Odds and sods: March 2016

And that was March. An averagey month in terms of things going on, with a lot of my attention this month going to my 7000-word tirade over Penguin’s behaviour in the spat over the Ladybird parodies. But that’s enough of that. I can’t keep banging on about this. I’ve got other things to catch up on. Let’s take a look at what’s been happening.

Mice and Men

800x600-fitdownSaw this play earlier in the month, and I would have written the review by now, only I got held up by other things, such as 7000-word triade about Penguin’s behaviour over- … hang on, I think I already mentioned that. Anyway, the review will be coming shortly, but I can advise you it’s going to be my first glowing review of 2016. I’ve never seen John Steinbeck’s play before, but it is a masterpiece, and Birmingham Rep and Touring Consortium did an excellent job between them – especially the staging.

I will be saying more about its many strengths (and the odd weakness) in the review. In the meantime, a totally irrelevant bit of trivia. One of the ensemble actors, Samantha Hopkins, was someone I remember meeting eight years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe. She was in a show called Innvolution, and she was on the Royal Mile as a sex robot, somewhat in the style of an fembot from Austin Powers. I think I asked her what the capital of Ethiopia was, and she answered “I am not programmed to know the capital of Ethiopia, I am programmed for sex.” (Presumably all the answers were like this one.) So I ended up seeing the show expecting a bit of light entertainment, but the play was surprisingly good. It was set in a dystopian future where the Faith Party rules the country, people with genetic defects are otracised, and genetic cures are possible and illegal. “Gemma”, as the robot is known in the play, starts off a robot with a one-track mind, but gradually becomes more human as the story goes on. Just a blast from the past there. Small world.

Please bear with me, proper review is coming shortly, I promise.

Caroline Horton becomes a writer in residence


Staying on the subject of both Birmingham Rep and people I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe years back, a bit of significant news about rising star Caroline Horton. Live Theatre regulars should be familiar with her; for those who don’t, she rose to prominence with two excellent and universally acclaimed plays doing the fringe circuits: You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, the true (and lovely) story of her French grandmother in the war, and Mess, on her own experiences with anorexia. Then came Islands, a play about tax dodging which came as a disappointment to many people, although there was a substantial niche of people who liked this. I suspect this niche was a strongly left-leaning audience who already didn’t like big corporations, but I suppose I prefer this to those, oh, I don’t know, left-leaners who think that big corporations can’t possibly to anything wrong, and leap to the defence multinational publishers and decry the small-time artists they sue – sorry, got sidetracked there. Must stop obsessing over this. We were discussing Caroline Horton, weren’t we?

So, I met Caroline Horton last month and she acknowledges that Islands isn’t for everyone, which seems fair enough. But if she really did once worry that Islands was going to kill her career, she needn’t have. She’s been made the first Writer in Residence of Birmingham Rep. Opportunities like this are of course dependent on whether you trust the theatre company do do your work justice, but if Mice and Men is representative of what they do, it should be in good hands.

I did actually chat to her about her next project, presumably to be done under Birmingham Rep’s banner, but sadly I cannot tell you what is it because it’s still under development and not yet public knowledge (and this blog respects embargoes). Also, I’ve somehow managed to completely forget what it was she told me, only that it sounded interesting. I think I can safely say that this next project probably won’t be like Islands, but neither will it be like the earlier work. Looking forward to finding out more.

Newcastle City Hall saved?

3254753_30ec14f1Now let’s turn attention to Newcastle. Newcastle theatre fans will be aware that theatres across the city have been facing an uncertain future in the face of cuts, but the venue in the most danger was the music venue Newcastle City Hall. Outclassed by the Metro Radio Arena for size and the Sage Gatehead for prestige, it seemingly lacked the niche you need to survive a squeeze. Is City Hall no longer viable? Well, Newcastle Theatre Royal doesn’t think so, because it’s just been announced they’re taking over management of the venue. (Note: it was announced on April 1st, but don’t worry, it was after 12.)

City Hall is not out of the woods just yet. Takeovers doesn’t guarantee a business will be saved, only that the buyer believes it can. But Newcastle Theatre Royal looks like the best possible hands for City Hall to be in. In spite of the Theatre Royal losing its own grant from the council, they’re running pretty much business as usual. If they can run a large music venue as successfully as they run a large theatre, there’ll be light at the end of a tunnel for the Newcastle venue we thought we might lose.

Hey, look, wrote a who section without banging on about Penguin Random House. Not so obsessional, am I? Oh, wait, yes I have, right now. Never mind, moving swiftly on.

RSC’s Play for the Nation

The other thing going on at Newcastle that almost escaped my attention was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Play for the Nation“. I didn’t see this as Shakespeare’s not really my thing, and it was on a busy time for me with me tied up with things such as writing all about the ethics of Penguin Random house – oh, did I mention what they were up to … oh, yeah I think I did mention that. Several time. Sorry. Anyway, back to the RSC. Even though I didn’t see it, it grabbed my interest because this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream worked with amateur groups. Working with a different group every week, they spent two weeks at Northern Stage, one with the People’s Theatre, and the other with The Witham at Barnard Castle.

js85309594This is not the first time there’s been amateurs in a fully professional production, and most of the time it’s a resounding “meh” from me, because they’re usually the piddliest of bit parts. Not this time. The actors from the People’s and Witham played the Mechanicals, who have quite a significant part in the play. And yes, that includes Bottom, one of the major characters in the play.

However, there’s one small but interesting detail that’s been overlooked. According to their publicity, the play is an arrangement developed between the RSC and Equity. The issue of amateurs in professional productions is a thorny one: professionals obviously don’t want unpaid amateurs taking their jobs, and Equity has a job to do protecting their livelihoods. In recent years, however, they been quite pragmatic in responding to arts cuts, often allowing professional productions to cast amateurs if and when they it’s a choice of that or no production at all. So one might assume that this amateur/professional collaboration was done with Equity’s blessing.

Not quite. The agreement made in the end was the the amateurs would be paid approved Equity rates for the time spent rehearsing with the RSC director (but not the rehearsals in their own societies). And from the sound of it, this was a begrudging compromise rather than a wholehearted agreement, and it sounds like it was swayed by a worry of putting actors out of work if it was cancelled that late in the day. But budgets are tightening and we can expect to see more collaborations like this, if not out of choice, but out of necessity. It will be interesting to see how Equity reacts to the next play like this one.

The return of Smurthgate

There’s a long-running stance in this blog again censorship of artists, just in case you missed the stuff about Penguin being litigious bastards, but before that one thing I took issue with was Kate Smurthwaite’s show The Wrong Sort of Feminist – not so much the show itself, but more that I wasn’t convinced her free speech stance was consistent with her campaign against Frankie Boyle’s shows. However, I’m not interested in this right now. Instead, I’m interested in what’s been happening between Kate Smurthwaite and Goldsmith’s Student Union. It’s not clear what exactly happened last year; for what it’s worth, I get the impression it wasn’t so much censorship as a catalogue of misunderstandings, needless confrontation and avoidable escalation. But that doesn’t matter now. Kate Smurthwaite was supposed to return to Goldsmith’s last week, after things had been smoothed over, with a free ticketed event – only for the event to be sabotaged by people who block-booked all but six of the tickets and never turned up. This time, there’s no question it was censorship.

I am the last person to defend Kate Smurthwaite after my previous run-in, but on this occasion, I must side with her and condemn what’s happened, so should you. I’ve added an update to that article, where I go into some more detail about Goldsmith’s shabby pro-censorship track record. I must admit it it does feel good to grab the moral high group and be a smug self-righteous prick over this, but seriously, this is beyond score-settling. A lot of artists are dependent on free tickets events, and censoring them by hogging tickets from people who want to see it is unacceptable – and if you condone it for one person, you legitimise it for everyone. And if you don’t speak for other people, they won’t speak up when it happens to you.

A new Horizon for Sparkle and Dark

And finally, I couldn’t close this without mention what utter bastards they are at Penguin – sorry, got mixed up, meant to say I couldn’t close this without mentioning what Sparkle and Dark have been up to. If you’ve been hearing about I Am Beast and you’re waiting for the next tour, the good news is that there is a tour coming, but the bad news is that, for some reason, it won’t be until 2017.

But in the meantime, here’s a completely different project they’ve been working on: a teaser for an episode of BBC Horizon. Been a long time since I’ve seen them do shadow puppetry, but they’ve not lost their touch. Only slight pity is that they weren’t credited, which did seem a bit ungenerous of them. But never mind, here’s their video for you to enjoy.

The month in blog posts:

And finally, here’s what I wrote about in March.

Live Lab and Gated Community: A roundup of three new plays I saw at the beginning of the month at Live and Alphabetti.

Shafted: 2016 is the new 1985: My thoughts on John Godber’s much talked-about play he finally wrote for himself and his wife.

5 tips for performing at a fringe (which no-one ever follows):  My list of bad habits fringe performers learn to live with.

Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story: My tirade against how Penguin treated Miriam Elia. In case you don’t already know about it.

And that’s it. Anything else left to say. Oh, did I forget to say Penguin are a load of money-grabbing bastards? Nah, think I’ve covered it, not sure where. Welcome to April, see you when it’s over.


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