What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2016

Okay, the enforced theatre break in almost over. With December full of pantomimes, pantomimes and more sodding pantomimes, and January not having much at all, I know you’re all itching to go again. So I’ve been scanning through the programmes between February and May, and picked out recommendations.

A new thing I am starting this year is recommendations outside the north-east. As usual, a reminder that I there’s a lot of stuff out there which I don’t know about, some of which will be good. I may try to draw up a list of rules I go on when compiling these recommendations, but for now, the only caveat you need to remember is that this should be considered a cross-section of what’s out there, rather than an exhaustive list of recommendations.

Are you ready? Then here we go.

Safe choice:

Safe choices may or may not be plays I’ve seen before, but they are plays from companies where – based on the strength of the performing company, the writer, and anything else I think is relevant – I’m confident you will enjoy this if my description sounds like your sort of thing. (Nothing ever appeals to everyone – even a hundred five-star reviews is worthless if you don’t like the sort of play everyone’s gushing over.) I haven’t always been right, but usually they’ve delivered.

My two safe choices of winter/spring 2016 are:

Get Carter

Keith Wathen as Jack CarterI have never been disappointed by any of Northern Stage’s main productions. They have a substantial advantage that they concentrate on classics known to be popular, leaving it up to Live Theatre to take the risks with the new writing, but Northern Stage always do their chosen classics justice. Even when the productions are let down by weird choices of sets, as happens occasionally, they make up for this with top-notch acting and production values.

For a change, Northern Stage are doing a brand new script, but it’s an adaptation of a story everyone knows: Get Carter: originally a Ted Lewis book Jack’s Return Home, but best known as the Gateshead-based classic film with Michael Caine. It’s a natural choice for a Newcastle Theatre, but not necessarily a surefire hit: I saw a different stage adaptation of Get Carter before, and that was a disappointment – it had a tiny cast chopping and changing parts so quickly I totally lost track of who was supposed to be playing who, and there was some evidence of shock value for the sake of it. Fortunately, Northern Stage is calling on Torben Betts to write this new adaptation, and based on previous works and good things I’ve heard elsewhere, I’m confident he will deliver.

Now, the observant amongst you will recall I gave Torben Betts a safe choice last year for What Falls Apart, only for me to give a less-than-enthusaistic review of the play, which was slightly let down by soapbox overkill when I really wanted to get on with the story. All the same, I’m still confident he’ll pull this off on the strength of The Swing of Things which i saw, and other productions which I heard good things about. Whilst there’s always a risk of a new play ending up as someone’s soapbox, I’m confident it won’t happen here. Please prove me right.

This shows at Northern Stage on the 12th February – 5th March. Be aware that mainstream plays with local interest are liable to sell out quickly at Northern Stage, so if you can’t make that, there’s then a tour that takes in Gala Theatre Durham on the 12th-16th April. More about the Gala Theatre later, but before then, my other safe choice.

Flare Path

Production shot from Flare PathIn case you’ve missed it, York Theatre Royal has been closed for ages for a major redevelopment programme, during which they’ve decamped to the nearby National Rail Museum. You can read about this here, but my pick this season is a Terence Rattigan classic. I rarely recommend classic plays on this blog, partly because they get loads of attention anyway, but also because I find a lot of it quite dreary. Rattigan is on the list of stock amdram authors, which frequently carries a mentality that the play must be good because everyone’s doing it and everyone’s doing it because it’s good. Terence Rattigan, however, is one of my favourites, with a good run of thoughtful compassionate plays. His own story was also very interesting, but that’s for another play.

Even so, I rarely recommend classic plays because I usually don’t know if the performing company can be trusted to do a good job – often they don’t. But I’m counting on this one because it’s from The Original Theatre Company (in joint production with Birdsong productions), who were behind Rachel Wagstaff’s excellent adaptation of Birdsong (in case you didn’t guess from the name of the co-producer). They’re staying on the war theme, with this play set in 1942 around bomber crews and their wives and sweethearts. If it’s even half as good as Birdsong we can expect a good night. The tour starts this month and will reach York Theatre Royal on the 2nd-7th May. Or, if York’s too far away and you can’t wait until May, you can also see it at Darlington Civic Theatre on the 12th-16th April.

Bold choices:

Three plays this season that also grab my interest. These I don’t know enough about the guarantee a good time, but these are all things that I think could be great. Here are the things that I consider risks worth taking:


Publicity image from ShaftedThis is a new John Godber play that toured heavily last year. In a rare break from convention, Godber himself is acting in this play alongside his other half, Jane Thornton. That’s not the reason for my recommendation though. It’s more because I’ve heard quite a lot of good things about this play. It originally toured last year, and they must be doing something right, because they’re touring again, this time taking in the Gala Theatre Durham on the 15th & 16th February, so it’s a perfect treat to yourself for Unvalentine’s Day, just before you drunkenly phone you ex at 3 in the morning to whine “How could you do this to me?”

Sorry, slight digression there. Where was I? Ah yes, John Godber’s new play. I’ve seen most of his new plays, and they’re hit-and-miss. For every one I saw and like, there’s another that felt like a re-hash of old ideas. But the recent thing that grabs my interest is his political plays – and not just leaping on whichever bandwagon’s fashionable this year, but issues important to him that don’t always conform to the correct kind of leftiness. I was particularly interested with last year’s Poles Apart which explored how different expectations the of the working class are to other people’s socialist ideals. Whatever John  Godber has to say here, it will be his own voice.

Of Mice and Men

Publicity image from Of Mice and MenJohn Steinbeck’s classic comes to Darlington Civic Theatre on the 15th-19th March. Set in the American Great Depression, it tells the story of two migrant workers who come to a Californian town, but as outsiders thing soon spiral out of control. This is coming from Touring Consortium Theatre Company, and if that name sounds familiar to Darlington regulars, they were co-producers of Brave New World along with James Dacre’s own Royal and Derngate. This time, however, they’re doing it on their own. Can they live up to the standards of Brave New World without James Dacre directing this time?


invincible.jpgFinally, it’s a second showing for Torben Betts. Invincible premiered at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in 2014, which looked really interesting, but sadly I came to London one week too early and saw the Orange Tree’s previous play instead. No comment. It was frustrating because I really liked the sound of a play where a middle-class class couple invite their new working-class neighbours in for an enlightening evening of olives and anchovies. And doubly frustrating because by all accounts was one of the Orange Tree’s greatest hits. But all is not lost – now The Original Theatre Company (this time without Birdsong Productions) is producing it on a tour, and this comes to the Gala Theatre Durham on the 2nd-5th May.

It’s a bold choice rather than a second sure choice for Torben Betts because I have one reservation: depictions of the working class are prone to be highly politicised. Too often they’re portrayed as absurdly victimised underlings of austerity, or, worse, get portrayed in the same fashion as Emily Thornberry’s stupid White Van Man tweet. I have seen at least one playwright I otherwise respect leap on this sneer-at-the-wrong-kind-of-working-class bandwagon; John Godber I’m confident won’t because he has a long track record of portraying people from his background sympathetically, but without any gloss. Let’s hope Torben Betts is more like the latter.

Outside the north-east:

This is a new feature to take into account that a lot of great plays I saw at various fringes are still going on elsewhere in the country. As well as making recommendations, I will also be keeping a closer eye on what other artists are up to and report on any upcoming projects that get my interest, but that will go into my all-new odds and sods posts, coming very soon.

In general, I won’t be covering big productions that originated outside the north-east because they get more than enough publicity. I can’t easily keep track of what all you guys are up to, so if I have previously given you a favourable review of your show, by all means let me know if you’re still touring. Anyway, two things grab my attention this time round.

1972: The Future of Sex

A David Bowie-wannabeSo David Bowie may have sadly left us this month, but as well as leaving us with a great back catalogue of songs, he also played a significant role in this devised theatre piece, where a confused teenage boy discovers David Bowie is his first crush. But 1972 is not the hedonistic sexually liberated utopia that we like to imagine it was, but a still deferential society where people like Bowie on Top of the Pop is shocking to the older generation and confusing to the younger one.

Many devised theatre pieces are great ideas in theory that fall flat in reality – in fact, so used am I to disappointing devised pieces that I almost wrote this one off before it had barely started – but The Wardrobe Ensemble know their stuff the play I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe was a clever piece with four interwoven stories presented in an intelligent way, with the optimism of 1972 flashing back and forth with the reality of today. There’s maybe a few minutes at the end that got confusing, but it’s still one of the best devised pieces out there. The closest this will get to the north-east is a single performance at The Hub, Leeds on the 8th May, but there’s various other dates in various locations between February and May.

Dinosaur Park

Production shot of Dinosaur Park.

This is a last-minute addition to my list, because I saw this in London last Saturday in a spare couple of hours before Lumiere. If you’re wondering if this has got anything to do with Jurassic Park at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, yes, it’s the same one. (Maybe there was a quibble over the name, but that’s still considerably better behaviour than one nameless media giants threats against a small artist not that that long ago, but anyway …) There are countless “reduced” versions of films such as One-Man Star Wars, three-man The 39 Steps and, of course, everything from the Reduced Shakespeare Company. One would expect this three-hander to be another play for the reduced blockbuster pile – but it’s not. This is so much more.

The premise is that a family are putting on a screening of the famous Spielberg film to commemorate the mother who died one year ago – but, of course, someone forgot to bring the video tape. How else can they do the story? But if that sounds contrived, there is a big backstory waiting to be told of the family, and how they got to this point. Okay, it’s next to impossible to describe how good it is in such a short summary, but trust me, it’s good. or if you don’t trust me, trust, well, virtually everyone who saw it at Edinburgh. It’s a longer version than the Edinburgh Fringe one, but the longer length seems to suit the play better. The run at St. James’s Theatre, London, has almost finished, and then they’re off to the Adelaide Fringe, but there’s a UK tour coming in April-May. Keep an eye open for the details, and if you can catch it, you’ll be glad you did.

The Frights

Production shot from The FrightsAlphabetti Theatre had a great first year, but there’s one thing where I’m at odds with everyone else. Most people seems to be acclaiming triple-bill The Rooms as the best thing they did in 2015, but my firm favourite was their first play in their new venue, Louise Taylor’s The Frights. Set in the aftermath of a kidnapping and release in unspecified warzone, aid worker Hanny and the reunited boyfriend are waiting to donate some money to the charity she worked work. The reason she’s there in the first place is quite a complicated one, and it’s a complex tale of trust against betrayal, love against duty, the needs of those far away against the needs of those closest to you. But Louise Taylor never moralises, never gets on a high horse, and instead allows you to decide for yourself who did the right thing.

Whilst The Frights might be playing second fiddle to The Rooms in term of acclaim, it’s easily their but it is their most portable play, and – hip, hip, hurray! – it’s off to London. From the 1st-5th May, they are showing at Theatre N16. I know there were hopes to take it further than a single week in London, so a lot may depend on the success of this run. So I appeal to all my London followers to come to this, because it deserves to go further.

UPDATE 20/03/16: Since writing this, it came to my attention that it’s being revived in Newcastle too, on the 11th-20th May, shortly after the London run (at Alphbetti Theatre, of course). If you missed it last time, now is your chance.

And finally …

As you may have noticed, the same names have been appearing multiple times in this list. Torben Betts managed a double, so did the Original Theatre Company. But managing a triple is Durham’s Gala Theatre. The Gala isn’t the first theatre to get three plays in the same list – Live Theatre managed it this time last year, and Live probably has the better claim as they were involved in producing all of those, as opposed to the Gala who are only taking touring shows. But when you consider that for years the Gala Theatre has had next to no theatre programmed in – heavily relying instead of visiting bands and celebrities – this is a step change.

At least part of the reason for this is that the Gala Theatre has a new programming director, and this is her inaugural season. Don’t read to much into one season’s picks on one blog – it’s a highly volatile measure – but to have got so many respected theatre companies into one season is a promising beginning. This is just the start of a grand vision, and the next project is to look at making more use of the studio space, possibly scratch nights. I will wait this interest, but in the meantime, congratulation Gala for their best showing ever.

UPDATE 20/03/16: Bit late in the day, but one final touring show outside the north-east to catch is The Trials and Tribulations of Mr. Pickwick, a lovely solo performance from Charles Dickens’ kindest ever hero. I saw this at the Brighton Fringe in 2013 and loved it, and now it’s finally coming to London at the Bridewell Theatre in London on the 29th March – 2nd April. If you’ve seen a load of depressing plays recently, here’s a perfect one to restore you faith in humanity.

One thought on “What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2016

  1. Torben Betts January 23, 2016 / 6:19 am

    My plays are shit and you are likely to be disappointed. I wish I could find something worthwhile to do with my time. I would love to buy you a drink. X

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