwriting Fellow for the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh) who has adapted the novel brilliantly for the stage, they produce an absorbing evening to commence the 30th anniversary season.

The novel itself is something of a 'penny dreadful'. Stereotypical characters, melodrama, and little to demand any ongoing attention from the reader. But it has much local relevance. Some people view it as a social commentary on the industrial society in the early years of dramatic technological change.

For the most part Elizabeth Gaskell has been relegated to a small role in the panoply of English novelists. Nothing in this production alters that. For me, this is not the moment for a major Gaskell retrospective.

The cast without exception are superb. The commitment, dedication and effort they invest in this production is uniformly excellent. Kellie Bright is a fetching, convincing and appealing Mary Barton. Penny Layden is a talented Margaret. The doubling up of all the cast is done with aplomb and quite seamless.

Great praise is warranted for Olly Fox. The music is outstanding and enhanced every aspect of the night. I thought the singing of the whole ensemble excellent and the team effort (in every area) exceptional.

For 38 years I have visited the Royal Exchange and its predecessor. Tonight was a fine example of everything they do best. Nick Hytner, now Director at the National, has called this theatre ‘the most exciting acting space in the UK’.

Go and celebrate its first 30 years. It is a memorable evening.

Richard Burbage
September 2006

Royal Exchange Theatre Box Office 0161 833 9833
Box Office 0870 7875793

Until 14th October

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