The end of arts funding in Newcastle?

Newcastle City Council logoMost of you have probably seen this already, but for those who haven’t: Newcastle City Council is proposing cutting the arts budget by 100%. This is a significant – and quite worrying – development, far worse than any news we will hear from any other local authority in the north-east, because of the large number of venues concentrated within the Newcastle local authority area. There are five significant theatres in Newcastle: the Theatre Royal, Live Theatre, Northern Stage, the Tyne Theatre and the People’s Theatre. Then there’s all the other arts venues, such as Dance City, Seven Stories and the Tyneside Cinema. Confusingly, this doesn’t affect the Baltic or the Sage because, being the other side of the Tyne, they are funded by Gateshead Borough Council.

Needless to say, this is proving highly controversial both locally and nationally. Already Lee Hall (of Billy Elliott and Pitmen Painters fame) has weighed into the debate with a strongly-worded letter. Expect Labour Newcastle Council to blame the Coalition Government and vice versa. I remain of the view that arts have to take its fair share of the cuts, but it has been argued that arts in the north are suffering a lot more than their southern counterparts. In any case, a cut of 100% is, by definition, a lot more that its fair share. At the moment, it’s a proposal – whether this will actually go ahead is unclear.

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The accidental blockbuster

If there’s one thing that the 35th anniversary tour of John Godber’s Bouncers tells us, it’s that sometimes it pays handsomely to write about what you know.

It is often said John Godber is the third most frequently performed playwright after Shakespeare and Ayckbourn. It is also often said that critics don’t like John Godber. Neither of these claims are proven, but he certainly has one claim to be a hate figure. You see, whilst most writers – even the successful ones – spend year after frustrating year inching their way through one painstakingly constructed script after another before they get anywhere, John Godber knocked off Bouncers in two afternoons. This has since grown to be one of the most profilic late twentieth century plays, performed all over the world, and – the biggest prize of all – a set text text in secondary schools. Jammy bastard. (And, okay, it wasn’t all plain sailing; the original two-hander at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe bombed at the box office and the few critics who saw it either dismissed it or ignored it, but that’s the other capital offence: proving the art establishment wrong. Naughty naughty.)

Now in its thirty-fifth anniversary year, and the year when it is discovered that going out is still not horrible enoughBouncers, directed by the original author, has been touring the country under the banner of Watershed productions. John Godber has previously faced criticism for showing Bouncers virtually every year at Hull Truck long after people were sick of it, but there’s little doubt over the appetite in the rest of the country. At Darlington Civic Theatre, mid-week in the final stop on the tour, the theatre was mostly full. Not only that, but plenty of people stayed back afterwards for the post-show discussion. And it was clear the audience got it. Bouncers is not a piece of entertaining fluff, nor is it a production aiming to out-do other productions in shock value; the audience saw it, quite rightly, as a rather sad statement of the culture of drinking and clubbing every Friday and Saturday night.

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My good sir, he’s behind thee!

One Man, Two Guvnors is more of an entertainment show than a play – but should we be looking down on slapstick?

London Theatre. Hmm. I’m yet to be convinced by their offerings. Only a minority of West End theatres actually stage productions I could describe as theatre; most of the time it’s musicals with little interest in story or script and lots of interest in the spectacle and razzmatazz and celebrity names. Now, before anyone tries out out-pedant me and point out that the Royal National Theatre is not located in the West End part of London, yes, I am aware of that thank you very much. I am also aware that, unlike the West End, the National Theatre gets s subsidy which, in theory, allows it to take risks the West End can’t. But still, when you’re running large-scale productions in one of the most expensive areas of the country you have to keep one eye on the budget and ticket sales – arguably different from West End producers who have both eyes on the budget, but a constraint on artistic freedom nonetheless. Anyway, the National Theatre is current showcasing One Man, Two Guvnors to the country with a tour, having just completed its week-long run at the Newcastle Theatre Royal. So … does this justify my taxes?

This play is an adaptation of Carlo Goldini 18th-century classic The Servant of Two Masters. It’s a standard story of girl meets boy, boy meets girl, girl’s twin brother challenges boy to duel, boy kills prospective brother-in-law and flees to Venice, girl disguises herself as late twin bother to collect dowry money from his would-be-in-laws, late twin brother’s ex-betrothed gets engaged to new man, new man gets jealous when ex-fiancé (actually ex-fiancé’s twin sister, of course) shows on the scene. Just in case there’s insufficient scope for hilarious consequences, enter Truffaldino, a rather hungry servant who sneakily takes up employment with aforementioned boy and girl-dressed-as-boy, not realising they are looking for each other. Richard Bean transplants the story from 18th-century Venice to 1960s Brighton, and Truffaldino becomes the titular role of Francis Henshall. Unlike historical Italy, homicide by duelling is generally frowned up in 20th-century Britain, so the story takes place in the semi-seedy semi-underworld of the popular south coast resort, a society slightly more lenient with these sorts of discrepancies. Other than that, Richard Bean doesn’t seem to have fiddled with the story too much, with the core plot preserved in the adaptation.

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