Online theatre roundup 2

Skip to: Dirty Laundry, In Plain Sight, Nonsense and Sensibility, and Jesus Christ Superstar

Ho hum, my last online theatre roundup was supposed to be my only article about online theatre. I was intending to get back to proper theatre by now. But with the lurgi refusing to make an exist without being as big of a pain in the arse as possible on its exit, I’m still on this.

A small list this time, and I’ve already caught up with most of the things I wanted to catch up on, but I have four things for you before we get back to normal service.

Dirty Laundry

This one, I confess, should have been reviewed last time round, but I forgot. Better late than never, I hope.

Two years ago, Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew pulled one of theatre’s bigger surprises.* They had risen through the ranks of Northern Broadsides to produce their own plays in their own style to huge acclaim, and when long-standing Artistic Director Barrie Rutter left, Conrad Nelson became his interim replacement. I assumed he had the permanent post in the bag, but not only did he step down, he and his wife decided it was time for a change and left the company completely. Instead, they decided to put all their energy into what started off as their side-project: Claybody Theatre. Unlike the Broadsiders, this was a very local company producing plays of interest to Stoke-on-Trent. As a result, they have very much dropped out of the national spotlight. But not my spotlight, because I happen to have a sister who lives there.

*: At least surprising by pre-2020 standards of surprise.

With one of their first Claybody plays, Dirty Laundry, now made available as an audio play, I took the chance to see what they were up to. And if you’re a fan of their Broadsides work, the first thing than strikes you is what a different direction they’re going in; the second thing that may strike you is how much more specialist the appeal is. The target audience here is Stokies through and through, and more specifically, Stokies who know about the Six Towns’ long history with pottery. I’ve only recently learnt about it myself – and it’s fair to say that if you know nothing about Stoke or Pottery this story may not grab your attention – but I have learnt enough to appreciate how well McAndrew has done her homework here.

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Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

Note: I wrote this article on the 3rd April, after Narc magazine published its editorial about not covering SSD events but before the manager announced his resignation – that happened between writing the first draft and linking the sources. However, I am posting this anyway, as what I said still applies.

COMMENT: It is too soon to pass judgement on the sexual harassment allegations on Glassdoor. But as long as SSD continue to respond to the allegations the way they are, NARC Magazine is correct to stop covering their events.

When I wound up my coverage of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, I finished by saying I did not want to come back in a few years’ time when the next scandal breaks and ask why nothing was done. Well, never mind years – it is barely six months since the damning report and the resignation of the CEO and Chair of Trustees and we’ve got another case on our hands. This time, it’s in the music scene, specifically in relation to SSD Concerts, regarded by many as the leading music promoter in the north-east from big events to the grass roots. On this occasion, however, we do not have to wait for pressure from a major funder before action is taken; numerous bands and venues have cut ties in protest.

Normally, when an organisation is implicated in serious allegations, I open my coverage with an examination of the evidence available. And that is indeed what I tried to do here; it was slow business, with events continually moving as was I writing. However, one event has taken place that has spurred me into action: NARC magazine has announced it is ceasing its coverage of SSD events. (See also this page for numerous links to background info.) It is fair to note that – unlike Tyneside Cinema, where it was possible to sit on the fence – NARC, as a magazine dominated by music coverage, had to pick a side this time. But it is my understanding (based on an off-the-record source that I trust) that this editorial decision was not made out of obligation, but was taken proactively and wholeheartedly. Having criticised the local arts media for inaction during previous scandals, I shall now back them up for doing the right thing.

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The Gorilla play: a bitter disappointment

After a decade of performances from the greatest cultural icon ever to grace The Fringe, the outdoor immersive version of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves produced for lockdown is such a let-down.

Edinburgh Fringe punters like to boast about which up-and-coming act they saw before they made it big, but even those who saw the breakthrough performances of Steve Coogan, Graham Norton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge turn green with envy when hearing from someone who’s seen the legendary play A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves. Ever since artistic genius Liam El Groog’s seminal performance in 2009 with the elegance of Shakespeare, wit of Wilde and adrenalin rush of Tarantino, tickets have been like gold dust; and with just one performance per fringe, they are snapped up within minutes of release. It is rumoured that Kate Copstick was turned away one year after being caught handing over a four-figure sum on the black market, and the less said about the punch-up between Lyn Gardner and Brian Logan over the only press ticket, the better.

But whilst few have been lucky enough to see it in person, illicit footage smuggled out of the venue reveals it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. The beauty of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves is that is it does exactly what it says. El Goog, clad in his outfit of a Gorilla – who in turn purports to be a male senior citizen by use of flat cap and pipe – takes his seat in a rocking chair. But does not just sit in a rocking chair, but instead he sits rocking in a rocking chair. Until, after almost an hour, he just leaves. What does it mean? David Attenborough describes it as a hard-hitting account of the humiliations we inflict on our primate cousins; Lucy Worsley interprets the sequence as an ingenious juxtaposition of evolution with craftsmanship; whilst Brian Cox lauds the variety of chair-rocking techniques employed as a fascinating exploration of rotational dynamics, up there with Gallileo’s model of the solar system. Or maybe it is combination of all of these. One thing is certain: no two people amongst the spellbound audience interpret the play in the same way.

And so, when the pandemic hit, and artists were forced to explore new ways of connecting audiences, there was much excitement over what this man would do (if Liam El Goog is indeed a young man – the way that undercuts the veracity of our perceptions being one of the most underrated achievements of the story). Would he find a new and innovative way to reach out to a new audience beyond the cramped confines of a studio space? Finally, a chance for the thousands, maybe millions, of people unable to get a coveted live performance, to experience for themselves the sight of a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sitting rocking in a rocking chair for fifty-six minute then leaving. But sadly, a series of ill-judged decisions on how to present this masterpiece through cyberspace has squandered this golden opportunity, and – I’m afraid to say – left his reputation in tatters.

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The Ike Awards hall of fame: 2017

Skip to: Leaving, Between You and Me, No Miracles Here, Cockroached

Theatre blog fans will remember that that when my list of theatre thing to cover suddenly dried up owing to this Thing In The News you might have heard about, I’d take the opportunity to catch up on something I’d been meaning to do for some time: backdate my Ike Awards to the start of my blog. The Ike Awards, I may remind you, are my equivalent to a 5-star review for a review publication that doesn’t use star ratings. I’d originally planned to go all the way up to the present, but I then discovered I liked the retrospective element: commenting on the plays I loved the most once more, years after I’d seen it. Sometime, it was interesting to see what happened next; sometimes, it was just fun to recall how good it was.

So I decided to leave a four,year gap, with the 2017 retrospective to come in 2021, long after the aforementioned Thing In The News is over. Spoiler: it’s still going on (sad-trombone.wav). But not to be daunted, let’s have a look at the year. A shorter list than usual, but also one of the most disparate.

Leaving

Sometimes I have predicted artists starting out will go on to great things and gone on to the proven right, but sometimes I proven wrong by the people I underrated Although Paddy Campbell’s debut, Wet House, was a big success, I wasn’t that enthused with what I felt was a lack of plot. What I underestimated, however, is just how good he was at the thing he does best, which is writing about what he knows. All of his plays were based on his experiences of working in social care, and this grew stronger, but it was piece of verbatim theatre that topped it all.

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Live reaction to the Sia film

Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)

6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.

So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:

  • Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I expected, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
  • The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
  • The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
  • The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
  • One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
  • To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
  • The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.

So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.

Goodnight.

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Don’t be mad at Seyi Omooba. Save your anger for Christian Concern.

COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.

I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.

And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.

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Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2020

REVIEWS: Skip to: Unmythable, Privates, Shit-Faced Shakespeare, West End on Sea, Savage Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Toby Belch is Unwell, Geoff Mead’s tours, Daphna Baram

Late to the party as usual, and this is is already becoming a footnote in the ongoing saga, but Brighton Fringe 2020 still deserves its place in the records.

Brighton Fringe 2020 might have escaped the fate of Edinburgh Fringe 2020, but it still took a major clobbering. There was a time – whilst Coronavirus projections were more optimistic and many theatres were predicting a September reopening – when Brighton Fringe might have been in a position to take the Edinburgh refugees and take the limelight usually reserved from the big one. In the end, it was touch and go whether a postponed autumn fringe would happen at all, for more than one reason. But in the end, it went ahead, with a lot of caveats over what going ahead actually means.

But whilst I did of course see what I could see and say what I think, the bigger story here is what this means for the future of the fringes. There were some questions over how fringes would work under current climes, and other questions over what this meant specifically for Brighton. And in my various visits to Brighton, I learned a lot. As such, this is going to be different from my normal roundup. Usually I would go straight into reviews; this time, however, the focus is on the fringe as a whole.

What I learned about Brighton 2020

So, this year I visited Brighton not once but three times this year. One was a two-day binge during fringe proper, one was as I happened to be passing through Brighton on my annual holiday, and other one I’ll get on to in a moment.

2020: the fragmented fringe

Without major venues such as Spiegeltent and major events such as The Lady Boys on Bangkok, what has the centrepiece of the fringe? What was the iconic image? Talk to any layman and the answer you’ll probably get is the venue on the beach. The Warren – normally Brighton Fringe’s biggest venue by a long way – used their expertise in constructing pop-up venues to create a socially-distanced outdoor venue on the beach. It was a huge gamble, verging on reckless, with less than a month between the Government’s go-ahead on outdoor performance and the opening of the festival. As it turned out, it was a great success, with an excellent turnout and attracting even bigger names than The Warren does in a normal year. In fact, hastily-planned pop-up outdoor festivals have been the big success story in an otherwise dire year. It’s a pity more theatres with access to outdoor spaces didn’t strike whilst the iron was hot.

However, The Warren Outdoors was not actually part of Brighton Fringe. They didn’t wait for a decision on a postponed autumn fringe, and arguably couldn’t afford to wait – it’s hard to imagine this working nearly so well had it run September-October instead of August-September. However, alongside The Warren Outdoors came their new year-round venue Electric Arcade, but although this ran events into October this too stayed out of the official fringe listings. As far as I’m concerned, this all counts as Fringe on an unofficial basis, but the lack of affiliation meant that Brighton Fringe lost out of registration fee income it could have done with. And it’s a reminder – similar to the Big Four in Edinburgh – that the Fringe’s power is not absolute, and for better or worse, temporarily or permanently, big venues can break away if they want to. Beware.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 2)

I realise there’s been a lot of things going on to distract us, but it’s time I did the follow-up to the Tyneside Cinema scandal I promised once we had an outcome. Just when everybody seemed convinced the report into allegations of sexual harassment would be a whitewash, the report came out – and it was bad enough to prompt the chief executive and chair of the trustees to resign. An action plan has also been drawn up with the Board of Trustees have adopted. This hasn’t settled every dispute – I will outline those shortly – but, crucially, Save Tyneside Cinema have changed their stance from hostile and confrontational, to working with the cinema for the best outcome.

The outcome for Tyneside Cinema is in my view the right outcome, with some give or take on a few details. But … are we learning all the right lessons? The arts industry was supposed to put an end to sort of behaviour this four years ago when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the theatre and film industries drew up plans to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And yet it has. It’s not just one bad apple either; around the same time there was a pretty bad scandal breaking about a Scottish ballet school. How is this still happening years after the entire performing arts industry vowed to put an end to it?

The answer I gave last time – the one I felt I could safely say at the time without danger of prejudicing the outcome – is that we got complacent. We collectively behaved like the job was done as Weinstein faded from the news. In particular we assumed that arts organisations forming better codes of conduct would do the job – an assumption that, in hindsight, now looks dreadfully naive. Now I can say a lot more about what this culture of complacency is and who should be doing better. And not everyone’s going to like this, because a lot of these people who are falling short have so far avoided any real scrutiny.

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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2020 Awards

Skip to: Best new writing, Most promising debut, Best adaptation, Most persuasive play, Funniest moment, Tearjerker moment, Best collaborative work, Most effective staging, Most memorable line, Best individual performance, Discretionary award, Best solo play, Best north-east production, Sporting behaviour award, Unsporting behaviour award, Best production

Hello, and welcome to the end-of year awards. First, the housekeeping.

As you might have gathered, this year hasn’t been a typical one for theatre coverage. I’ve only seen a fraction of the theatre I’d see in a normal year, and as a result, many of my categories only have one viable entry. As there’s only so much prestige you can have from winning a category against zero competition, I’ve decided that everyone who I saw this year will be rolled over to next year, when there will hopefully be some proper competition.

However, it would be a shame to not celebrate the theatre that did go ahead, so here are the scaled down awards. This time round, there are usually no runner-up spots, only winners, and I’ve left a few categories out where there wasn’t anything that stood out. But for those of you coming up in 2021, this is who’s currently top of the leader-board.

As this is a theatre blog and not a film or television blog, I have wherever possible stuck to the plays I saw in person rather than on a computer screen – however, there were a few times I’ve gone for something I saw online. So, let’s get started.

Best new writing

As always, the first award is from the strength of the script alone. Whilst there are some great performances attached to them, what I’m after here is something that any competent actors could pick up and make a great play out of it. As it happens, this was a very strongly-contested category, and many of the new writing plays I’ve listed in the later awards were good contenders here.

In the end, I went for Crossing the Line. I don’t normally consider plays I’ve seen in previous years, but the addition of the final chapter was what this play needed to make it complete. (I saw the first three parts two years ago, but I have pretty good idea of what the fourth chapter would have been had it been performed in person instead of online as was originally intended for Buxton Fringe.) It might not be obvious to someone who’s not that familiar with the difficult subject of child abuse – I only learnt about this myself in the process of bringing my own performance to Brighton and Buxton Fringes – but the thing writer Michael Sheath really had something to say about the mindset of many perpetrators: being sorry but really only sorry for being caught, and the idea that it doesn’t really count if it’s only viewed on a computer screen. Moralising is easy, but asking why is difficult – excellent job is trying to answer that question.

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The Snow Queen: the canary in the coal-mine

Kai's gran with puppet Gerda

Oh dear, theatre’s not having a great month, is it? So many theatres hedged their bets on re-opening in time for the lucrative Christmas season, only for this new form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Coronavirus to scupper many plans. Where productions have gone ahead, it largely came down to luck, and one of the theatres on the lucky list is the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, they’ve been extraordinarily lucky: as well as being in North Yorkshire that has so far evaded tiers 3 and 4, the unscheduled shutdown in November conveniently fell in a gap between their two major performances. Even in the process of writing, they’ve had yet another narrow escape.

But if any theatre deserves a bit of good fortune in their favour, it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I cannot think of any theatre that has worked harder to re-open its doors. Even back in April, they had plans on standby to get going as soon as possible whenever they were able to. That original plan (a touring Hull Truck production of Two) has since been kicked into the long grass, but instead they got going relatively quickly with a John Godber play, conveniently written by, rehearsed and performed by his family. From the government go-ahead to curtain up it was about two months, not quite as fast off the mark as the impressive/reckless three weeks achieved by The Warren Outdoors, but still way ahead of most theatres.

Paul Robinson described their situation as “the canary in the coalmine”; and it’s true to say that had the ticket sales not materialised – and there was no guarantee they would – it would have been a disaster. But the gamble came good. I cannot tell you if Sunny Side Up was any good because the entire run sold out weeks in advance, albeit with a much reduced capacity. But I was able to make it to The Snow Queen, their hastily-planned solo Christmas show, and I can now tell you how it works.

The first impression I had was formed way before making it to Scarborough. Even though the SJT would probably have sold out the run regardless, they really went out of their way to assure audiences they would be safe to attend, both with publicity and actual measures. Even if they were taking a gamble financially, they’d erred on the side of caution with the lurgi. They manage arrival times to avoid the normal stepping over other people already in seats. Also, similar to The Warren they made use of at-seat refreshments, keeping two of their six rows free to make this possible. One side-effect of this is that capacity is cut further – had they filled seats up to the legal limit I reckon they could have sold 50% more tickets. But no-one can say they’re being blase about safety.

The Snow Queen enchants puppet KaiBut anyway, what about the play? So, The Snow Queen is sort-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. It’s actually ten years since they last performed this story, last time directed by Robinson’s predecessor Chris Monks, but that was a faithful adaptation (back in the days when you could have people from more than one household on stage without fear of dropping dead). This adaptation, on the other hand, for both financial and plague-avoiding reasons, is a solo performance, with the story told by the Snow Queen’s arch-enemy, the Sorceress of Summer, played by Polly Lister. There is another challenge: normally a theatre would have two Christmas productions, one aimed as families, the other aimed at very young children. This year, when you’re lucky to have one production, it has to appeal to both groups. And this dilemma is solved quite cleverly by Nick Lane.

If this name sound familiar to you, Nick Lane has frequently been covered by me for three adaptations produced by Blackeyed Theatre. Two of them were quite faithful, but the one of note here is Jekyll and Hyde, where he introduced a completely new character and made it look like this was in the original story all along. He does something similar here. The Snow Queen is no longer a pawn of The Devil in an epic battle of good versus evil, but an embittered woman overshadowed by both her sister, aforementioned sorceress of summer, and the big guy in red. No-one likes winter, it’s all Christmas Christmas Christmas. She’s a very different character to the original, but if you didn’t know better you’d think this was how it was always written. What this does mean is that The Snow Queen can be hammed up to the level of panto villainess, plotting to put the nice children on Santa’s naughty list – seriously, we need fun theatre at the moment, children or no children – but without really dumbing down the tale.

Not everything new is disguised as the old. If you don’t know the story you’d probably twig the play has been transplanted to Scarborough (and the alternate world of “other-Scarborough”), Kai’s gran has been changed to a no-nonsense Yorkshire Nan, and there are various other obvious liberties taken such as the vacuous social-media savvy hashtag-obsessed wise women. One big change that’s not so obvious, however, are Gerda and Kai. In the book, Gerda is a heroic teenager on a quest to save her beloved. In this version, Gerda and Kai are just kids. Kai’s fateful gaze into the sky is now a dare he sets from himself to show he’s not a scaredy-cat, but the moments where Kai and later Gerda let their fear slip through their childish bravado is one of the most effective moments.

So, how do you do this as a solo play? Well, I counted eight characters Polly Lister played throughout the play, with some appearances of Gerda and Kai done with puppets. They went to town with the set, but by far the most praise went to her versatile performance. Some people have been amazed that you can do so much with one performer; me, not so much. Anyone who’s spent time at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that actors do solo performances all the time, and switch characters using any or all of outfit, mannerisms or puppetry. As long as the actor, writer and director know what they’re doing – and I’ve seen enough of Polly Lister, Nick Lane and Paul Robinson to be sure this was the case here – they don’t disappoint. It’s just a pity that this solution, that seems a no-brainer to anyone who knows the capabilities of solo plays, isn’t considered more widely.

A few niggles. Good though the set was, I’m not sure the end-stage configuration justified the loss of one third of the seating available in the round (unless seating was already limited by getting people in and out the building, in which case ignore that). And this was maybe a little less accessible to young children as it could have been. I realise a single production that appeals to all ages is a challenge, but there were maybe a few bits where she could have spoken not quite so quickly for the benefit of the younger children. And in the final three-way showdown, it started to get a bit confusing when Lister kept switching between Gerda, Kai and the Snow Queen. Having used the puppets so effectively earlier in the play, maybe they could have made use of them here.

But on the whole, it’s a great job done under the most challenging of circumstances at a time when many theatres didn’t even try. With little enthusiasm for any more theatre in the winter months, and so many unknown variables up in the air, no-one knows what theatre will be up against in March onwards. But if it’s anything like now, there’s a lot other theatres could learn from the Stephen Joseph theatre, in terms of both practicality and artistic value. They’ve demonstrated how you can run a theatre in these circumstances and how you can achieve so much with so few on stage. The canary in the coalmine has flown outside chirping in triumph.

Note: In the two weeks prior to the performance I saw, I was staying at my mother’s in North Yorkshire. Long story how this came about – don’t worry, nobody I know has been anywhere near anyone with Coronavirus – but I assure you there is a very good reason why I temporarily needed to stay somewhere safer.

The Snow Queen runs until 31st December. Very limited tickets, returns only. Also available for online purchase via the SJT website.