At Hope Place you hear the sound of a play hitting a spot, talking straight to an audience. And the audience talking back. There is a lot of guff spoken about the community of live theatre, but Michael Wynne's play, set just down the road from the stage on which it's performed, full of Liverpool names (Rice Street, Mount Pleasant) and Liverpool jokes, gets grunts and guffaws of recognition. Which does not mean that non-residents feel excluded. On the contrary. The local and specific is always more alluring, more recognisable than the general: that's why so much international theatre is so soggy and bland. This is the play the revamped Everyman should have opened with.
Four ageing siblings gather after the death of their mother, a traditional dramatic moment for revelation. The eldest has given up her chance of a lover and children to look after the matriarch; Eileen O'Brien's beautifully wry and understated performance makes her sympathetic but forgetful and anxious, shaking the many pills in her dressing gown pocket as if they were maracas. The youngest trained as an engineer but is now a romancing tour guide who turns up dressed as Sergeant Pepper. There is a family tragedy that no one will talk about - though most of them talk all the time - and a particular secret, which of course eventually comes out.
The history of the city - there is (as often at this theatre) a map at the back of the stage - sits lightly on the story, with forays into the 17th century (gaiters, bonnet and swamp) and a high-kicking music hall turn from Michelle Butterly, who morphs like Everywoman throughout the play and is particularly good as a gannet hanger-on at the wake. Gentrification - the family patriarch was born in the workhouse - is neatly captured when the sibs tuck into scouse with artisan bread: "Three quid. Full of seeds, nuts and bits of wood. One bite and your teeth are across the room." Still, the core of this light-on-its feet but thoughtful play is memory: how unreliable it is, how peculiarly influenced by other people, how suddenly it can flood you with joy or terror. The stage - and Rachel Kavanaugh's buoyant production - is terrific at bringing us the past in the present as characters relive another moment. Wynne is very funny about the earnest attempts of academics to recapture this. Their interviewees always think they are getting their own stories "wrong". Oral history, ponders one of them: "The history of mouths? That's unusual."
There are a few winks in Hope Street at Liverpool-Manchester rivalry and difference. Sometimes, one character says, Mancunians may have a point: we could do with being more laconic. The main theatres in both cities thrive on their distinctive characters.
Sarah Frankcom, who this autumn takes sole control of the Royal Exchange, has, as far as I know, never said she is making a feminist theatre. Perhaps it's not a conscious plan. But that's what it has looked like during her time as co-artistic director with Greg Hersov. The most startling sign of this so far (and judging by the whooping response I got when I tweeted the news, the most overwhelmingly welcome) is that in the autumn Maxine Peake will star as Hamlet. It was evident in the adventurous programming of Virginia Woolf'sOrlando. You can see it in Simon Armitage's The Last Days of Troy
This is usually the least feminist of stories. Troublesome beauty - that's to say troublesome woman - causes the wreck of many men's noble lives. Actually, there is more than one tempter in the story - the body that keeps Achilles sulking in his tent belongs not to a woman but the hunky Patroclus. But we all know Helen is really to blame.
Not here, or not quite. Simon Armitage's rhythmic, strong and salty play - which draws on the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid - makes Helen more present but scarcely less enigmatic. In a drama that could gallop along in equine imagery - all those fillies and nags - she is herself a Trojan horse, a pretext for war that does not stand up much better than weapons of mass destruction. The men are hard-wired to fight, conquer and loot. Armitage does not overdo the modern parallels but he makes them apparent, just as he makes the Homeric-Virgilian plots extraordinarily clear.
Lily Cole is Helen. She is required not so much to act as to embody beauty, sailing across the dark wood stage - one of many figures gathered in white cloth like fabric pillars - looking graceful and enclosed. Which is what Helen is. She has a strange song which she keens weirdly but a small speaking voice. The interest of Helen in Armitage's version is her cool disregard for her men and her compassion for women. A slyly revolutionary ending to the evening means that women are the last people to command the stage. The Frankcom effect?
There have been plenty of thunderous fellows. As Odysseus, Colin Tierney is a finely judged mixture of the martial and the calculating. Richard Bremmer, who frames the action as a latter-day Zeus peddling his own myth, has a nice, battered cynicism. In the case of Jake Fairbrother's Achilles, who is all too convincing as he hacks at Hector's body, thunderousness means too free a way with the bellowing. Even if he was brought up on lion's gizzards. One of the explanations that went down best in Manchester was: "He'll eat anything - he's from the north."
Nick Bagnall directs a verbally distinguished, intermittently pulsating evening of mists and thumped swords. Liverpool and Manchester? Totally different and a draw.
L-r: Neil Caple, Joe McGann, Ciaran Kellgren, Eileen O'Brien, Emma Lisi and Tricia Kelly in Hope Place, 'the play the Everyman should have opened with'. Photograph by Jonathan Keenan
'Required not so much to act as to embody beauty': Lily Cole in The Last Days of Troy. Jonathan Keenan