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.

Picture of Morgan and WestIf you have no idea what I’m talking about, your other Harrogate recommendation is Morgan and West: A Grand Adventure. This is a duo of Victorian time-travelling magicians, and out of the two shows of theirs I’ve seen, this was my favourite. It’s part play, part comedy and part magic show. It’s probably true to say that the best magicians are 20% magic tricks and the other 80% entertaining the audience, but their 80% is a good act and their 20% is so infuriating because I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for how they did that and I can’t work out how they did it. It’s a must-see-once for anyone new to this, and a must-see-twice for any killjoys who want to spot how they did it and then tell everyone else. That is later on the 16th October.

However, the show you absolutely must not miss if you live in Yorkshire is Inheritance Blues. This is performed by an obscure group called Dugout Theatre, who were all students not so long ago, but you’d never guess that to hear them perform. In a world where student fringe theatre is dominated by mediocre performers who vastly overestimated their talents, this is a rare gem that performs to the standard of fully professional groups. This got a glowing review from me at the Edinburgh Fringe, mainly because this is a multi-talented group who write a decent piece, choreograph the performance superbly, and – would you believe it? – they all sing and play instruments too. Trust me, this will restore faith in (ex) student theatre in even the most hardened of cynics. Catch this one night only, October 11th, West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Scene from The Woman in BlackAnd finally, moving away from fringe theatre to a major West End hit and yet uses many of the tactics that work so well in fringe theatre The Woman in Black. You can’t go wrong here. I’ve reviewed it from last year, but basically all the hype you hear about this play is thoroughly deserved. It was, for its time, a completely unconventional way of adapting a novel for the stage, but it work so well and make a far scarier play than lavish big-budget jobs that try to do the same. And it’s all done with a cast of two and half. It’s touring the country, but you will find it in the north-east on the 14th-18th October at Billingham Forum Theatre, 17th-22nd November at York Theatre Royal, and 19th-25th January at Darlington Civic Theatre (again).

Bold choices

And now, two plays that may or may not be any good. For these two plays, there’s reasons to believe it could be good, but not enough certainty to make it surefire success. Either or both could yet turn out to be disappointments. Or they might turn out to be absolute gems. That’s the fun of the bold choice.

So my first bold choice has just started. It’s Slipping by Claudine Toutiongi, and if this name sounds familiar, she was one of the writers from Screenplay which I reviewed earlier this week at the Stephen Joseph theatre. It’s a bold choice because it’s a new play by a largely untested writer. Her short play Bit Part was a promising start, but will this translate to a full-length play? Not many clues from the highly cryptic description in the programme, but the clue phrase are “life changing surgery” and how important it is to look “normal”. Possibly a play about the ethics of plastic surgery, but beyond that your guess is as good as mine.

So why this play over all the other new plays showing in the north-east. It’s because this will give us a lot of clues as to how the new writing programme at the SJT is going to progress. One of my gripes about new writing theatres is that the work tends to by stylistically identical – not only to other plays in the same theatre but often to plays in other new writing theatres. In particular, most of the time new writing theatres tend to shun comedy an inferior form of writing. The early signs are that SJT will not be doing this, but I’ll know better after seeing this. It runs until the 18th October.

And my other bold recommendation is Islands. This is a new play from Caroline Horton, who has so far given us the excellent You’re Not Like The Other Girl Chrissy and the outstanding Mess. It’s a bold choice rather a safe choice because this is a major departure from Horton’s comfort zone. This had to happen eventually; her two hits so far were based on real events, one of her grandmother, and the other of herself. But no matter how good your writing is based on personal experience, eventually you run out things to write about. Can she make the leap to a play that’s not about her own experiences? At least, I hope this isn’t based on personal experience. This play is about tax dodgers who domicile themselves on islands to achieve this, which is as far from personal experience as you can get, unless there’s something she hasn’t told us about her bank accounts.

I just hope this doesn’t fall into the trap of being a tedious opinion play – which, as I found out from Scarborough, can happen to the best of writers. I understand this is a “development preview” performance so the piece may still be under development, so my advice for Caroline would be as follows: Look, we’re all agreed that squirrelling away billions into offshore tax havens is Bad Thing™, so we don’t really need an hour-long rant about fat cats. I hope that the social comment here will be about how this is possible, and what could be done to stop this (which I suspect isn’t going to be nearly as easy as most people think). Or, better still, work a story into it. Anyway, I look forward to finding out what she had planned, and you can see this at Live Theatre on the 14th and 15th November.

And then it’s six weeks of pantomimes. Oh joy. You lucky lucky people.

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