What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2012

This is an occasional feature I plan to include in between the reviews. This is because reviews are all well and good, but with most plays I go to see having a run of a week or less, by the time I get round to writing about the good ones it’s probably going to be too late to go and see it. So these “watch worth watching” articles is my pick of plays coming up that I haven’t necessarily seen, but I have reasons to believe will be good.

Bear in mind, however, that I accept no responsibility if I recommend a play that turns out to be abysmal – this has happened before. Caveats aside, the spring/summer programmes for most theatres are now out, and this is what’s grabbed my interest.

Coming up first is Geordie Sinatra, showing 18th April – 12th May at Newcastle’s Live Theatre and then the 18th May – 2nd June at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. You may have noticed there have been a number of cross-theatre collaborations like this one lately. One effect of the cuts to the arts is that many producing theatres have taken to sharing productions with like-minded theatres. I’ve mixed reactions to this: on the one hand, it’s impinging on individual theatres’ originality; on the other hand, if a production’s good, it seems a shame to only present it at one theatre. But this is a particularly interesting collaboration.

The writer, Fiona Evans, first came to my attention with We Love You Arthur in 2005 when it came to the Durham Literature Festival. The play itself wasn’t anything outstanding, but in this play and subsequent productions I noticed two important things. Firstly, on the many topics where she clearly wants to say something, she makes an effort to portray the other side’s arguments fairly and accurately. Secondly – and crucially – she learns from her mistakes. We Love You Arthur was let down by the slow-moving plot, but she is now far more disciplined with her pace.

Fiona Evans previously worked with Live with Geoff Dead:Disco for Sale and SJT for The Price of Everything. Live Theatre is nothing usual by a new play at SJT is – it is very rare for them to premiere new plays other than Alan Ayckbourn’s, and rarer still for playwrights who aren’t already megastars. There is a theory that she only came to SJT Artistic Director Chris Monks’s attention because she happened to write a play called Scarborough – it could just as easily have been called Whitby, in which case, who knows? But, hey, it worked, and The Price of Everything is a good play. In fact, Chris Monks himself is directing this play, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre is going to be temporarily concerted to a cabaret-shaped stage for the duration of this performance. One word of warning though: the last play was a rather joyous little number about that bloke who lost a lot of money and then shot his family and burnt his mansion down. Apparently, this play is about dementia, so don’t expect to leave the theatre with a spring in your step.

Staying with Live Theatre, they are joining forces with their neighbours at Northern Stage to present a joint production of Close the Coalhouse Door by the late Alan Plater. I generally play little attention to plays with a “local” theme, partly because they’re done to death and partly because half the time they seem to consider a reference to the Angel of the North and/or getting cut off by the tide on Holy Island an acceptable substitute for a plot. Alan Pater is, however, has a long record of critically-acclaimed plays, and I can certainly vouch the one I’ve seen, Only a Matter of Time, is outstanding.

This is a new version with music by Alex Glasgow and additional material by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot, Spoonface Steinberg and Pitman Painters fame). Whether or not this adds to the play is yet to be seen, but having seen how Northern Stage managed Our Friends in the North back in 2007, I’m quietly optimistic about this. It runs from the 13th April to 5th May at Northern Stage, but if you miss it in Newcastle you can also catch it on the 12th-16th June at the Gala Theatre in Durham.

Later in May (22nd-26th, to be precise) Avenue Q comes to Newcastle Theatre Royal. This, as you may guess from the publicity, is a parody of Sesame Street, and appears to be a collection all the things Sesame Street ought to have taught children but never dared. Be aware, though, this play is not for the easily offended. Or even the moderately difficult to offend. In in doubt, I recommend listening to Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and decide for yourself.

Finally, going back to Scarborough, between the 3rd August and 1st September we have Soul Man, which is in fact an adaptation of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Victor Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse. Before Chris Monks was artistic director of SJT, his claim to fame was unusual adaptations of musicals, such as the mafia version of The Pirates of Penzance and the cricket version of The Mikado, both which were good fun to watch. But the one that’s really impressed me was Carmen, which not only transplanted the story from a cigarette factory to a shopping centre, but also – far more importantly – re-told the story in a way accessible to people who don’t follow opera. Unlike his previous musical offerings to the SJT, this is a brand new adaptation and not just a number from the back catalogue. With opera far too often made incomprehensible to people who don’t already know the music inside out, I look forward to seeing what Chris Monks has done this time.

So, here’s what I’m most looking forward to seeing. Will they be any good? I don’t know. So use my advice at your own risk.

UPDATE: I’ve now seen Geordie Sinatra and you can read my verdict here. I won’t be reviewing Close the Coalhouse Door just yet because it’s sold out at Northern Stage. Sorry. Hopefully I’ll catch it at Durham and review it then.