Apologies to anyone waiting for my Brighton Fringe roundup saying how great you were – that’s going to have to wait a little longer. Right now I’ve got to hurry up with my recommendations for the summer months for theatre back here in the north-east.
This list covers plays up to the end of September. There’s a play or two I have in mind that’s programmed in the final quarter of the year, but that will come in my next list. Yet again, please treat this as a cross-section of good plays on offer than an exhaustive list – there will be some good plays I’ve never heard of. You also won’t find recommendations for the Edinburgh Fringe (or Buxton fringe) here – that is coming later.
Sticking with my current practice, there’s my lists of safe choice, bold choice, and a completely new category. Read on …
This season coming up, I have three picks that I’m sure you’ll like if this description appeals to you. They’re all plays I know, they’re great, and I trust the performing company to do the best possible performance. This time round it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre who’s in the most limelight. With this being the SJT’s 60th anniversary from the opening of their original Scarborough Library Theatre, they’re doing a high-profile season of their greatest hits, and out of the hits, there’s two plays that really stand out.
Their headline piece is The Woman in Black. This comes to the north-east at least once a year so I’ve stopped highlighting every visit, but there is a particularly special link to Scarborough. If you don’t know the link, you probably won’t guess, but that’s where it all began, in the tiny studio theatre in their old Westwood site. I won’t spend time here telling you how wonderful this play is because everyone else will tell you the same thing, but this run is special because it will be quite close to how the original performance would have looked, before the extras they put into the bigger stage productions. This runs from the 19th June to the 2nd August, and this is one-off chance to see a piece of history recreated. But you might want to book early, because it’s in the smaller McCarthy auditorium, and we can safely bet there’ll be a lot more people queuing up for tickets this time than there were in 1987.
And the other surefire success coming is a revival of Tim Firth’s Neville’s Island, this time emerging from the depths of 1992. Tim Firth is one of these writers where I knew lots of his plays before I knew the writer. After seeing his one-act A Man of Letters, which I loved, I looked at his credits and thought: “I never knew he did Calendar Girls. And Cruise of the God, did he do that too. Oh, and he did Flint Street Nativity as well?” Anyway, Neville’s Island is a play set on a corporate bonding camping trip. (And, somewhat infuriatingly, I learnt of this play one month after completing my play about a corporate bonding trip and thinking I’d been really original. Ah well.)
This play is nominally about four middle-aged middle managers who get themselves marooned on an island in Derwent Water, but the real story is the tensions that arise between the four men: the well-meaning but incompetent one who got them marooned, the man with too much time for gadgets and not enough time for his wife, the one who turned to devout Christianity to escape his troubles, and the joker who bullies and belittles the others. And, being an SJT production, I’ll be very disappointed if there isn’t lake water on stage. This shows on the 6th-27th August.
All in all, the 60th anniversary seasons would have looked fantastic were it not for the fact that Cox and Box: Mrs Bouncer’s Legacy was included, which has to be the worst play I’ve seen at SJT but is now inexplicably touring. Ah well, can’t have everything.
The other play I’m including in the sure choices is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time showing at the Sunderland Empire. I make very few recommendations from the Sunderland Empire, not because I don’t think they’re any good but because, along with Newcastle Theatre Royal, their plays get loads of publicity and don’t need my help. But I’m picking out this one because I saw it earlier this year at Newcastle Theatre Royal, and I was impressed by it. Mark Haddon’s book is a thoughtful and sensitive story of a 17-year-old with autism struggling to make sense of the world. Whilst it was quite an easy book to adapt into a play, playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliot did a highly innovative adaptation with did the book justice and more.
I do, however, have to warn you that whilst the play won’t disappoint you, the Sunderland Empire might, especially if you’re in the cheap seats. I’ve felt for some time that whilst Newcastle Theatre Royal makes an effort for everyone for the cheapest seats to the dearest, the Empire is a lot more about making as much money as possible, with the views from the top needlessly restricted. Budget punters might want to wait and hope it returns to Newcastle, but if you can grin and bear the expense, this play fully lives up to the hype surrounding it. It shows at the Empire on the 11th-15th August (or, if you’re determined to shun the Empire, there’s also The Grand in Leeds on the 25th-29th August).
Now for a couple of plays where I’m less certain they’ll work out, but have potential if things work out. They might be disappointing, but if they’re good, they’ll be great.
So, my first play might seem out of place as a bold choice: Absent Friends, a classic play of Alan Ayckbourn’s, showing at Durham’s Gala. There is a real dearth of theatre in Durham, with the Gala now heavily used for music, comedians and stage school showcases, so when the occasional play comes to Durham it needs support. This play is often said to be a turning point in Ayckbourn’s career, from the sunnier plays of his youth to his darker plays. It’s a bit more complicated than that – even Ayckbourn’s earliest plays have some very dark themes underneath the comedy – but this is the first play with an outwardly dark theme. In this play, bereaved Colin comes to tea with supportive friends – but whilst he reminisces about his own blissfully happy romance (or perhaps a romance too short-lived for things to turn sour) whilst the marriages of the three couples fall apart in different ways.
This is a bold choice instead of a safe choice for one reason only: Ayckbourn is easy to do well, but even easier to do badly. All to often, Ayckbourn is treated as a gentle farce of the charmingly English middle class – but that is not true of Ayckbourn’s plays anywhere in his career. And it’s not just amdram groups that do this injustice, but many professional groups too showing smiling couples enjoying breakfast in the garden. To be fair the London Classic Theatre, I’ve not not yet seen anything in the publicity that suggests they’ve misunderstood it that badly, and they’re not relying on casting celebrities to get bums on seats (always a warning sign when a theatre company’s selling point is which soap stars are in the cast instead of how well they directed the play). It’s showing for two nights on the 1st and 2nd September – let’s hope they do it justice.
The other wildcard that’s grabbed my attention is An Illuminating Yarn. There are a lot of Edinburgh Fringe previews coming to Alphabetti Theatre that I’d encourage you to come and see, but this is the one that grabs my attention of this the most, partly because I saw an early version at Northern Stage’s First in Three last year, and partly because I used to live in the town where the play is based. This is written about the mysterious Saltburn Yarn Bombers, who have been knitting figures on Saltburn Pier themed around the Olympics, the royal birth, the World Cup, and many other events of national significance. But no-one seems to know who the yarn bombers are (and I don’t know either, although I know people who claim to). So this play comes up with an imagined story of who the yarn bombers are.
This is previewing in advance of the Edinburgh Fringe. If there’s one worry I’ve got about this, I’m worried they may portray Saltburn as a generic north-east town. A frequent annoyance I had about the Gala Theatre was that Durham city kept getting portrayed as a place where everyone’s a canny Geordie fella who goes to St. James every Saturday to watch the Toon play the Magpies going “Why aye man”. I hope this doesn’t happen for this play, but it’s difficult to get Saltburn right if you’re not from there. So I’m afraid as a former Saltburnian I’m going to be a harsh judge of that. But if this all comes off, it could be good. We’ll see. Catch this at Alphabetti Theatre on the 23rd July, or Whitley Bay’s Under the Dome festival on the 24th.
And finally, one thing that fits into neither category …
Completely unsafe choice:
God help us all. Stabbing Les is coming to Northern Stage. Probably their biggest achievement is that they’re neck-and-neck with Brighton’s Boogaloo Stu for the most bizarre thing ever to enter a theatre. I first heard them at the Star and Shadow back in 2013 at a party to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of the world – you know, the one everyone said the Mayans predicted? – and no-one can say they’re not memorable. I recall it involved a band dressed in radiation suits playing rock hits whist a man in a ski mask and thongs sang out of tune. This might not sound appealing to you, but I did enjoy it at the time. I think it makes more sense if you’ve drunk at least three pints.
Anyway, perhaps Northern Stage have also drunk three pints, because they’ve been snapped up on Stage Three on the 4th July for an event called “Top of the Popera” featuring a whole multitude of other acts. They promise me they will try to outdo last time’s bizarreness, which will be a challenge. Come entirely at your own risk.
And if you survive Stabbing Les, I will be back in about three month’s time for my autumn/winter recommendations. Good luck everyone.