Fresh my my Vault Festival visit earlier this month, it’s back to Newcastle for some new work up north. Live Theatre have their biannual new writing festival, which this year is packaged up in their new Live Lab brand in a week-long event called Elevator. Meanwhile, just up the hill is Alphabetti Theatre who have been paying host to a touring company with a new play.
The first big disclaimer for all of these is that all of these plays are billed in development one way or another. I’m less likely to review plays in development than finished products, but all of these plays grabbed by interest anyway. Nevertheless, caution should be paid to this review or anyone else’s feedback. If you’re thinking of seeing this, anything I mention in these reviews may have changed by the time you see this – hopefully for the better, but possibly for the worse.
So, that caveat out of the way, let’s get going …
Red is the New Blue
This is a new play and not a spin-off of Orange is the New Black, so don’t get excited. Red is the New Blue is a product of Live Lab’s “associate artists” scheme. For its inaugural year, they picked three spoken word artists (Rowan McCabe, Matt Miller and Matilda Neill) who have collaborated on various projects. I don’t have a lot of interest in spoken word, but these three grabbed my attention in Live Lab’s Christmas Adventures with their tale of Father Christmas’s unseen story of his floundering marriage to Mrs. Christmas. Although there were a few giveaways that this was three people’s ideas bolted together (devised theatre should ideally look like it was a single idea all along), it was an encouraging sign of their imagination at work. (See last month’s Odds and Sods for news of this year’s associate artists.)
Their main project, however, is this one. Back by popular demand, this covers the first manned flight to Mars. But in an unfortunate twist, no government seems willing to fund this any more, which means it’s up to reality TV giant Stargaze Incorporated to fund it. Sadly, 24/7 cameras of three intrepid astronauts bravely embarking on Mankind’s greatest adventure doesn’t get enough viewers, so instead they’re sticking to the tried and tested format that clueless imbeciles must outnumber competent people two to one (like every series of The Apprentice). So we one proper astronaut apparently oblivious to the fact she’s lumbered with a self-righteous environmentalist some dude who thinks it’s all a laugh.
There are certainly ingredients for a good play here: the two deadweights have their reasons they want to leave earth behind, whilst the proper astronauts has left behind some things dear to her – and, of course, the TV producers don’t seem to have put safety terribly high up their list of priorities. But I still get the feeling that Red is the New Blue can’t decide if it wants to be a play or a spoken word piece. The overly poetic descriptions of the flight to the Red Planet comes at the expense of the storyline. If it was up to me, I would bring in a dramaturg to build on the characters and the setting to develop a much stronger plot – and some of the poetic descriptions may have to go. But that’s just me and my preference for theatre. If they’d rather keep this as a spoken word piece, ignore that suggestion and build on the spoken work instead. Up to you.
Heartbeats and Algorithms
Unlike the rest of Live Lab Elevator, this show finished its development some time ago, having already had a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. As such, it’s debatable as to whether Elevator was the right place to put this show. However, I have no arguments with the show’s success in Edinburgh or Live’s decision to invite writer/performer Jenny Lee to Newcastle, because its success is thoroughly earned.
This work on the premise of all our trails of what we leave online to be used by computer algorithms to predict what we’ll do. To be honest, I’ll start taking this serious in real life when HMV digital stops predicting that – based on my previous purchases of Glenn Miller, Diana Krall and Dean Martin – I’ll buy the latest One Direction if they e-mail an advert to me. But this play is in the hypothetical world where these algorithms actually work – not only that, a computer programmer for a scarily big and intrusive corporation writes an algorithm so good it predicts everything. Perfectly. So she tests it on herself, and it’s too creepily accurate. A lot of echoes of Black Mirror in this play.
One thing that might not appeal to stage play purists is that there is hardly anything visual to the play – it is mostly just Lee standing talking. As such, this an argument that this is better suited as a radio play than a stage play. But what the play lacks visually it more than makes up with sound. Wow. She’s worked with sound designer Iain Armstrong and the result is outstanding. Sound plot, plot and voice between them form an excellent dystopian story as she tries to escape the digital prison she’s created for herself. An excellent debut for Live Theatre, and Jenny Lee is clearly one to look out for in the future.
Nothing to do with Live Lab or their Elevator programme, but this new work-in-progress production took place the week after at nearby new writing-friendly Alphabetti Theatre. This came from a group called Handheld Arts, and being a puppetry group, you never really know what to expect. Well, this show was dominated by, out of all things, the humble overhead projector. But if you’re thinking “Well, suppose it’s got novelty value, but I’d be surprised if you could carry a whole show on that,” prepare to be surprised. Believe it or not, there are so many different ways you can tell these eight mini-tales using shadow puppetry. The stories are enhanced with music, poetry and some acting, but it’s the shadow puppetry that’s the main attraction.
Concerning the play as a whole, I get the impression that this is something that started off as one idea but mutated into something else. I think the over-arching theme was supposed to be parallels between a backdrop of knife crime and unrest immigration at the time the original house was built and a similar backdrop today when the eight houses were built – but that didn’t really come across. Instead, it formed a set of eight mini-horror tales, from ghosts to evil possessed dolls via over-protected twins and megalomaniac computers. So I’d forget about the original connecting theme altogether and instead treat this as the set of horror tales it is; perhaps the connecting theme could be a curse placed on the original house by the old lady who didn’t want her beloved home knocked down. Also, I felt many of these tales were over before they’d begun; and as a relatively short piece, there’s plenty of time to lengthen the stories.
However, I liked all of the stories and all of them have potential to be developed further with twists and turns. And is one of the most distinctive new works I’ve seen. One boring but important comment to make is how difficult it is to make something like this work at all. In a conventional play, you can fluff things pretty badly and still recover, but this a massive logistical operation of getting all the things on to the projector at the right time in the right order, when even the slightest error would have been a disaster. So the fact it all went smoothly is a big achievement. Having got this far, I hope they develop this further, extend the stories and make it into a full piece, because if they get this right, Gated Community could be destined for great things.