The House of Usher: promenade Poe

House of Usher poster

The promenade performance of The House of Usher at The Empty Shop could easily have been a disaster. And yet, against these expectations, it came off rather well.

Blog regulars may have noticed I review very few student productions. When I’ve seen good student theatre, it’s been outstanding, but that’s a minority. Okay, I’m a strict marker, I don’t make allowances for not being amateurs, and at festival fringes I expect student theatre to compete with the professionals – but the fact remains that the good pieces of student theatre I see are considerably outnumbered by the mediocre, unfunny and horribly pretentious ones. So the only reason I went to see The House of Usher was curiosity. Ever since The Empty Shop got its souped up license in 2012, it’s hosted a few plays, a lot of it the overspill from the student Assembly Rooms. But so far, they’ve all used a single room as a performance space. With this one using the whole building, I thought I’d check this out.

Had this idea simply been pitched to me, I would have been sceptical. Devised theatre is hard. Student productions very easily get out of their depth. They are usually guaranteed a large appreciative audience from all their friends, but local enthusiasm can be a bad thing. As for a promenade performance as complicated as this one – going straight into the venue without an practice runs with a practice audience is extremely risky. On the whole, there’s so many things waiting to go wrong, the odds were stacked against them. And they, this lot have defied the odds, and put on a very ambitious play that, whilst not perfect, comes off rather well.

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Don’t rely on the Bechdel test too much

Scene from the new ghostbusters (okay, the old ghostbusters with four heads stuck on it)
Scene from the new Ghostbusters (honest), yesterday

COMMENT: The Bechdel test is a good guide for female inclusion in stage plays and screen plays. It should not be used as a gold standard for what’s “sexist”.

So, all-female Ghostbusters. That should keep the Twitter trolls on busy on both sides for a while. And since I prefer to keep my opinion posts on this blog combative and controversial, and I’m feeling a bit left out of all this mutual rage, let me begin by saying two things. Number one: I don’t care for the original Ghostbusters. And number two: I don’t care for Bridesmaids or the other films from Paul Feig. Hopefully that’s alienated everybody in the world, and the whole of Twitter can unite in hatred against me. Anyway, given my overwhelming indifference to all of this, I don’t really have an opinion on Ghostbusters Rebooted. I do, however, have views on the under-representation of females parts in screen plays and, to a lesser extent, stage plays. Yes, it is a problem.

Whilst you’re all still riled one way or the other, I’ll drop in my next inflammatory statement. I am strongly of the opinion that is it not the responsibility of writers to provide jobs for actors or balance under-represented demographics. It is their responsibility to write good stories. Sometimes a story will need an all-male cast, sometimes it will need an all-female cast. Most of the time, however, you need to accurately reflect the society we live in, which was about 50:50 male to female the last time I checked. And this is where I think writers are falling short. I suspect a lot of male writers are doing a lazy practice I call “male by default”. That is, every character is created male unless there’s a reason why any need to be female. Maybe some equally lazy female writers are doing “female by default”. But with the script writing profession dominated by men, it’s male by default that’s the problem.

So this is the sort of problem that the “Bechdel Test” is meant to address. Originally mentioned in a comic strip, an unnamed female character says she only watches films that meet three criteria:

  1. It has at least two female characters.
  2. These female characters talk to each other.
  3. When doing so, they talk about something other than men at least once.

Anyway, what start off as an off-the-cuff remark is now all the rage. Bechdel is a household name, even if you don’t know Alison Bechdel who drew the original cartoon. Virtually any play, film, or book will be scrutinised for the Bechdel Test at some point. There’s even a whole website dedicated to dividing all movies into those Bechdel and non-Bechdel compliant. So popular has it become that it’s pretty much treated as the gold standard for gender diversity in films. And that’s where we hit problems. It’s one thing to use it as a rough guide, but another this to use it as a definitive yardstick. Continue reading

The Uncurious Incident of the Hit from the National

Scene from the play, with road map of London on the back wall

With a high-profile theatre and high-profile playwright taking on high-profile novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, expectations were bound to be good. And, yes, it is really really good.

Okay, the Theatre Royal doesn’t exactly have the most adventurous programme in Newcastle – much it of it is celebrity-cast revivals and jukebox musicals – but touring productions from the National Theatre have a good reputation.  So when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time came along, I thought I’d give it a go. Mark Haddon’s story is, of course, already a runaway success as a novel, and whilst some books are absolute buggers to make into plays (such as Birdsong), this heavily character-driven story was ideal for a stage version. And on top of this, the adaptation was written by legendary playwright Simon Stephens. Oh, and the director is Marianne Elliott, who you might have heard of as the director that oh so obscure piece known as War Horse.

So, legendary novelist, legendary book, legendary theatre, legendary director, legendary playwright: what could possibly go wrong? Nothing, except for sod’s law that seems to dictate that whenever the expectations are this good, they somehow manage bugger it up. Well, don’t worry. Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott do not disappoint.

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