How to appeal to local audiences without being lazy

Michael Chaplain’s Tyne may be popular locally but won’t have life outside of Tyneside. However, the hard work that went into this is an example for everyone else to follow.

This is one of the few plays I see where I’m not really in a position to say whether it’s any good. Tyne, Live’s contribution to the festival of the North East, is clearly aimed at the people of Tyneside, packed with stories and memories that the people of Tyneside identified with. It certainly was a box office success – almost every performance sold out – but those who’ve followed this blog will know how suspicious I am of local writing. Maybe my cynicism has been entrenched from years of the Gala Theatre’s “local” productions that weren’t even local (Durham council please take note: the people of Durham city do NOT consider themselves a suburb of Newcastle), but I’ve been very disillusioned by how formulaic a “local” play can be and still get bums on seats. The typical mediocre “local” play tends to have a very basic plot that could have been acted in 30 minutes rather than the two hours, and the rest of the time is spent talking about local references. And, worse, it always seems to be the same lazy predictable things referenced in play after play.

Well, this point of laziness is what separates Tyne from all these mediocre scripts. This play is essentially a collage of numerous stories, real and fictitious, past and present, from the banks of the Tyne. Some of the stories are passages from past local plays at Live, but much of it is local legends and even stories of ordinary people who the writer talked to. Most of these stories were things I’d never heard of, and the amount of work Michael Chaplin must have done is admirable. Thank God for a play that recognises there’s more that defines Tyneside than St. James’s Park and the Angel of the North.

There isn’t that much storyline, but that’s actually okay. I know I’ve just moaned about all these local plays with next to no plot, but in this case it was a sensible decision. Chaplin went for what I’d call a “container plot”: a brother and sister discussing their recently deceased father, whom the brother never really bonded with. Then the ghost of the father comes back and talks about all these things he’s seen on the Tyne. Next 90 minutes almost entirely dedicated to the mini-stories that this play is all about, before a small amount of time concluding the story. This is a very simplified description of the play, but it was a perfectly reasonable way to approach it. This is also a play with an ensemble cast who sing and play a variety of instruments. It wasn’t quite on the scale of last year’s Close the Coalhouse Door where the range of instruments played was staggering, but it’s still something that director Max Roberts can be happy with.

There is just one thing I was concerned about: the amount of self-indulgence. The play includes a visit to, wait for it, Live Theatre. Okay, Live is the only theatre actually situated on the Tyne and it has some interesting history, so fair enough. But then the play starts using extracts from earlier successful plays at … Live Theatre. Okay, okay, these were all scenes set in Newcastle, so there’s still an excuse for this. But we’ve just had Live Witness which was entirely about past stories of Live, and now this is getting a bit much. Okay, okay, okay, it’s Live’s 40th anniversary year season so I’ll make some allowances, but they’ve got to be careful not to overdo it. Live’s strength is taking risks with new plays, some of which do well. It would be a mistake for Live to keep dwelling on its past success like this, so I hope they don’t let this become a bad habit.

How does this play compare to Chaplin’s last play here, A Walk on Part? Well, I personally enjoyed that one a lot more. But there again, I’m a political anorak who finds memoirs of independently-minded backbench MPs far more fascinating, so I would do. With me only having minor connections to Newcastle, I guess I was never going to be in the target audience for this play. As such, it’s difficult for me to judge the merits of the play – save my observations that it was very popular with the audience who saw it so they must have been doing something right, and the amount of work that went into this puts other productions of this kind to shame.

But maybe there is one lesson that people from Durham can take from this. Clearly, when you write a play that strikes a chord with local people, and you do a good job, a lot of people appreciate it. So why not try this in Durham? No, not another one of the Gala’s so-called “local” plays set in Tyneside – how about someone doing like what Chaplin did for Newcastle, and compile stories, past and present, from people who make Durham what it is. Before you ask: no I’m not putting myself forward, I wouldn’t know how to go about doing this. But, surely, there must be someone in Durham who could do this. If there’s one thing Chaplin’s play shows for the rest of us outside of Newcastle, it’s a sign of what we’re missing out.