Roundelay: Ayckbourn back to his best

Scene from Roundelay (the Judge)

Five one-act plays performed in a random order might look like a novelty, but the interlinking in Roundelay makes this the best thing Alan Ayckbourn has done in nearly five years.

Observant readers to this blog have noticed that, so far, I have never put an Ayckbourn play at the SJT into my What’s Worth Watching recommendations. Which might seem a bit odd to people who know that I’m a big Ayckbourn fan. There are two reasons for this, and the first is that every new Ayckbourn play gets loads of publicity and I prefer to concentrate my plugs on more obscure writers who need the attention. The second reason, however, is that it’s difficult to tell which new plays will be the must-sees. Alan Ayckbourn’s not had any totally new ideas for some time, but that’s okay because he keeps putting together old ideas in new ways and can still produce masterpieces, the last one being My Wonderful Day in 2009. Since then, however, we’ve have plays with ideas that didn’t quite work out, plays that did work out but had obvious derivations from old ones, and combinations of the two.

Truth be told, I was sceptical about Roundelay. This was billed as five one-act plays, so already I wondered if we were headed for a re-hash of Confusions. The difference from its predecessor was that the plays are to be performed in a random order, with the plays interlinked in a way that works in any order. I wasn’t sure about that at all. We know from Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests trilogy that he’s the master of interlinking – and yet, for all the cleverness of linking three plays with a concurrent timeline and the same casts, I was never convinced that made the plays much better for the audience. Would Roundelay be a piece that took great writing skill yet provided a mediocre play? Would the random order just be a novelty? One might think so if the lukewarm reviews in the broadsheets are anything to go by, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say this is the best new Ayckbourn play I’ve seen for nearly five years.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: James Dacre does it again

Scene from the play, with a really really really white set

James Dacre’s take on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Northern Stage is thoroughly faithful to the script, and yet is staged in a way that make the plays his own to great effect.

Northern Stage does many things, but their speciality is classic plays with their own take on it. Sometimes they stage it in a way that’s not to everyone’s tastes (Blue Remembered Hills), and sometimes they pick plays that I think are now dated (Look Back in Anger), and they’ve got a relatively easy ride compared to nearby Live Theatre who stick their neck out with new untested plays. But on the whole, Northern Stage have an excellent record of doing what they do well, with a decent run of Catch 22 just under their belt. But Cat on a Hot Tin Roof got me particularly excited because this is directed by James Dacre, who was behind the superb The Thrill of Love from the New Vic last year. And a large part of the superbness came down to Dacre’s directing. And I am pleased to say that he did not disappoint in Newcastle.

Tennessee Williams might be a more specialist taste than many other famous writers of the period, but he was certainly one of the boldest. In a way, much of his writing was ahead of his time. Most famously/notoriously, he routinely dropped casually racist language into his plays, not because he thought it was okay, but because that’s the way things were. (For anyone not convinced by that, Sweet Bird of Youth is a good example of a play that portrayed the racist politician as the clear villain.) Then there’s subjects which are uncomfortable today, such as rape (or sex with questionable consent). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, however, leaves both of these subjects alone for a change, and instead touches on the then-taboo subject of homosexuality. In the back-story is some sort of relationship between Brick and Skipper, friends and team-mates at College American Football. They might have had those feelings for each other – or they might simply have been close friends and it was just the way other people perceived it. Either way, the consequences were very real: Maggie, Brick’s wife, grew jealous of this friendship, Skipper slept with Maggie purely to show he wasn’t like that, and later killed himself out of guilt.

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It’s time for Durham to support its local talent

Fusion installation at Lumiere
Fusion by Mick Stephenson, a Durham artist, commissioned for Lumiere. But sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule.

COMMENT: Durham is great for high-profile festivals but poor at supporting local talent. With a welcome funding boost coming, now is the chance to change.

Durham city has built up a good reputation for arts festivals. Underway is the popular annual Book Festival, with big names from all over the country. Earlier this year were Brass and The Streets, and next year the hugely successful Lumiere will return to Durham. The future of these festivals was in doubt, because they were heavily dependent on arts council national portfolio funding. But fears were quelled when funding was actually increased at a time when overall national funding is being cut.

So what’s not to like? Well, at the risk of being a party pooper, at the time the funding was announced, I pointed out that funding in the north-east is still vastly weighted towards Tyne and Wear, with over 80% of the funding going to a county with only 40% of the population. That raised the question of how much north-east talent is going to waste – a complicated issue that I will return to another day. But before we can solve that problem, I think there is another problem that needs addressing first, which is that there is next to no support for local artists with the funding that County Durham already gets. This is a pattern I’ve observed throughout the county council, city council (when it existed), arts organisations and funding bodies – they may even be doing more harm than good for the local talent.

The thing about Durham’s arts scene is that its support is almost entirely directed at its big festivals. And the big festivals almost entirely draw in their artists from outside the county: usually outside the north, often London, frequently international. That’s great if you’re trying to create a world-class international festival, and it’s great for the people of Durham to have these on their doorstep, but it’s hopeless if you’re trying to do something creative yourself. And then comes the really bitter pill. On virtually every occasion that a north-east artist is commissioned for a high-profile event in Durham – it won’t be Durham artist. It’s almost always someone from Newcastle. Even when it’s writing about events in County Durham. It almost feels like County Durham arts is more Newcastle-centric than Newcastle itself.

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What’s Worth Watching: autumn/winter 2014

So, still not cleared by backlog of plays, but before then I’d better catch up on what’s coming up in the north-east that’s worth a punt. This time I’m going to do it a little differently. I’m taking a leaf out of Fringeguru’s book, and splitting my picks into safe picks and bold picks like they did for the Brighton Fringe. So without further ado …

Safe choices

I’ll begin with descriptions of plays where I’m giving a firm call in advance. This does not mean I guarantee that everyone who sees it will like it – no play ever pleases everyone’s tastes – but I am saying that if you like the sound of this play from what I’m saying and how they describe themselves, then I’m confident you will enjoy it if you go and see it. Most of my recommendations this time are shows touring fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe. And two shows are coming very soon to the Harrogate Comedy Festival at Harrogate Theatre. Although this is a theatre blog, these two things are on the theatre/comedy borderline.

For a start, there’s Knightmare Live! coming on the 5th October – yes, that’s this Sunday so you’d better get a move on. I’ve seen this and reviewed this at the last two Edinburgh Fringes, but if you haven’t got time to read them, it does what it says. Ir’s Knightmare. On stage. Yes, you know, Knightmare, that show on Children’s ITV in the early nineties. Complete with a dungeoneer and two advisors who know nothing about what to expect. Really, that’s all you need to know. I gather there was a show at the Stockton Arc also planned, but that seems to have been cancelled owing to lack of interest. The people of Stockton must have had deprived teenage years if they never had the chance to watch this. Continue reading

Summer at SJT: Screenplay, Boy Who Fell Into a Book, and Cox and Box

Poster image from ScreenplayTurning my attention to my backlog of post-Edinburgh reviews, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, as always, has had a busy summer, with three plays on the go over August. This visit was a memorable one, not least because – in the theatre – someone managed to mistake me for Alan Ayckbourn. I kid you not. (I won’t embarrass the individual concerned by saying who he was or how this misunderstanding came about.) But enough of that, back to the plays. One is a new venture going in the right direction, another is a tried and tested venture, but the third is going in the wrong direction.

I’m going to start this roundup with Screenplay, which may not be the most high-profile of their shows, but it is the most interesting – and arguably the most important. This is the flagship event of the new writing programme from recently-appointed associate director Henry Bell. This arose from a script call last year, and a group of short-listed writers were invited to write a short play with an over-arching theme of cinema since the opening of the original Scarborough Odeon. (It also had to use the cast of Cox and Box, which I will get to later.) From this, four ideas were chosen, developed into four plays (either as four stand-alone lunchtime pieces or a quadruple bill), and here we are. So, how does it do?

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