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.

Artistic director Barrie Rutter has directed a string of successful productions, from Shakespeare to revivals of forgotten plays to new plays, not to mention his own performances such as his superb one in Rutherford and Son. During this time, Deborah McAndrew has been writing for what’s practically an autonomous sub-company with her own take on stories such as The Suicide and The Government Inspector. But so far, they’ve operated separately. This time, they are coming together, with McAndrew writing an entirely original play and Rutter doing the directing. Meanwhile, Conrad Nelson, who normally directs McAndrew plays, is involved as musical director, so we can expect the usual theatre/music fusion that we are used to – including, I gather, a lot of clog dancing. This is a very promising collaboration and I really look forward to seeing where it goes. This starts touring at the New Vic on the 7th February, then tours, including York Theatre Royal on the 1st-5th April, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 22nd-26th April.

(Full disclosure: I got a free ticket for this play through this blog, but I was already planning to put this on the list before I knew about that.)

Staying on the depressing World War One theme, the other upcoming tour I recommend is Birdsong. Sebastian Faulks’s novel, of course, needs no introduction. It is one of the most popular novels ever written, and if you have never heard of it, you must have been living on Saturn for the last twenty years. Like a the Bank Holiday Lark, everything was going along relatiavely nicely – in this case Stephen Wayford ambarking on an affair with Isabella – then August 1914 comes along. It’s been adapted for radio, television and stage, and the stage production, having been running for two years, tours to Durham’s Gala Theatre on the 10th-15th March and York Theatre Royal on the 24th-29th March.

Good novels do not always make good stage or screen adaptations, but this one has been running for two years, which usually means it’s doing something right. Also, this is the extremely rare breed of an actual play coming to Durham’s Gala Theatre. With the Gala Theatre currently performing functions as anything but theatre most of the time, the more we get good turnouts to productions like this, the more likely companies are to consider Durham a worthwhile stop on a tour. We in Durham should not be leaving it up to Newcastle Theatre Royal and Darlington Civic Theatre.

In fact, that’s enough World War One misery for now, so instead I’ll stick to the subject of the Gala Theatre, because for once I’ve seen multiple things in their programme that interest me. Next on my list is the Festival of the Spoken Nerd, which everyone who got an A in science must hurry to see now before this idea that geekiness=cool becomes a passing fad and it’s back to having your head flushed down the toilet for wearing the wrong brand of trainers … Okay, seriously, I saw this at Northern Stage last year and it’s surprisingly good. Ultimately, it’s just a talk on various interesting science subjects, but it is done in a way that is funny, easy to understand if you don’t have a science background, and contains a suitable number of explosions if that appeals to you. Also, speaking as someone with a science background, I can confirm that what they’re saying is correct (so no ear candles, homoeopathy, or anything endorsed by “Dr.” Gillian McKeith “PhD”), and there’s bonus in-jokes for science and computing nerds. This comes to Durham on the 12th February, and the Arc at Stockton on the 6th March.

And another non-theatre recommendation coming to Durham is The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) from the Reduced Shakespeare Company. For those who saw their famous abridged Shakespeare, you can expecting something not particularly taxing on the brain, but a lot of fun. I was going to stick at two recommendation for Durham, but after a week of rather stupid religious censorship, it’s time for the Streisand effect. Yet some silly councillors in Newtonabbey complained about the depiction of Biblical characters being offensive, which is quite amusing because: 1) The Reduced Shakespeare Company is a about the most inoffensive comedy ensemble you can find; and 2) no-one from the council seems to have a problem with Channel 5 recently broadcasting another take on The Bible which, err, depicts Satan as Barak Obama. But I don’t recommend going to protest again religious censorship. I want you to go because I think it will be good (and annoying silly councillors is a bonus). It comes to the north-east on the 15th March at Barnard Castle, and Durham’s Gala Theatre on the 3rd April.

Now for a late recommendation. If you’re in reach of Middlesbrough Theatre, I heartily recommend Blackeyed Theatre’s take on Dracula. I’ve seen this at Harrogate and I’ll be reviewing it shortly, but in the meantime, I suggest anyone in Middlesbrough aims to catch their March 12th performance.

Now, a recommendation from Newcastle Theatre Royal for a change. I don’t normally make recommendations from plays touring to the big two, because they get enough publicity as it is, whilst a lot of the production are commercial and formulaic. But one musical that certainly isn’t formulaic is Evita. It’s fair to say that Andrew Lloyd Webber does have a habit of churning out musicals long after a format’s been done to death, but I consider Evita to be one of his better ones, and one of his underrated ones. Nominally, Evita is about Eva Peron, the wife of Argentina’s one-time ruler Juan Peron, who lived in luxury whilst the rest of the country lived in poverty. In practice, however, it’s a story about Argentine politics in a time when governments were deposed in coup after coup after coup. You might think that a musical about politics in Argentina would be doomed to deadly dullness, but this surprisingly turns into the opposite. I’m not normally a fan of lavish big-budget productions, but if you’re going to see one, see this one, running on February 24th to March 1st.

Anyway, that’s leading up nicely away from non-war frivolity and back to doom and gloom. And the next recommendation is Catch-22 at Northern Stage. This is set in World War Two this time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for a smaller amount of mindless slaughter. Seriously, it’s a thriller, originally a Joseph Heller novel, which was adapted for the stage by same author. I know little about this play other than the famous phrase it coined, but I do know that Northern Stage have a good record for decent productions from classic scripts, so they’re unlikely to disappoint. It runs from 19th April to the 10th May.

And finally, it’s back to World War One misery. War Horse comes to the Sunderland Empire on the 30th April to 17th May. I haven’t yet seen this myself so I can’t personally vouch for how good it is, but it comes highly recommended by – well, pretty much everyone who’s ever seen it. I don’t think I need go on here.

So there’s the recommendations. Sorry for anyone who was hoping I’d find some nice things to see like The Secret Seven. Maybe next time.

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