Tucked away just off St Ann’s Square lies a shuttered doorway you’ve probably passed dozens of times without noticing. Behind it, a vehicle lift descends down into a car park. So far, so unremarkable.
But underneath the concrete lies the hidden history of ‘the hovel’, a cobbled underground service road that ran deep below the Royal Exchange from Old Bank Street.
A circular ridge scarring the ground gives away what was once a wooden turntable, for moving vehicles – originally horse-drawn carts – around, while what are now parking bays would once have been stables.
Legend has it that the one beneath the Royal Exchange, which dates from 1921, once led off into a network of underground roads running beneath Manchester, although little evidence of this exists.
From here, the space splits off into a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms that will set the stage for a new play being performed in the bowels of the building by the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Young Company.
Charting the shifting and shocking attitudes to gay rights across time, generations and countries, We Were Told There Was Dancing has been developed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which began the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967.
“We’re using the anniversary as our starting point; the show isn’t just about that,” says director Matt Hassall.
“It’s about the last 60 years of the gay rights movement and how that’s grown and morphed and changed over time.
“So the audience will go on an experience that starts in 1957 and ends in 2017 and they’ll take detours through lots of different points in time as they move through the experience.”
The promenade performance is a rare chance for the public to explore the subterranean space, which makes a fitting backdrop to the stories being told.
“No work has ever been made beneath the theatre so it felt like a really exciting opportunity to do that,” says Matt.
“But most importantly, all our research started to show that in the 1950s and before that – and still, today – that gay culture lived underground, literally and metaphorically.
“There were a lot of underground gay clubs where people would meet, especially in the time when it was still illegal. A lot of people described to us living a life that felt like it was underground because it was so secretive.
“One of the spaces we’re using [for the performance] is a wall away from the public toilets that are now closed in St Ann’s Square. Those toilets were a place where gay men would meet in the 50s and where many people were arrested for being together there.”
That room will be turned into a kissing booth as part of the performance to celebrate love in all its forms.
“On the other side of that wall, people were condemned for expressing love. We’re going to reclaim the space to allow people to connect,” says Matt.
Other forgotten spaces that feature in the performance include the old Brannigans cellar club, which will be temporarily back in use as a bar during the show’s run.
Elsewhere, other rooms have become an 80s commune and giant old fridge has been turned into a nightclub by set designer Bethany Wells, whose recent work includes post-apocalptic Manchester International Festival highlight Party Skills for the End of the World.
Most of the space has lain largely untouched since the IRA bomb that devastated the Royal Exchange in 1996.
“The history is pouring out of the walls and I was never aware of it,” says Matt.
“I go past these places all the time, every day, I walk over them and didn’t know what the history of them was.
“The first time we came down here was a bit like being in an episode of Scooby Doo, because we weren’t aware of how much stuff there was.
“Every corridor we turned or every room we went into there was something else beyond and something else beyond.”
Local historian Keith Warrender, who has researched the city’s subterranean secrets extensively for his two books, Below Manchester and Underground Manchester , said stories about a secret network of roads underneath Manchester were not uncommon.
“I’ve heard these stories but I couldn’t see any obvious signs of them,” he said.
“At the time of the IRA bomb which badly damaged the Royal Exchange they did do extensive work on the building on the very lowest level so there is a chance they may have been cut off.
“There is no proof today but that’s not to say there wasn’t in the past.”
We Were Told There Was Dancing is at the Royal Exchange Theatre from August 16 to 20 with three performances a night. For tickets, priced £13, visit royalexchange.co.uk .