Blink: When happy endings aren’t enough

Publicity image from Blink

Phil Porter’s Blink  is one of the best plays to come out of the Edinburgh Fringe and you absolutely must see it if it’s coming your way.

I could end the review right here. Seriously, this play is best watched cold, without knowing a single thing about it. But if you must hear some spoiler-free reasons for why to go, the two flawed characters in it are thoroughly believable down to the last weakness, its 80 minutes is packed with more depth than most plays achieve in twice the length, and even a cold-hearted bastard like me was emotional by the end of it. Right. Stop reading. Buy your ticket now.

If you absolutely must read on, I will keep this as spoiler-lite as can be. Blink is billed as a dysfunctional love story. Normally, as soon as the word “love story” mentioned you should be wary. They are notorious for being crowd-pleasers where audiences will swallow any old tosh just so long as they get together at the end and live happily ever after. Maybe not so much theatre, but film and TV definitely. But this looked different from the start. The key image is of Jonah (Thomas Pickles) and Sophie (Lizzy Watts) sitting at desks outdoors in greenery. Interesting publicity images don’t always guarantee good plays; more often than not it’s a gimmick with no relevance to the story. Not here. Everything you see at the beginning is relevant later on. Won’t spoil it. Except for one detail.

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Counting the common mistakes

Infographic for script submission (click on link for details)

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this interesting article. Yes, whilst every man and his dog has their own pet theory about what makes a good script and bad script, one scriptreader has actually gone through the trouble of totting up from 300 unsolicited scripts which problems were occurring, and how often. The results make some very interesting reading, and whilst this will inevitably be swayed by the reader’s own preferences, it’s a far more reliable technique than claims that go “In my experience bad scripts make mistake X.”

This is about screen plays rather than stage plays, so this needs to be treated with a little caution. In particular, it’s unwise to dwell too much on a hero/villain format in a stage play. But, on the whole, I broadly agree with what’s listed here. Also there were some interesting stats, such as male writers outnumbering female writers over 10:1, and the big disparity between male and female leads. That is a serious problem throughout theatre, film and television, and I will return to this another day.

However, you might be thinking that by praising one reader for some openness about what’s being accepted and rejected, that’s an implicit criticism of everyone else who doesn’t. And I’ll admit you’re sort-of right. But rather than criticise, it better to set an example. So, here goes. Based on my own list of 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting, let us bring forth this list: Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like class?

COMMENT: There probably is an attitude that theatre is for the middle class and not the working class – but the root problem is a society that thinks in classes in the first place.

Devoated and Disgruntled logoLast month I attended the Empty Space’s “Devoted and Disgruntled North East 3“. I don’t have time to explain exactly how this event works, but it’s a kind of networking event based on the idea that the most useful bits of conferences were not the structured sessions, but the coffee breaks in between where people get to talk to each other in groups of mutual interest. Anyway, there were a number of interesting topics discussed, but perhaps the most interesting talk was about the so-called “class divide” in theatre, brought up by Joe Caffrey (as recently seen in Wet House and Cooking With Elvis). There are two different issues relating the class divide. One is the apparent class divide from participation in theatre, and the other is a class divide in people coming to see it. They are both important subjects – and in the case of participation, although I think it’s more to do with connections than class, I heard of a lot of dodgy practices going on – but this discussion was very much on the latter.

Now, before I go on, I should clarify when I say “working-class” or “middle-class” in this article, I am referring to people who self-define as one or the other. I personally think this obsession with class is bollocks. It’s an outdated concept based on a long-dead system where a land-owning “upper class” had all the power. Nowadays, hardly anyone calls themselves upper-class, with middle-class and working-class being split roughly 50:50. And that’s not really a middle, is it? And with few people being born into a career nowadays, what makes you middle-class anyway? Because your parents are middle-class? Because your income or savings is over a set amount? Because you shop at Marks and Spencers? I’m struggling to find a sensible definition. But, like it or not, people define themselves as one or the other, and many people defining themselves as working class are flatly ruling out going to the theatre because it’s not for people like them. People actually says things to this effect. However stupid you might consider it, it’s a problem we can’t ignore.

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Fun-size Dracula

Savannah Photographic: Blackeyed Theatre - Dracula &emdash;

Dracula is the last story you’d expect to be workable as a five-hander play – but John Ginman’s adaptation just about pulls it off.

For some reason, famous novels seem to be particularly prone to bad adaptations, on both stage and screen, at least amongst the ones I’ve seen. Of course, most novels are too long and detailed to fit into a play or film without substantial cuts, and it’s not always easy to make the right choice, but most of the time the butchering is inexcusable. There’s the predictable commercially-motivated interference such as inserting an unnecessary/inappropriate love interest, or dumbing down the plot to keep it understandable to the audience of idiots that only exist in the minds of the marketing department. But most irritating of all is changing substantial bits of the story for no apparent reason, even if they bit they cut was perfectly workable on stage or screen – I can only imagine these adaptation writers think they’re making it better.

So it was with some caution that I ventured to Harrogate to see a new stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel needs no introduction; the adaptation is a new one from Blackeyed Theatre on its first run. Adaptation writer John Ginman does not, thank goodness, attempt to impose pointless changes to the plot, but he did take a couple of decision that were a bit of a surprise. One might assume that an effective adaptation of the famous Gothic horror story would need elaborate sound design to make the play suitably atmospheric, and a large cast to accommodate the multitude of characters in the books. This play, does neither. There are no sound effects other than what the actors produce on stage, in a nod to how things were done in Victorian days. More importantly, by either boldness or recklessness, the cast is just five. That’s tiny for a novel of this complexity and much less than most adaptation. It is, if you like, the “fun-size” version of Dracula adaptations.

But whilst “fun-size” usually code for “disappointingly small” in chocolate, this adaptation is anything but disappointing. Blackeyed Theatre is not, as one might assume, a small-scale production economising on cast and technicians for touring purposes, but a well-established group with a large creative team behind it – and the small scale of the production is used as a strength rather than a weakness. The sound was produced entirely on stage, using singing, instrument, bells, and other things to produce something just as atmospheric as sound effects. And why not? This was, after all, how sound was done before there were loudspeakers.

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What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2014

OUT: Twee scene from Secret Seven; IN: World War One scene with soldiers being blown to Smithereens

Congratulations, folks, you’ve made it through December. And if you went to the theatre in December, chances are it was a pantomime and your head is still full of depressingly corporate jollity aims at excitable six-year-olds. But don’t worry, because the upcoming seasons of plays around the north-east promise to counterbalance this garishness. You see, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, so we’ve got plenty of World War One-themed plays coming our way. And with every one of the next five years bound to be the 100th anniversary of some pointlessly suicidal offensive somewhere along the trenches. we can all look forward to half a decade of unremitting misery, slaughter and despair on stage.

A reminder of the rules: this is a pick of plays I recommend that are showing in and around the north-east. It is mainly based on the strength of the previous work of the writer or the previous performances of the group, but sometimes a great idea might appeal to me. All other things being equal, smaller groups are more likely to get a recommendation than a lavish production at Newcastle Theatre Royal or Sunderland Empire, because the latter theatre get plenty of publicity elsewhere. The only thing which is disregarded is what other reviewers or theatre managers are endorsing – this is about my own recommendations, not a regurgitation of which plays cultured people are meant to enjoy.

So, kicking off my list is my highest recommendation possible for Northern Broadsides with An August Bank Holiday Lark. This play begins in an idyllic setting in rural Lancashire, where a rural village is commencing its annual Rushcart festival. No cares could be further from anyone’s mind in this sunny August. Unfortunately, the August in question in the one in 1914, and whilst everyone might so far have ignored that incident in Sarajevo last June, and all the subsequent fallout over that, that’s not going to be the case much longer. The next August celebration in 1915 is likely to be a very different one. But don’t worry, I’m not basing this recommendation on the most depressing storyline I could find. I am an recommending this based on Northern Broadsides’ two greatest strengths collaborating.

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