Chris Neville-Smith’s 2013 awards

So, another year, another list of awards to dish out. And this is where I have to get choosy. Normally, no matter how hard I try to be objective, the temptation is always there to say “Didn’t they all do well?” Not here. This time, there can only be one winner per category no matter how much I’d like to be nice to everyone.

Now, before anyone on this list gets too excited, a reminder of the rules. This is a set of awards with the largely arbitrary entry criterion that it needs to have been a play that I saw in 2013. It has a judging panel of one, that person being me, with the sole measure being how much I enjoyed it. If it’s any use, by “enjoyable” I mean stuff which I find intelligent and/or original without and still be fun to watch. In general, productions I’ve already seen in previous years are not eligible unless they have substantially changed.

To give you an idea of the competition there are 12 categories (11 good, 1 bad), and 67 eligible plays. Last year, there were a number of clear winners. This time, there’s a lot of tougher decisions. So, without further waffling, here I go: Continue reading

The Grand Gesture: suicide is big business

Victor Stark supposedly comforts Simeon Duff.

The latest McAndrews-Nelson collaboration from Northern Broadsides, an update of The Suicide takes a a long time to get going. But it’s worth it for the end.

There was a famous moment in history when a monk set himself on fire in Vietnam in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Since then, there have been many high-profile political suicides protesting against lots of things: Vietnam war, communism, nuclear war, women’s rights, and most recently austerity in the EU. Most suicides, however, are low-key non-political affairs – and such wasted opportunities. This, at least, is the premise of Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s play, The Suicide, where an unscrupulous landlord sells political soundbites on a tenant’s suicide note to the highest bidders.

Originally written and set in Russia, this play originally portrayed Stalin in a bad light. Not because there was anything against him personally, but because it made him go down in a history books as a humourless bastard (on top of less serious charges such as, oh, mass murder). The original play only made it into rehearsals before Stalin personally banned it, and had the director included in one of his purges a few years later. Contrast this to last year’s Northern Broadside pick, The Government Inspector: Tsar Nicholas I, normally a notorious autocrat, thought it was hilarious and overruled his own censors. Anyway, this unsporting behaviour of Mr. S and subsequent Soviet leaders meant the play had to wait until 1979 for a performance. And whilst The Government Inspector has enjoyed endless adaptations on the easily transplantable subject of petty local corruption, most performances of The Suicide remain set in Russia.

But in Northern Broadsides, Deborah McAndrews and Conrad Nelson specialise in transplanting classic plays to modern day northern England, and now it’s the turn of The Suicide to get the treatment. And so, The Grand Gensture begins with Simeon Duff (Semyon Semyonovitch in the original) bemoaning his unemployment. With his wife as the sole breadwinner, Simeon thinks he’s on the scrapheap. He talks about ending it all, and even gets a suicide note on standby: “In the event of my death, I blame no-one.” When his wildly optimistic dream to make it big as a tuba player collapses, he’s really low. Still probably not sufficiently depressed to be that serious but shooting himself, but why let that silly detail get in the way of a good commercial opportunity? Continue reading

What’s wrong with the Susan Boyle fairytale

Picture of Susan Boyle

COMMENT: Susan Boyle has Asperger’s Syndrome, and she has nothing to be ashamed of. What is shameful is the hypocritical way ITV treats anyone else who’s a bit different – I should know, I have first-hand experience.

This is a theatre blog. Occasionally, it digresses into other arts, but one thing I have zero interest in is the produce of programmes such as The X Factor. So when the news breaks that Britain’s Got Talent superstar Susan Boyle has Asperger’s Syndrome, that would normally not even register on my theatre blog radar. But on this occasion, I have to break this habit and say what I think, as I am in a unique position to comment on a discrepancy.

The Susan Boyle story, so we’re meant to believe, is about a woman who once lived in an impoverished area of Glasgow. She was bullied at school for being stupid and ugly and odd, and had nothing going for her. But she had a hidden talent, this amazing singing voice, and one day, she got her big break on ITV show Britain’s Got Talent, melting the heart of Mr. Nasty himself, Simon Cowell. And from then on, it’s an uplifting rags to riches fairytale. And now that we know she has Asperger’s syndrome, it’s now also an heart-warming story of how she overcame this disability. It’s an inspiration to millions, and, as ITV are only too keen to imply, she couldn’t have done it without them.

At face value, all of this is true. Everything said in tonight’s documentary I agree with. Except that this is only half the story. And this is where my personal interest comes in. And in order to explain why I have an interest in this, I am going to have to say a couple of things about myself that I’ve kept quiet about so far. Not because I want to hush up my past, but simply because I didn’t consider either thing relevant as either a play writer or a theatre blogger. Until now. Now it’s time to get two skeletons out of the closet. Continue reading

Some good news from Saltburn

Saltburn Community TheatreRight, whilst I am catching up on my backlog of news and reviews, here’s a bit of news from Saltburn. With all the cuts going on, there’s been a lot of bad news in financial terms for theatres. Darlington Arts Centre has already closed, and hopes of a re-opening are fading fast. Newcastle City Council proposed to cut all arts funding last year, and whilst this has sort-of been watered down, there’s question marks over whether this “cultural fund” at 50% of the old arts fund is any better. It’s unclear whether the Esk Valley Theatre will be able to maintain its professional programme after they lost their Arts Council funding. Even the famous Georgian Theatre in Richmond is in danger of closing. All in all, it’s not a happy time to be a theatre treasurer.

Well, for a change, here’s a bit of good news from my old home town. Last month, Saltburn Community Theatre managed to bag a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery through the People’s Millions. The People’s Millions is a public vote where two worthy organisations pitch their proposals to the viewers of local ITV news (Tyne Tees in this case), and it then goes to a public vote, with the winning getting the money. I must say I’m not sure we should be allocating money on an all-or-nothing basis in a series of head-to-head votes, and I suspect the real motivation behind a public vote is free publicity for the National Lottery, but hey, it’s good news. If it’s any consolation, the group Saltburn beat, the Royal Voluntary Society with their scheme for older men isolated rural communities in Northumberland, also got £50,000 as runner up with the most votes.

Continue reading

Lumiere Roundup

Lindisfarne gospels projected on to Durham Cathedral

So, Lumiere 2013 has drawn to a close. (Yes, I know this is rather late, but since mid-November I’ve been either busy or asleep. Here is my excuse.) And it’s not a theatre event so isn’t really in the scope of this blog, but as it’s Durham’s biggest and most high-profile arts event by far, it’s getting a review anyway.

So, as I’ve already said, I’ve been quite impressed with this year’s Lumiere. The line-up I think has been the best one ever, the crowd control measures broadly went to plan, and the numbers say it’s been more popular than ever. This has also been the reaction of most people I’ve spoken to. However, there were a few things that I and other missed from earlier festivals – possibly a side-effect of the crowd control, but nonetheless something missing. Anyway, I’ll get on to the later. Let’s start with …

Pick of the festival

This is a tough one, because there were so many different installations I liked, so I’m going to have to get picky. But no pick of Lumiere 2013 would be complete without Crown of Light (pictured above). That goes without saying; I hardly need state why. But in case you’re asking, it’s outstanding because it’s an excellent yet very simple idea of projecting images on the Lindisfarne Gospels on the walls of Durham Cathedral. But far from it being an easy thing anyone could have done if they’d thought of it, it took a lot of thought and skill, some very cunning projector arrangement to miss the trees, and some excellent choices of music to create the right atmosphere. And we get something that any artist dreams of, a centrepiece to a festival, hugely popular with the people who come to see it – and, what’s more, it’s something that is clearly associated with Durham that isn’t the usual stereotypes that dominate “local” art and and theatre. Need I go on? Continue reading