So, all this talk of Brighton Fringe is all well and good for those of you who went down to the south coast, but what about the rest of you up here in the north east. It’s back to my coverage of north-east theatre, and as usual I’ve been scouring the programmes to find things to draw to your attention. To say so again, this is meant as a list of the best theatre in the north east: the vast majority of the stuff on offer is from people I’ve never heard of with plays I’ve never heard of, some of which will be great (and some of which will be atrocious).
One important reminder is that I give particular attention to plays that might otherwise not get noticed. I only occasionally highlight the big productions that tour from the West End because they get enough attention as it is. Blood Brothers, for example, has never made it to my list in spite of bring absolutely fantastic musical, because it’s always touring the north-east. (But since I mentioned it: 30th Sep – 5th Oct.) In fact, this time, for a change, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to highlight a couple of things where I’ve no idea whether or not they’re any good – but it’s highly significant where they’re being performed and why.
So the first play I’m going to highlight is The Moon Cannot Be Stolen. This, apparently, is a spoken word piece based on a grown-up writer/performer Kirsten Lucken read her younger self’s diary of her time in India. The title of this play is named after a zen story, apparently. With my scientific hat on, I do need to take issue with this claim that the moon cannot be stolen. Just because it’s one quarter the diameter of the earth and nearly 250,000 miles above the earth’s surface? That means nothing to the chavs on Sherburn Road Estate. You’ll only encourage them by saying this.
Anyway, enough flippancy. This have previously toured to many venues in the north east, including the highly prestigious Live Theatre, but the place it tours to in Durham is the far more obscure Empty Shop. As I reported back in 2012, the Empty Shop acquired a license that allowed its activities to extend to theatre, but until now its function was largely taking the student theatre overspill from the Assembly Rooms. To have secured a performance that’s touring such high profile venues is a major coup for the Empty Shop. This needs supporting because we could really do with putting Durham on the map for fringe theatre circuits. It’s next Thursday, 12th July, at 7.30. Don’t let us down Kirsten.
The other thing grabbing my interest is Screenplay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This is an interesting project where four writers do a play each loosely based around a showing of a film during the theatre’s previous incarnation as an Odeon Cinema. There are three ways you can watch this: either as an individual show (usually lunchtime), as in individual show immediately followed by the film it relates to, or as a set of all four plays. The performances show in the three different line-ups from the 1st to the 30th August.
Normally, I take little or no notice of these sort of new writing nights from people I’ve never heard of, because the experience – even after a prestigious theatre hand-picks what’s supposedly the best out there – is highly variable. So what is significant about this one? It’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s first serious attempt at developing new writers since Henry Bell joined as associate artistic director. So this could amount to nothing – or it could be the start of great things. Will SJT join Live Theatre again as beacon of cutting edge new writing? I don’t know, but it’s worth seeing how this quest begins.
If risky choices don’t appeal to you, a safe bet is Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice’s Evita, which returns to the north-east, this time the Sunderland Empire, on the 16th-21st June. I reviewed it when it came to Newcastle Theatre Royal, and it remains one of my favourite musicals as something with these relevant today as they were in the Péron era. It’s not a lavish scale production, but its a decent production that makes good use of a fairly basic set for West End expectations. The only expectation you might want to manage, if you’re used to the film version, is that this stage version can’t really reproduce the crowd effect with a company of that size. The only thing I’d advise against is the cheap seats – the experience at Sunderland is poor and you’ll probably lose all the action in the balcony. If you’re on a budget, wait until the next time it comes to Newcastle. If you can afford the expensive seats, Evita is a high-profile musical where it’s status is earned.
This is a short list for spring/summer, so I’ll look forward as far as September, which can still count as summer if you’re using the astronomical definition rather the the meteorological one. This means I have one final highlight on the list, which is Tennessee Williams’s famous Cat on a Hot Tin Roof showing at Northern Stage. I have been recommending a lot of Northern Stage’s main productions lately – and rightly so, they are of a high standard – but this one is actually a co-production between Northern Stage, Royal and Derngate and Royal Exchange. I am usually wary of these sorts of co-productions. Financially, it makes sense, because you can a same play at three theatres for the price of rehearsing one, but artistically you can end up with generic productions the show the individuality of none of the producing theatres.
So what grabs my attention? It’s directed by James Dacre, notable for two things. Firstly, unfortunately, yes, he is the son of Paul Dacre which makes him the grandson of Satan. However, much as hate to say anything nice about anyone associated with the Daily Mail, he directed last year’s The Thrill of Love which was nothing short of superb – partly down to the actors, partly down to the writing, but also down to the stunning staging and choreography James Dacre achieved. Provided his dad doesn’t take this one over and the ending gets re-written so that all the problems at the plantation get sorted out by those nice men from the Ku Klux Klan, we could be in for something great.
There are a couple more thing that have grabbed my attention, but they go on past September. Come back in three months or so for my Autumn/Winter recommendations.