It’s easy to argue that all awards are pointless and the dance that takes place between nominations being announced and tearful acceptance speeches (or bitter recriminations in the pub afterwards) is an especially pointless sideshow to the real art already created elsewhere. Okay. I feel your indifference.

Suranne Jones as OrlandoBut – and I would say this, wouldn’t I, as chair of the awards panel – the 2015 Manchester Theatre Awards really do feel a bit different, put together out of love and enthusiasm by committed people who not only feel passionately about local theatre but also have many years experience of writing, broadcasting and generally celebrating and supporting that scene, through thick and, more often, thin.

Between them, the dozen people who make up the Manchester Theatre Awards panel see hundreds and hundreds of shows of all sorts over the twelve-month judging period, in all sorts of places, from relatively ritzy traditional theatres to tiny upstairs spaces in a pub via, this year, disused pram shops and old Victorian swimming baths. Not everybody sees everything, of course – that would be a physical impossibility – but it’s not for want of trying and very little, we hope, slips under the radar. Notes are kept from regular meetings over a whole year so that the latest sensation doesn’t displace an equally-good, if not better, show from many months before. As you’d expect from such a group, the arguments can be spectacular but, in the end, what everyone genuinely wants is to make sure the really good stuff gets noticed.

Romeo and Juliet

And what is the really good stuff? Obviously, it’s anything on the just-produced list of nominations, with the winners named at an early afternoon show at the Royal Northern College Of Music on Friday March 13 – I know, what could go wrong with a date like that to aim for? It’s probably worth pointing out that alongside the high-profile stars in there like Maxine Peake, nominated for the mostly female Hamlet, and Suranne Jones, nominated for another Royal Exchange gender-bender Orlando, as well as the likes of Robert Lindsay, Anthony Sher and even Barry Humphries, what’s even more exciting about the nominations is the strikingly good health the Manchester fringe and new writing scene seems to be in. The awards try to reflect the rich life of the whole theatre scene and while the Royal Exchange and Bolton Octagon might seem to do especially well on the acting front – hoovering up virtually all the nominations in the Best Actor/Actress/Supporting Actor/Actress nominations – the Fringe and Studio Production and Performance categories, to say nothing of the Best New Play, are among the most hotly contested of all.

Also exciting is the number of nominated productions that have been staged not in conventional theatre spaces, like the Exchange, Coliseum and Octagon, but in spaces as diverse as a former pram shop in Oldham (Thick As Thieves, up for Best Fringe Production), a disused pub in Ancoats (Angel Meadow, nominated as Best Production and Ensemble), and a Victorian swimming baths (Romeo & Juliet, also Best Production and Ensemble). Both Angel Meadow and Romeo & Juliet were produced by HOME which bodes well not only for their own eagerly-anticipated brand-new, cross-disciplinary space (opening in a couple of months) but for Manchester itself as a theatre-rich city, always looking forward even as it celebrates its accomplishments.

By Kevin Bourke