As artistic director and chief executive of Oldham Coliseum, Chris Lawson has endured a truly harrowing year after Arts Council England brutally, and in many people’s eyes either ignorantly or even vindictively, removed the venerable theatre’s funding.

Despite a chorus of disbelieving disapproval from local and national theatre folk as well as loyal local theatregoers, few of whom had a shred of faith in Oldham Council’s mealy-mouthed promise of a new performance space, Lawson has been compelled to oversee the dismantling of a much-loved theatre whose 138 years of history boasts the involvement of many household names. Although nobody with any sense blames Lawson for the woeful debacle, he’s had to take charge of actors, technicians, writers, front of house staff and many others all being made redundant while the local community is denied a proper arts outlet for the foreseeable future.

Surely, then, no one would begrudge the poor fellow the chance to get away from the endless fractious and heart-breaking meetings to go back to his first love of directing with something light-hearted and, dare I say, popular?

Elizabeth Meddows in CRAVE – credit shayrowanphotography

Instead, he’s opted to bring back to the stage Sarah Kane’s challenging, angry, funny, defiant, kind and cruel Crave.

Premiered in 1998 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, the heart-rending play’s lyrical and non-linear style favours emotional truth over clear storytelling and evokes the sensation of a mind reeling from trauma, love, craving, hope and hopelessness. Its poetic nature transformed Kane’s critical reputation, but all these years later it remains more than a little divisive.

So, it’s perhaps not the obvious choice under the circumstances, one might say.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult couple of years for everyone, and especially painful for us in Oldham over the past few months,” agrees Lawson as he puts the finishing touches to the production underneath the arches at central Manchester’s 53two space. “Whilst I’m still fighting for theatre in Oldham and supporting our team as we face redundancy together and begin to clear our building, directing Crave is medicinal. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of theatre to make us confront our emotions and begin to heal, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to what I love – making theatre.

“Just getting the chance to reconnect with that and not be running out of the room to have meetings all the time, or just have things bubbling away in your brain about all that when you’re directing a panto, was a reason to do it. As was the chance to reconnect with fringe theatre.”

Crave is produced by Hannah Ellis Ryan, a stalwart of Manchester Fringe theatre scene and founder of HER Productions, who also judges the time is right for a production of Kane’s iconic work at “a time where we feel our world is ready to grieve, reconnect and heal from the global pandemic”.

Elizabeth Meddows in CRAVE – credit shayrowanphotography

Lawson says: “Hannah and I had spoken about doing something together about two years ago, initially a production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, before Covid kicked back in and stopped that. Hannah knows my love for Sarah Kane’s work and as an independent producer her productions have an ability to be a bit bolder and braver. So she brought it to me and with everything at the Coliseum, with me having done Beryl and panto there, there was something appealing about the departure from more, shall we say, crowd-pleasing work to do something more like the kind of work I might have done at drama school, for my Master’s, or as a freelance, something that more closely reflects my tastes and personal interests. But I’m prepared for the backlash,” he laughs.

“Within Greater Manchester and nationally we’ve seen a default of shows which are lighter and brighter. So we wondered ‘is there a space now for something different?’ and we think so. But we’re not sure.

“Of course, Crave is a tough one, but it’s so human. Over the last few years, and I hesitate to go back to Covid and what that time did to people, but I think for me and a lot of others it made people ask questions about themselves, their journeys, and their lives. They had the time and space to do that as the norm was disrupted. This is a play which does just that, which disrupts the norm and it puts you in your head for some dark moments to look at what life is and what love is and what you want things to be, what they can be and perhaps what they’re not. There are no stage directions, there are a lot of massive questions in there, and no answers.

“So I think what it does is give audience members an opportunity to connect with it in different ways at different moments, to create their own path with it.

“From the outside you could look at it and say ‘I don’t get it’ but, as Sarah Kane herself said, there isn’t really any ‘getting it’, it will be something different for everyone who watches it.”

By Kevin Bourke

Main image: Matthew Heywood, Jake Ferretti and Etta Fusi in Crave. Credit shayrowanphotography.


Crave is at 53two, Arch 19, Watson St, Manchester, until June 4, 2023. For more information, click here.