Curtain call

In her final production Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at the Royal Exchange, asks what it means to be northern

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Back in 2015, when Sarah Frankcom and playwright Simon Stephens first talked about collaborating on a play about the north of England, neither had any idea that it would turn out to be Frankcom’s last as artistic director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre.

“It’s been the place that I have worked all my career, so it’s a big thing: a bit like leaving your family,” reflects the Sheffield-born director, who began working at the theatre in the late 1990s and has led the company for more than a decade, initially in a joint capacity. Her decision to step down to become director of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art was announced in February.

“I have been the custodian of a brilliant performance space, but new energy and new ideas are always really important to move theatres on. I feel like I’m leaving the Royal Exchange in extremely good hands,” she says. Her successors, Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan, take over on 1 November.

Before then, Frankcom will direct Light Falls, her fourth production with Stockport-born writer Simon Stephens, which receives its world premiere later this month and stars Mercedes Assad and Freddie Gaminara among its ensemble cast. Billed as a heartfelt ode to the north, the play tells the story of five family members, all living in different towns, brought back together by a single devastating event.

“I think it’s probably the most personal and the most radical piece of work that I’ll make in this space,” explains Frankcom. “It’s a play that puts its finger on a very bleak and difficult situation for a family, but within it there is a strong sense of realism and hope, which is very life-affirming.”

The question at the heart of Light Falls – what it means to be northern – became even more pertinent after the results of the 2016 EU referendum, believes the director. “London, more now than at any other time, feels very set apart from the rest of the country and I think that’s particularly pronounced in the north. There’s been some really difficult things that have happened within our communities in this post-industrial world. But also there were some things that we really wanted to celebrate.”

Top of the list was the kindness and empathy that she and Stephens experienced when they went on a road trip together from Blackpool to Durham during pre-production. “With the polarisation of ideals and beliefs around leave and remain it might seem like those qualities are in short supply, but what we saw was communities really looking after each other.”

To help evoke that sense of community spirit the pair enlisted the songwriting talents of Jarvis Cocker. “He read the play and identified with it. What he’s written fits perfectly,” enthuses Frankcom.

Looking ahead, the director won’t rule out one day returning to the Royal Exchange, but says it won’t be any time soon. She will, however, continue to work with close friend Maxine Peake with several future projects in development.

“I’ve been very privileged and blessed to have her as a partner in crime,” says Frankcom identifying Hamlet, The Skriker and last year’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days among some of the most memorable productions they’ve made together at the venue. “It’s only interesting when you’re taking risks,” she says. “There’s nothing to be gained from being cautious or being safe.”

Light Falls is at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 24 October to 16 November

Main image: Lloyd Hutchinson (Bernard), Mercedes Assad (Emma), Rebecca Manley (Christine, Victoria, Claudie) (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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