Few people have had as great an impact on Manchester’s cultural landscape, primarily through his stewardship of the Library Theatre for 27 crucial years, as Chris Honer, who died on November 3 at Wythenshawe Hospital from complications due to bowel cancer.
It was surely no coincidence that the Library Theatre, in the basement of what is now Manchester Central Library, was just across the road from the site of the old Gaiety Theatre, where a century earlier Annie Horniman had started the first repertory theatre company in this country. Chris, who arrived at the Library Theatre in 1987 after stints as artistic director of Derby Playhouse and the Gateway Theatre Chester as well as the first director at Birmingham Rep’s Studio Theatre, loved to make that connection. This was not out of any sense of self-aggrandisement but to celebrate the continuity of making great, inspirational theatre with a group of like-minded, committed individuals producing the best of contemporary drama and modern classics, a passionate belief that underpinned his time as artistic director of the Library Theatre Company.
In his own quietly determined way, Chris instilled into the Company the belief that anyone, rich or poor, highly educated or street smart, should be able to come to any Library Theatre Company production and be entertained, probably be informed, and quite possibly be educated as well. Quite often in the face of some adversity, Chris made their productions an absolute guarantee of excellence, integrity, intelligence, wit and sheer theatrical pleasure.
Under his focused leadership, the Library Theatre became a place where actors loved to work, and Manchester audiences loved to go. Just a few of the great, fondly remembered and often award-winning shows there under his direction include Waiting For Godot, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, The Life Of Galileo, several Brecht productions, and a wonderful version of The Importance Of Being Earnest that was the last show in the old Library Theatre.
Chris continued to do great work after the company had to move, including a brilliant site-specific production of Hard Times in Murray’s Mill at Ancoats and The Seagull at The Lowry. Not only did he manage to miraculously breathe new life into plays you might have thought you’d already seen often enough, but he was a tireless supporter of new writing too.
A true gentleman and, indeed, a scholar, Chris not only enthusiastically helped to train the future talent of the theatre world, but also tirelessly sought it out in barely funded venues, colleges and bars, indeed anywhere it might be lurking. It was by no means uncommon to arrive at some funky little venue where you wouldn’t expect to find an artistic director of his stature slumming it and there would be Chris, drawing as little attention to himself as possible but taking it all in with that razor-sharp intellect of his. With the passing of Chris Honer, the cultural world has lost a great director, a fantastic and inventive artistic director, a committed and inspiring teacher, and, just as important as all that, a lovely, lovely man whom it’s been a privilege to know.
Main image: Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards Midland Hotel 2007, Best Production, Chris Honer with his award. Image by Steve Allen.