So, the 2012 awards are decided, who might be in line for 2013? Once again, I’ve been looking through the listings of the local theatres, and here’s what might be in line for a 2013 award.
First up on my recommendations is The Woman in Black. This is on a tour and will be calling at the north-east at Darlington Civic Theatre (4-9 February), York Theatre Royal (25 Feb – 3 Mar) and Newcastle Theatre Royal (20-25 May). I don’t normally make recommendations for big productions that include Newcastle’s Theatre Royal because in general they get enough publicity as it is. And, also, as you may have gathered from my lukewarm review of One Man, Two Guvnors, a show that comes highly recommended to me doesn’t always fully live up to expectations. But this time, you needn’t worry: I have seen The Woman in Black before, and I can confirm it’s good.
What’s good about the play is not only the strength of Susan Hill’s original novel, but also the strength of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation. Many West End plays based on books rely on elaborate scenes and special effects in order to try to reproduce the novel, but this does the opposite: it’s made into a play within a play, where the central character, now an old man, rehearses a re-enactment of his story of stage. With a cast of two men (plus a not totally insignificant female cameo), a relatively simple set and some clever special effect, it manages to produce something that is deservedly up there with the most successful West End plays without the razzmatazz of the others. One thing I would say is, if you can, try to see this in a smaller theatre. This is a play where, the closer you can get to the action, the better.
In March comes The Thrill of Love to the Stephen Joseph Theatre (13 – 23 March), a play by Amanda Whittington about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. This is a touring production from the New Vic in Stoke on Trent. There’s a very close association between these two theatres which I’ll probably go into another day, but the important one is that they’re both theatres in the round. But whilst the SJT is best known for Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, the New Vic has carved itself quite a niche with its own take on classic plays, such as Cider With Rosie, And a Nightingale Sang, and Bus Stop. Often including music, always beautifully choreographed, it’s about time they got a mention here.
Then in April there are a few things of interest. At the People’s Theatre is The Killing of Sister George (16-20 April), which in its day shocked the world with an implied lesbian relationship. The subsequent film adaptation, I am told, was a little less subtle about that, but the original stage version does not contain scenes of gratuitous lesbian sex. So don’t get too excited. Sorry for any disappointment.
But the historical shock value of the play is really just a sub-plot. Where this play was unexpectedly good was its uncannily accurate prophecy of soap operas. In the play “Sister George” is actually June Buckridge, who plays a popular character on a popular countryside-based BBC radio drama facing the axe. Admittedly, she isn’t doing herself any favours by being continually drunk and disorderly in public, but the real reason is BBC executives obsessed with audience figures, market research, and desperately not wanting to be seen as stale. Luckily for The Archers, this future never really came to be, but it’s pretty much what’s happened to … well, pretty much every soap opera on television. If this play was set today, you’d probably need a Christmas Day special where half the characters are wiped out by a freak tractor crash.
Round about the same time, Northern Stage is doing Blue Remembered Hills. Now, I have previously described this as a portrayal of Dennis Potter’s childhood in 1940s West Country, as charming and relaxing as any Dennis Potter play. Unfortunately, people completely missed the point and thought they were going to be watching something a bit like The Railway Children. So just to avoid any confusion, think of this a bit like one of those public service announcements they did in the 1970s. You know, the ones that went: “Kids. This child is playing on farm equipment. This is dangerous, and if you do it, this is how you will DEFINITELY die. [Pulls wrong lever, trundle-trundle-trundle-trundle-trundle.] AAAARRGGGGGHHHH! … That was a public service announcement. Now, it’s time for Andy Pandy.”
That bit of flippancy aside, this play, being a Dennis Potter play, messes with your head by having adults playing children. But there is a good reason for doing this: the idea is to show how children, when left to their own devices, can form alliances, power-struggles and pecking orders just as petty and vicious as those made by adults. It was originally a TV programme, but it has proved very popular as a stage play. Ground-breaking classic plays is Northern Stage’s area of expertise, so we should be in for a good performance here.
And finally, one bit of news I am thrilled about is that Caroline Horton’s Mess is touring, and will be stopping off at Live Theatre (30 Apr – 1 May) and Stockton Arc (2 May). I don’t really need to repeat what I’ve said before: I said I thought this might be good here, confirmed it was good here and here, and said just how good I thought it was here. Cannot recommend this highly enough. If you didn’t see it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, see it now. If you did see it at the Edinburgh Fringe, see it again.
So that’s your list up to April/May. Next lot of of recommendations will be coming in May, when I’ll not only have the north east theatres to look through but also the Fringe programmes.