Sorry for the delay getting these recommendations out. I had intended to do this last week, but this got put on hold after the dreadful events going on in Paris. I wrote my thoughts on this last week. It’s a long article, I’m not going to ask you to read the whole lot, but for all the artists out there who haven’t spoken out on what happened to satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, you should do. A lot of people are fast to condemn the murders but slow to condemn censorship of arts through threats of violence. It is a serious problem too in the UK, from Behtzi ten years ago to The City last year, but too many are turning a blind eye if they don’t support the views of the artist being told to shut up – some people even blame the artist for bringing threats of violence on themselves. This must stop. We should all take a stand against this, whether or not you agree with the views under fire. Fail to speak out now, and one day it could happen to you.
Okay, enough of a digression. Let’s get on with the recommendations. Here are the plays that have caught my attention up to and including May 2015 (excluding the Brighton Fringe, which will be covered separately). Once again, there’s quite a lot. I am going to stick with my format of safe choices and bold choices. Safe choices are plays that I am confident you will enjoy if the description of the play appeals to you. Bold choices are ones which may or may not work out, but have the potentially to be great if all goes well.
So, starting with my ultra-safe pick which I’ve seen before and therefore know exactly what to expect, it’s Birdsong. This came to the Gala Theatre last year. I hadn’t read the book and I was sceptical, because I know there are many mediocre adaptations for the stage or screen where the sole selling point is the famous book title. People who had seen the book, on the other hand, were sceptical because they thought you couldn’t possibly make a novel this complicated work on the stage – including Sebastian Faulks himself. But Rachel Wagstaff had a go anyway and the Original Theatre Company produced and – would you believe it – they’ve done a good job of it.
I reviewed it last year, which you can read here. Short version, it’s a story that cuts back and forth between central character Stephen’s doomed affair with married Isabella, and the war a few years later. What’s the name of that river where they had their picnics together? The Somme – that’s a nice name. It’ll be always be known as a beauty spot, won’t it? It doesn’t quite match the tension of bespoke stage plays such as Journey’s End, but if you liked plays such as that one, you shouldn’t be disappointed with this. And you don’t need to have read the book. This national tour will take in Northern Stage on the 23rd – 28th February, Darlington Civic Theatre on 10th – 14th March, and West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 12th-23rd May.
The other production I’ve previously seen is Donna Disco. This is from one of Live Theatre’s golden boys, Lee Mattinson, and it was originally a Live Theatre-backed one-woman show that went to the Edinburgh Fringe. In this show, Donna is a girl who is at the secondary school with a very strict pecking order. Poor old Donna finds herself at the bottom, which means everyone else can write things like “Donna eats shit”, and any attempt to break this pecking order carries deadly consequences. But after forming an unusual friendship out of school, she discovers herself. If you like your inspirational stories, you’ll definitely like- … actually no. It’s not quite a life-affirming inspirational play, even though it spend a lot of the time looking like one. I think this might appeal more to fans of a certain Lee Hall play, but I won’t say which one as that would be a spoiler. But it’s a good play. Trust me.
This production is down as Chicken Pox Fox productions, but it’s basically the same team as the original Live Theatre production, with the same writer, producer and performer. You can catch them at Live Theatre on the 26th-28th February before it embarks on a national tour.
Now for a John Godber play: Teechers, from Blackeyed Theatre. Teechers, along with Bouncers are the two Godber plays that are endlessly toured and revived, both by Godber and others. To some extend, both of these plays owe their enduring successes to a lucky guess of subject material. For Bouncers, the subject material of nightclubs has not changed in decades. Teechers, on the other hand, is a play within a play, where three school leavers put on a show obviously based on their own school. It’s a sink school that no-one want to send their children to, those who can live in a nicer catchment area do, most of the teachers want to leave, and a new teacher who comes to the school with the best of intentions loses heart in less than a year. And it’s sad to say that, if anything – with all these academies and free schools are parents’ rights to send their children to the best schools – the play is more relevant now than it’s ever been.
I don’t normally make recommendations for Bouncers and Teechers, because these two are toured so often by so many groups there’s usually one or both coming up somewhere. But I’m picking out Blackeyed Theatre on the strength of Dracula, which I saw a year ago in Harrogate. Clearly, when it comes to plays with small casts playing lots of characters, they know their stuff inside out. So you can be confident they’ll do a good job of this. The tour takes in Middlesbrough Theatre on the 26th February, then Durham’s Gala on the 27th and the Alnwick Playhouse on the 28th.
And finally, for once I’m going to make a firm call for a play I’ve never heard of: What Falls Apart at Live Theatre. Whilst I’ve not heard of the play, I have heard of Torben Betts, the writer. I saw The Swing of Things back in 2007 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (a dinner party for old school friends with a public hanging scheduled), and although that play was let down a little by close similarities to an Ayckbourn format, it was still a good play showing a lot of promise. Then there was Invincible last year at the Orange Tree Theatre (a play where a middle class couple try to introduce their less socially fortunate neighbours to the joys of canapés and classical music what-nots), which I really wanted to see but I wasn’t in London at the right time – but I nonetheless heard many good things about it.
This play shows at Live Theatre from 22nd April to the 16th May, and deliberately coincides with a very important political event on the 7th May 2015. (Note: if you not sure what important event happens this May, maybe this play isn’t the one for you after all.) This promises to involve an ex-Labour politician trying to win hearts and minds in the north-east. Torben, I’m putting a lot of faith in you here. Please please please please please don’t come to Newcastle with a political hobby-horse instead of a play, because I don’t think I can withstand another one after last year’s barrage. If he gets this right, however, might even be in line for something as good as the brilliant A Walk on Part from 2011.
Oh yeah, and to the cast of this play: as a matter of honour, you must to stay up throughout the night on the 7th watching the results. And you’re not allowed to go to bed. And then you’ve got to do the performance on the 8th like nothing’s happened. Go on. I dare you.
Another play coming to Live is Day of the Flymo. This is a follow-up play from Paddy Campbell who has had a very successful time with Wet House. I didn’t share the runaway enthusiasm of most of Newcastle – I felt the good premise for a story would have fared better had it avoided giving away so much information in the first few scenes – but it was still a decent play and I certainly can’t argue with the result. This time, he’s done a play about children being moved from parental care into social care, and features a mix of youth theatre and professional cast.
It’s a bold choice rather than a safe choice because it’s a new play from a newish writer, and just because the last play was a smash hit doesn’t make this one any easier: the advantage that you’ve penned a runaway success is cancelled out by the stubbornly high expectations everyone now has of you. Paddy has stuck to writing about what he knows, as he did for Wet House, which should work in his favour, but, boy, the stakes are high here. The reaction to this could determine whether he stays a one-hit wonder or goes to better things. We’ll see. Catch this at Live on the 8th-11th April. And good luck.
And finally, I’m going to really stick my neck out and recommend The Thrill of Love at the Royalty Theatre, Sunderland. I saw the New Vic’s original production back in 2013, and I liked it so much I named it the best play I saw that year. This is a play from Amanda Whittington about Ruth Ellis, but unlike all the other plays about Ruth Ellis, this story is told entirely through the women in her life – the man she shot never appear at any point. The New Vic version was also mesmerisingly staged and exquisitely choreographed. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that there’s a set list of plays deemed beyond the abilities of amateur groups, but this is a massive challenge to take on.
But, do you know something – I think director John Appleton may have what it takes to pull this off. I saw him do The Day After the Fair two years ago, and I really liked the way he did that. The worst way you could possible produce The Thrill of Love is as a static play where it’s all about remembering all you lines and standing in the right position. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m confident he gets that there’s far more to a play than that. Now all we need is staging to match James Dacre’s innovation and a lead actress to rival Faye Castelow stunning performance. So, no pressure John.
Hopefully this should keep us all busy up to the summer. Look forward to seeing how these work out. And, of course, I really look forward to stumbling across some gems I’ve never heard of.