Never mind Hershel Fink. The entire theatre industry is failing the Jews.

COMMENT: The Rare Earth Mettle debacle exposed that the Royal Court did not take complaints of anti-Semitism seriously – but there’s little reason to believe any other theatre would have behaved any better.

A common mistake made by theatres in the regions is to obsess over the latest drama hitting a London Theatre. Nine times out of ten, it’s a local issue of little consequence elsewhere in the country – or at least not as bad as more serious issues on your doorstep your local theatres are ignoring *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough*. If this uproar over the naming of a character at the Royal Court was only a London issue, I would quite happily have left it to Londoners to argue over. However, this one I believe goes deeper than a local row. I am in agreement with the majority of people that the Royal Court has screwed up big-time, but I’m not convinced it’s wise to single out one theatre here. I fear this is a symptom of an endemic nationwide problem.

So, for those who need to catch up, this is all about a play at the Royal Court satirising billionaire, master bullshitter and possible Bond villain-in-waiting Elon Musk. Now, I could put a lot of energy into why Hyperloop and all his other miracle transport solutions are bollocks, but that’s a different story completely and not for a theatre blog. Everyone was fine with this play until the name of character based on Musk was announced: Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from all Jews in London (pretty much) for stoking stereotypes. The Royal Court apologised and agreed to rename the character to Henry Finn, which might have settled things down had they not attempted to blame their mistake on “unconscious bias”. Then a Sunday Times article (£) came out that suggested this concern had previously been raised and ignored, prompting a second statement promising to reflect further. It could have been worse, but boy, what a fiasco.

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Back to the main stage: The Offing and Road

Skip to: The Offing, Road

We’ve already had the tentative relaunches of the big two in the north east back in September-October, but now it’s really back to business. It’s not the first time since 2020 we’ve had a play on a main stage – Live has done several by now – but it is the first time we’ve have something on a multi-week run and full budget.

Both theatres went for something that seemed like a safe bet. Northern Stage took a classic play that catapulted a household name playwright to stardom that promised to resonate with the north east; whilst Live Theatre partnered with another theatre to adapt a recent book that took the publishing world by storm. Surely nothing can go wrong?

Well, let’s see how safe these safe bets really were.

The Offing

Although The Offing is a co-production between Live Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, artistically this very much the product of the latter (with the former sharing the run largely due to the association of Paul Robinson and Graeme Thomson dating back to Theatre 503 days). The early reaction from the SJT half of the run suggested we were in for a good one, and it does not disappoint.

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Lumiere 2021 preview

Castle of Light, coming to Raby Castle

So it’s on. I had some doubts over this one. Lumiere already had the good fortune of being a biannual festival that skipped 2020, but 2021 has been far from a normal year for festivals. Brighton and Buxton Fringes operated on a reduced scale, Edinburgh Fringe limped on at a fraction of its normal size, and in Durham both the Brass Festival and Miners’ Gala were cancelled a second year running owing to continued uncertainty over restrictions. Would Lumiere meet the same fate? The outlook for November wasn’t any better than the outlook for July.

One thing we’ve learnt from experience is that yes or no decision usually gets made when it’s time to commit the money. An event cancelled a four months’ notice is only embarrassing. An event cancelled at two weeks’ notice is embarrassing and a financial disaster too. But the crunch came and went and … Lumiere is go. It is not clear what factors went into the decision, but one thing that must surely have counted in its favour is Durham’s 2025 bid for City of Culture. County Durham’s strongest asset is its festivals, and it would have been been a big setback to axe its flagship festival at this vital moment.

However, things aren’t quite the same this year. As an outdoor festival, it doesn’t have the same risk as big indoor events, but as veterans of the 2011 festival can tell you, it can still get dangerously crowded without plague thrown into the mix. As a result, crowd control measures have been stepped up, and this plus the influence of City of Culture has meant quite a few difference.

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The outdoor era: Moby Dick and Coppelia

Skip to: Moby Dick, Coppelia

So now that I finally have the time to do this, I intend to do a big catch-up on my reviews. Now, the festival fringe and the West End may have hit the ground running in the spring and summer, but most regional theatres played it safe and waited for the autumn. However, there was a bit of theatre activity in the regions, and a lot of it was focused on outdoor performances. Although there was never a point in 2021 where outdoor theatre was permitted but indoor wasn’t, those performances in 2020 that went ahead outdoors did quite well and for some the idea stuck.

A lot of the outdoor performances happened at the Festival Fringes, particularly Brighton – those I am covering in their respective roundups. But apart from that, there were two performances that particularly caught my eye.

Moby Dick

Outdoor staging of Moby DickThe John Godber Company has been one of the most determined companies to perform on in any way they can, although it’s fair to say they were at a bit of an advantage here. With the Godber family themselves taking on so many roles over the years, it was an easy matter to put on a family event with Sunny Side Up. I would like to have told you about that, but the performances were very popular and sold out quickly. However, not all John Godber performances are family affairs, at to get back into the swing of things this year, they put on one of their largest productions to date at Hull Marina.

The first thing I will say is how much I love the venue. Stage @ The Dock came about from a regeneration of the Marina and presumably came about in part from Hull as 2017 City of Culture. Obviously it’s at the mercy of the weather, but on a balmy evening it’s a great place to see an outdoor-set play. With the John Godber Company having helped bring this space into the spotlight, I hope it’s not forgotten about now that indoor theatre has got going again.

For once, a John Godber Company play features writing from someone other than a Godber, for this is a collaboration with Nick Lane, who is writing most of Blackeyed Theatre’s current plays as well as many of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Christmas plays. The challenge of most adaptations is choosing what to keep in and what to leave out: with the exception of the shortest of short stories, it’s near-impossible to stick to original plot point by point and hope to be done in two hours – and certainly not Herman Mellville’s epic of a book. The best focus I think you can put on a stage version of Moby Dick is the suicidally dangerous obsession of Captain Ahab – and that’s precisely what is done here.

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Odds and sods: October 2021

So, it’s back to business, and for old time’s, sake, I’m going back to my monthly odds and sods updates being late. I would have got it out on time, but a certain shitstorm blew up that I had to write about first. But now that this is out of the way (for a moment), let’s catch up with what else has been happening.

Stuff that happened in October:

So the big thing that happened – not quite theatre news but still very relevant to north-east culture – was SSD Concerts. Previously making a name for themselves back in April by allegedly going round groping everybody, after the MD implicated in this resigned, we thought we’d heard the last of the MD, or SSD Concerts, or groping, or all three. Nope. It now looks like they thought they could lie low a few months and then just carry on like nothing had happened. The good news is they thought wrongly, and didn’t get away with it.

However, the less prominent news stories, involving people who – as far as I’m aware – don’t behave like sex cases, are:

Durham 2025

cropped-d2025-bid-logoThe excitement at the start of this month was the news that Durham has made it through to the longlist of City of Culture 2025. One important point is that it is Durham County that is bidding for this rather than just the city. This makes use of a rule change that this time round, regions can bid for the title – it need not be a specific urban area. This suits the bid, because ever since Durham County Council became a unitary authority, they’ve been promoting the culture of the county as a unit. Events such as Kynren and attractions such as Beamish are routinely alongside events and attractions in Durham city itself.

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The unwelcome return of SSD Concerts

Image of Hit the North line-up with all the withdrawn bands removed.

Right then. I spend a couple of days out of the loop getting a play ready, and when I finally start to catch up on things, I drop right into the middle of this shitstorm. I, along with most people, thought we’d heard the last of SSD Concerts and its manager Steve Davis back in April, after all the allegations of sexual harassment appeared on the Glassdoor review site. But unlike the management of Tyneside Cinema, the Vice-principal of Ballet West, Noel Clarke, and pretty much every else who resigned and disappeared for good, it now looks like Steve Davis thought he could step back into his role quietly once all the outrage had died down. And, boy, that’s backfired big-time.

And so, yet again I have to write about the subject that just refuses to die. No matter how many times these scandals erupt and people face consequences, it seems there are still people who will never learn. The only good news is that, this time, some people who I’d previously criticised for not taking action have pleasantly surprised me and earned my respect. Only some, mind.

Most of this has already been covered by people less pressed for time than me. If you’ve caught up elsewhere, you won’t find any new information here. I will, however, add a few thoughts of my own.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2021

There’s a Ghost in my House, Between Two Waves, About the Garden, The Tragedy of Dorian Gray, Watson: the Final Problem; The Spirit of Woodstock; The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007; The Doll Who Came To Tea; Polly: A Drag Rebellion; Crime Scene Improvisation; Clean: The Musical; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; The Sensemaker

Right. Better get a move on with these. I have had the excuse of having my hands full with four fringes in three months, but it’s now October. So let’s begin with Brighton. And, boy, what a festival they had.

They year began on tenterhooks when it became unclear whether live performances would be allowed in May at all. Brighton Fringe opted to postpone itself by three weeks, so that the fringe would take place over mostly June instead of May. In the end, that turned out to be a very good call. With the go-ahead for live performances turning out to be only 11 days before the start of the fringe, to festival turned into a big celebration of the arts getting going again. I don’t have definitive figures for how this compares to a normal year, but by all account the level of business was excellent, for both the acts taking part and the social aspect of the Warren and Spiegeltent’s bars.

The only dampener on this success is that it could have been even more earth-shattering. In spite of some very last-minute organisation, Brighton Fringe managed to be about 50% of its normal size, give or take a bit depending on whether you count online. But it was during June when serious questions were being raised over whether its Edinburgh counterpart would go ahead at all, owing to some absurd restrictions in Scotland specifically applied to the performing arts. With a very late go-ahead, and Edinburgh’s programme announced towards the end of Brighton Fringe, the jaw-dropping news was that it was less than a third the size of Brighton’s. In the end, Edinburgh pipped Brighton into the lead at the last moment – the Big Four venues programmed themselves very late on – but the fact that a half-size Brighton Fringe was two weeks away from taking the title as Britain’s largest fringe is staggering.

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Odds and sods: most of 2020 and 2021

So, who remembers the “before” times? Well, one thing I used to write on most months was “odds and sods”, rounding up the little things that have been happening in theatre that weren’t reviews or recommendations or something that required a full article. Then along came a certain event that put paid to little events happening in theatres, or indeed any kind of event.

Contrary to what it feels like for a lot of people, things haven’t ground to a complete halt for 18 months. In spite of the high-profile cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe 2020 there’s still been a lot going on with the fringe circuit to keep me busy. However, in the north-east, theatre has only really got going in the last month. But things haven’t been entirely still on regional theatre, and we’ve got some pretty significant events to catch up on. So, let’s do a catch-up.

What’s been happening between March 2020 and September 2021. Apart from Coronavirus.

There’s a been a lot to talk about relating to Coronavirus, both directly and indirectly. Most of this I’ve talked about indirectly in my live fringe coverage. I might round this up later, but here I am concentrating on what else happened. Here are some events that could just have easily taken place another time.

New artistic directors

When we left off, Lorne Campbell had just departed Northern Stage for a new challenge at the National Theatre of Wales, and the search for his successor was underway. But part-way through 2020 came the shock news that his Live Theatre counterpart Joe Douglas was also leaving. The reason I say shock is because he was doing so well. Sometimes, when an artistic director leaves unexpectedly, I later find out that some of the trustees weren’t happy with the way he or she was taking the theatre, but that looks far form the case here. His first Live Theatre play sold out and came back for another run, and the second also sold out and looked set to come back too. I will say that I did hear a few grumbles over Lorne Campbell (not that I have any reason to believe that was why he moved), but Joe Douglas was getting universal praise. Ah well. Looks like sometimes life’s demands outside of the theatre are more important.

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Don’t blame reviewers for stupid judgements of attractiveness

Above: Six people cast entirely on acting talent alone and definitely not on shallow grounds such as looks because film and TV are too virtuous to do such a thing.

COMMENT: Reviewers need a debate amongst themselves of whether to mention attractiveness in reviews. The film and TV industries, however, are the last people to be taking lessons from.

This topic reared its head back in April, and my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not this again”. Ever since I naively offered my 2p’s worth on Quentin Letts’s notorious “jolly fit” remark (and realising later I’d played straight into his attention-seeking hands), I’ve tried to stay out of this argument. I partially relented just over a year later when I begged everyone to stop feeding his attention-seeking habits (and failed miserably). But the latest version of this row was over Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. As a publication seemingly made a scapegoat out of an individual review, and the film critics’ guild subsequently weighed in, it became a censorship issue. And as with all censorship issues, I must have my say.

If you managed to miss this, well done. But for your benefit, this blew up when Carey Mulligan publicly railed against against a review that contained an ill-advised phrase that her character “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. Now, without seeing the film I can’t comment on the validity of this phrase. (I have heard a lot of good things about Promising Young Woman, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other films and never got round to watching them, so don’t hold your breath.) What he was possibly trying to say was that Carey Mulligan doesn’t suit looking like Harley Quinn, whom director Margot Robbie played so successfully, but I’m not really interested in one sentence of one review. This is an issue we need to take seriously, and every incident like this should spur reviewers on debate this.

However, the problem I have is hypocrisy. Whilst there are a important ethical questions to be discussed, at the moment the answers seem to be mostly coming from the film and TV industries. For reasons I will go into, they have absolutely no business lecturing the rest of us on valuing women based on looks. Even Carey Mulligan herself is not immune from being part of the problem. But before going into this, I may as well be open about how I handle this.

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Back to business: Pod and Shine

Skip to: Pod, Shine

Okay, here we go. Now that an extremely busy fringe season is out of the way, it’s time to catch up on all the other plays I’ve seen since we got going. I am planning to do most of these in the order I saw them, which I’m afraid will mean several plays are going to get reviews several months later. However, I am bumping this first article up the list due to a sort-of review request. It came to my attention that I was supposed to be invited to one of these plays, but the invitation never reached me. The details are far too boring to go into, but I thought I’d get this one out when things are still fresh.

So … Unlike the Festival Fringes, which have been running to a sort-of-normal since June, most theatres outside of London have opted for a September relaunch. And with that, a lot of eyes have been on the relaunch plays. Live Theatre and Alphabetti have both run plays for three weeks. At the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm to praise everything simply for getting on stage. But, folks, I don’t hand out high praise as a participation prize. You still have to earn it. So, how did these do?

Pod

Pod isn’t actually Alphabetti’s reopening play – they have been bolder than most of their north-east counterparts and have been phasing in performances since April – but such was the fanfare around this one it may as well be their relaunch play. Coracle Theatre has been one of Alphabetti’s closest collaborators; indeed, they opened Alphabetti in its current venue the first time round. So whilst this play is a catch-up from a heavily postponed 2020 programme, it was good choice for a relaunch.

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