Odds and sods: January 2016

Welcome to my brand new feature for 2016. I am going to be doing a roundup of various stuff going on that grab my interest. Major things will still continue getting their own posts, but may get a mention here too. I’m planning to make this a monthly thing, but it depend how much happens that’s worth writing about. Basically, I’m making up the rules as I go along until further notice.

So here are the things that caught my eye in January:

Lumiere London

Garden of LightOne event that got very little attention up here but is nonetheless something Durham can be hugely proud of is Lumiere London. After four successful biannual festivals, it’s made the trip to the capital. I nipped down there for the weekend, and I will be writing a fuller review shortly, but the quick summary is that things went rather well. If the Lumiere organisers were worried that London might not be the surefire success of Durham – after all, there are plenty of festivals competing for attention in down there – they needn’t have been. It got universally good write-ups from the papers, and I can vouch there were an awful lot of people there to see it.

And this leads to a paradox. I was expecting a debate on whether Lumiere London would be successful enough to return in the future. Instead, we are having a debate on whether Lumiere London is too popular to return. I managed to miss the worst of this, but apparently the crowds on Saturday got pretty bad – not as insanely bad as Lumiere Durham 2011 (pah, you southern softies don’t know real crowds!), but still bad enough to force a switch-off of some of the installations. I must say there were some signs that Artichoke hadn’t learned lessons from Durham, but only in specific locations; the bigger picture was the overall popularity, which would have been near-impossible to predict. If there’s a next time, then precedent suggest the crowds will be even bigger. Already a return next year has been ruled out for this very reason. After that, if it returns, they’re planning to spread it out over a larger area – probably the only option available, as it’s inconceivable you could have a ticketed area in central London like you did for Durham.

Nevertheless, it’s a moment that Durham can be proud of. And remember, Londoners, if you can’t wait for the next Lumiere in London, you can always come up here for Lumiere 2017.

Pauper’s Pit programmes its final season – again

Now over to Buxton. Buxton Fringe regulars will know the standing joke since 2013 is that Underground Venues – or more accurately, the popular Pauper’s Pit and Barrel Room spaces in the basement of the Old Hall Hotel – is always having its “final” season. This is because there’s a major redevelopment project of the Crescent next door, which apparently includes redeveloping the Old Hall basement for a hot tub or something. The imminent closure used to be taken seriously – I even dabbled myself in some speculation of what might happen next – but lately it’s been getting a resounding “meh”. Then news came last year that funding had been secured and the redevelopment started again in 2015? Would it really be the end this time?

Apparently not. Underground Venues are advertising that applications are opening in days, and The Old Hall is still listed in their spaces. So it looks like Underground Venues as we know it lives on another year. And so does Buxton’s long-standing joke about Underground Venues’ last ever season.

Ladybirdgate rumbles on

Right, who remembers my post earlier this month about the legal dispute between Penguin books and Miriam Elia? In case you’re not up to speed on this, there’s been a minor row over the Christmas bestseller of the parody Ladybird books for grown-ups, concerning the alleged legal threats made by copyright owner Penguin against a small-time artist who produced something similar the year before. Public opinion seems to have overwhelmingly sided with Elia, if the twitterweb is anything to go by. Some accuse Penguin of stealing her idea; in practice, it’s more complicated than that. But for my part, although my instinct is always to side with the small artists –  especially when it becoming an issue of freedom of expression – I took the line that it was in the interests of both sides to make peace. After all, both sides arguably emerged from this as winners, so why carry on fighting?

Heart and CND sign crossed out

Peace and love – apparently not required

But it turns out I was tad naive to suggest being nice to each other. A small but vocal group of people have taken Penguin’s side. And this is where things get a bit odd. If it was friends of the writers of the official Ladybird parodies, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, it would be quite understandable to defend them against suggestions that they sued an artist and stole their idea – but that doesn’t explain what’s going on here. Virtually everyone criticising Penguin makes it clear their beef with the publisher and not the writers, and many of the even go out of their way to congratulate Joel and Jason for their success. But this doesn’t stop some people going way beyond simply defending Jason and Joel; they portray Penguin as the 100% blameless and 100% wronged party.

It gets weirder. The people supporting Penguin use a virtually identical set of arguments. According to them, Penguin didn’t take any legal action at all, nicely allowed the artist to sell their copyrighted work, and (so they insinuate) Elia’s claims of corporate bullying only came much later when she was mass marketing her own book. It’s almost like they’re acting like PR representatives for Penguin – except that a proper PR team could never go that far with personal attacks and get away with it. I must stress none of these guys have any connections/interests with Penguin that I know about, but that makes their unwavering support all the more strange. And – most bizarre of all – the corporate giant’s proponents include a Guardian journalist, a Green Party member and a Jeremy Corbyn supporter. Welcome to a new kind of socialism.

For anyone eagerly awaiting for my rebuttal of their claims – don’t worry, I promise it’s coming. Bullshit claims are quick and easy to make, and slow and laborious to debunk; but believe me, there’s more than enough evidence out there to debunk them. In the meantime, here’s a thoughtful and balanced article from earlier this month about this messy affair.

SJT’s next artistic director

Okay, that’s enough bitching about the forces of international capitalism for now. Let’s get back to some news. One of my posts that has been getting a lot of attention was the one about Chris Monks quitting the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I’m not kidding, even as I wrote that sentence, that page clocked up another five views. Not sure why there’s so much interest in this – all I can imagine is that everybody’s looking for news of who his replacement will be. No use asking me I’m afraid. There’s nothing I know that isn’t common knowledge already. Except …

I stumbled across this page. Recruitment for a successor has begun! And if you ever wondered what’s in an artistic director’s job description, here’s your chance to find out. Applications closed on the 25th January, so we will probably hear who the new artistic director in the next month or two. But the important question is surely not who the new artistic director is, but what effect he or she has on the SJT’s programme. My guess is that by the time the new appointment is made, it will be too late to affect the summer programme, so it looks like we will have to wait for their winter programme to find out. That programme typically runs October – April, so that’ll be when things should start to get interesting. Watch this space.

Introducing Homeslice

Finally, one thing I intend to use odds and sods for is early news of new productions that grab my interest. I’m not that interested in promoting new projects of the big theatres – they get more than enough coverage without my help – rather, I’m after smaller groups who I’ve previously been impressed by. Obviously I can’t cover everything, but I’ll prioritise things that are different or eye-catching. I will be keeping a watchful eye over the internet, but if you’re up to anything which you want me to know about (and I’ve favourably reviewed you before), please do contact me. It doesn’t have to be a polished piece you’ve got ready – news about scratch nights or plays under development are welcome too.

This month, my attention has been grabbed by Homeslice. I’ve been following Yve Blake with interest ever since she impressed me with Lie Collector at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. That show sharply divided critics, but there’s no doubt that her show and her character was one of the most distinctive ones on the Fringe. It was also one of the bolder shows in terms of risk-taking, and a more cautious soul might opt to follow this up with something safer and more mainstream. But Yve has in fact done the opposite and added in a new gamble: a show that only takes place in people’s homes. This isn’t entirely new – I’ve heard of this concept before – but the shows I’ve previously heard of were a performance to an audience known to the hosts for a set fee. This show sells tickets to individuals, and positively encourages you to have complete strangers in your house.

Here’s the promotional video:

For the benefit of those of you without Youtube access, the show includes, I quote, sandwich helicopters, bionic grandmas, underwater mansions and the greatest love story never told. If you’ve seen her before, this should be familiar to you. If you haven’t, don’t worry; you’ll pick it up as you go along. The bad news is that unless you’re an overseas viewer of this blog, you’ll have to wait until at least June. She’s currently touring back in Australia, then it’s North America’s turn. By the time she reaches the UK, we should have a much better idea of whether this gamble works. Impossible to predict, but the very early indications from the Perth Fringe World look good. Fingers crossed.

And finally, Haythem Mohamed

One final thing before I wind up. I went to Alphabetti Theatre last Friday for their “block party” event (which encompassed all the neighbouring arts spaces), and they put on some musical entertainment. This is a theatre blog and not a generic performing arts blog, so I don’t normally write about musicians, but I’m going to make an exception for Haythem Mohamed, because he is outstanding. He is an amazingly skilled guitarist who, I’m not kidding, could give Rodrigo and Gabriella a run for their money. It’s great he’s coming to small venues like Alphabetti, but honestly, he should be on at the Sage. In the meantime, check out his Youtube channel, especially this one.

And that’s all for January. Whoah, I did find a lot to write about after all. Maybe this will be a monthly think after all. Same time next month then?

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