What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2015

Okay you lot, that’s enough post-fringe hibernation. It’s time to get back to work. Time to turn attention back to what’s on offer in the north-east and pick out the things that grab my attention. As always, this is limited to plays, companies or writers that I’ve seen before, and there will be plenty of other good things I don’t know about. Also a reminder that, all other things being equal, small-scale productions are more likely to be recommended than big ones. Good small-scale productions need and deserve all the publicity they can get – larger ones, who have PR teams and the ear of local papers, don’t need my help.

This will be a shorter list than usual because we’re approaching pantomime season. Oh joy. But if, like me, you’d rather be burned alive than go to another pantomime, here’s some things you might like:

Safe choices

So, beginning with my safe choices, there are plays where, if you like the sound of it and you like my description, I’m confident you’ll like it for real. Three picks in the safe choices this time:

Day of the Flymo

Day of the Flymo publicity imagePaddy Campbell’s second play has a few flaws – but it’s still something I’m keen to recommend. Sticking with writing about what he knows, this follow-up to Wet House looks at the world of social work. There’s plenty of other plays about children in care, but often they rely on villains of the piece, be it brutal carers, heartless jobsworths or a cruel government. In this play, the carers in life of troubled teen Liam are professional, caring and selfless – and yet, even with the best will in the world, things go so wrong so easily.

I reviewed this when it was originally a short-run production earlier this year, presumably short-run owing to the fact that three of the five cast are from Live’s youth theatre. It sold out, so now it’s back for a longer run. Although I had some misgiving over the episodic format breaking the flow of the play, the strengths of the play more than make up for this: the struggle to keep Liam on the rails, the strain it puts on his family, and an impressive testement to Live’s Youth Theatre output. If you liked Wet House or this subject interests you, you won’t be disappointed.

A Chorus of Disapproval

One of my favourite Ayckbourn plays, A Chorus of Disapproval follows the story of Guy, a widower who joined Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society, is cast as Crook-fingered Jack in The Beggar’s Opera, only to find himself catapulted up and up until he’s landed in the lead role of MacHeath. Plays set in amatuer dramatics societies are ten-a-penny, and many of them are amdram in-jokes that have little appeal beyond amdram society members, but Ayckourn’s play is a lot more than this. It’s a much wider story of Pendon with power-games, bitter rivalries, failing marriages, and wheeler-dealing, and the unsuspecting Guy finds himself in receipt of favour after favour from people who think he can help them.

Even though I’m a big Ayckbourn fan, I recommend very few Ayckbourn plays. This is because Ayckbourn is usually easy to do well, but even easier to do badly. Far too often Ayckbourn in treated like a stock 70s sitcom with the complex and flawed characters reduced to stock 70s sitcom roles. I’m putting my faith in this one partly because A Chorus of Disapproval is a play that’s difficult to do badly: it’s a tough play to produce and I’ll typically expect this to be done well or not at all. But I’m also putting faith in the People’s production because they’ve got a wide pool of talented cast to draw upon, and I’ve been impressed with some of the previous large-cast plays, such as Never So Good. Don’t let me down.

This shows at the People’s Theatre (of course) on the 6th-10th October.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd

Fesitval of the Spoken Nerd publicity imageI don’t normally put comedy in my safe or bold choices, but as we’re a bit thin on the ground this time, it’s a bye for the nerds. For those of you unfamiliar with this trio, this is a science show, with the added touch that it’s told from the perspective of nerds – that is, the new brand of “cool” nerd, in contrast to the past few decades when only homos were top on the class in maths.

They’re funny, engaging and, yes, all the science they present is accurate. If you don’t know any science, don’t worry, it’s easy to follow. If you do, great, you’ll spot the bonus science jokes. This is their new show “Just for graphs”, so if you saw them last year, come again for the new stuff. But hurry, because they’ve got only one night in the north-east, on the 30th October. Or, if it’s more convenient, you can also catch them in York (Oct 17th), Leeds (Oct 31st) or Carlisle (Nov 17th). Who needs Halloween when you’ve got spreadsheets?

Bold choice:

One thing on my list that’s untested, but nonetheless is worth a punt to see how it goes.

Carols and Cocktails

Probably the biggest news of 2015 on the north-east theatre scene was the opening of the new Alphabetti Theatre. Originally they had a provisional four-month season, but after the success of their début in-house productions, they’ve got a pretty secure future. In theory, they may have to leave one day when the building gets redeveloped, but anyone who’s familiar with the Pauper’s Pit saga at Buxton will go “meh”.

They’ve got two more in-house productions before the year is out, but Carols and Cocktails is the one what particularly gets my attention. Although this sounds like a pre-Christmas social event, this is actually a play where two IT geeks form a band with the hope of wowing their work colleagues at their Christmas party and winning the heart of the woman of their dreams. And yes, it is the same woman. What can possibly come between them.

This has an unusually long run from the 8th to the 23rd December (except Sundays). Admittedly, part of the attraction here is that this takes place in the month when it’s either this or bloody pantomimes, so Carols and Cocktails wins by default. But Alphabetti’s record so far has been quite promising, so it should if nothing else be good fun.

Also of note …

Publicity image from Our Ladies of Perpetual SuccourUnless you’ve locked yourself in a cupboard since early August, you will have doubtless heard that Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is coming to Live Theatre soon. This is a adaptation The Sopranos, but not the one we’ve all heard of, but a book with the same name, so instead of six girls from an all-female Catholic school going “Capiche” and whacking goons, they go on a school trip to Edinburgh and get up to, well, exactly the things that always seem to end up happening to girls from all-female Catholic schools.

Although I don’t (usually) recommend plays I haven’t seen yet, I have heard a lot of good things about this play, and not just from the usual suspects. Every regional theatre has publications who will praise everything they do regardless, but this time I’ve heard widespread praise, including sources that I know and trust. It’s showing on the 1st to 24th October, and some of the performances are already sold out, so they must be doing something right.

But the other thing of note isn’t what is coming up but what isn’t coming up. What’s the notable absence from the autumn season? New writing from the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Last year there were five plays (one full-length and four shorts) directed by Henry Bell, and whilst Henry Bell is clearly still around, having done main production Neville’s Island last month, there’s no equivalent new writing piece. Nor is there any word of script calls on their New Writing page.

Has the SJT given up on this new writing programme? It will be disappointing if they have. Yes, last year was a bit hit-and-miss, but new writing always is, and having got that far last year, they were in a good position to build on it. With a new artistic director and chief executive coming in, this now looks up in the air. Seems we have a very unpredictable future ahead of us in Scarborough.

And of course …

Not really the remit of a theatre blog, but a reminder to all in Durham that Lumiere is coming our way in November. If you’ve been before I need no explanation of why you should go. If you haven’t, it’s time you did. I will be writing more about Lumiere shortly, but for now, clear your diaries. Cancel that holiday. You can’t miss this.

And there you are. Sorry for the short list this time. You’ll just have to show me some more good plays so I can make more recommendations next time.

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