What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2016

Eeek. It’s June and I still haven’t done my list of upcoming recommendations. I do have the excuse that Brighton Fringe has kept me busier than usual, but all the seem, eeeeek! Luckily, if you’re using the astronomical definition of spring, that doesn’t begin until the soltice later this month. However, my intended recommendations are starting pretty soon, so I’d better get a move on.

So here’s a list of things that have grabbed my interest in the north-east, up to the end of Septemberish. As always, this is a reminder of stuff that I know about personally. Where arts publications are raving about a play, I generally won’t write about it unless I’ve seen it myself. Therefore, this is best looked on as a cross-section of stuff out there rather than a comprehensive list – there are always things I see later that I would have added to the list if I’d known about it at the time.

All right, enough waffling. I really need to get a move on now. Let’s see what I’ve got for you.

Safe choices:

The Safe Choice list this season has been enhanced by a couple of Edinburgh Fringe productions that have got round to including the north-east in their tours. Hooray! Please have more coming this way. Sheffield and Manchester is all very well, but that’s not the north to us, that’s the Midlands. (Birmingham is south. London is abroad.) Anyway, safe choice means that if you like my description and their description, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed if you see it yourself.

The season we have …

The National Joke

nationaljokeTorben Betts has been quite busy in the north-east this year with Get Carter and Invincible, but the success of these two plays has allowed me to promote his next one from Bold Choice to Safe Choice. This time, his play is being marketed a bit more cryptically that his previous offerings, but we know it involves three generations of women watching a solar eclipse and an ambitious MP who is, we presume, chasing a coveted appointment from the Prime Minister. Beyond that, few clues as to what it’s about.

What we do know, however, is that Torben Betts is frequently described as Alan Ayckbourn’s protégé. This is a title I know Betts isn’t keen on, but it’s certainly true to say that plays like Invincible do have a lot in common with Ayckbourn, especially the characterisation – and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, because his plays are all the better for it. My guess is that over time he will find a balance between what he learnt in Scarborough and what he learnt from himself, but the thing I observed from Invincible is that Torben Betts is at his strongest when he covers political messages from the of view of his characters rather than himself. Anyway, based on the previous Betts/SJT collaboration, The Swing of Things, I have high hopes for this one.

Before I move on to the other recommendations, a quick digression on The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s new writing programme. As I reported back in March, the SJT’s new artistic director is Paul Robinson, previous artistic director of heavily new writing-focused Theatre 503, so we can probably guess that the SJT is going for a new writing emphasis, but beyond that it’s all speculation. At the guests’ night later this month, Henry Bell (director of this play and current associate director with responsibility for new writing) and Paul Robsinson will be outlining their plans. Sadly, I cannot make this even though I was invited, but I hope to find out what was said and get a better idea about exactly what direction this theatre is going in.

Enough digressions. The National Joke is on at various dates between the 8th June and 20th August at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (juggled between other productions, as always). Apart that, these are my other recommendations …

The 56

p1abahj3hr18ldcu81be214ssp6d2For the second time this year, a group who went to the Edinburgh Fringe largely off their own backs has got the attention of Live Theatre. (Plane Paper’s Odd Shaped Balls was the first.) The 56 is something I was invited to review two years ago and it remains to date the best play I’ve seen on a press ticket. Done as verbatim theatre, it recounts the tales of three people in the stadium on the day of the Bradford City Fire: two survivors and one witness. Verbatim theatre is tough to get right – edit it wrongly and it either drags or becomes impossible to follow – but FYSA Theatre (now LUNG theatre) did such a good job it even gives Live’s own Steve Gilroy a run for his money.

Don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but if you’re worried this play sounds too depressing for you, it goes easy on harrowing material considering what went on that day; but it still breaks very gently the news of how a day of celebration turned into a minor inconvenience to a horrific fire faster than anyone realised. Interesting how different the attitudes were to that of Hillsborough – seems that with everyone accepting it was an accident and no attempt to cover up mistakes or shift blame, people could move on a lot sooner.

This comes to Live Theatre on the 6th and 7th September. If you’re not in reach of Newcastle, my guess is that this will be part of a wider tour, but they’re not great at keeping their website up to date. If I find out any further info I’ll let you know.

Dinosaur Park


One group that is definitely on a big tour is Superbolt Theatre with Dinosaur Park (previously known as Jurassic Park at the Edinburgh Fringe before some killjoy presumably argued over the use of the name). This was the production I kept hearing good things about at Edinburgh, and I finally saw this in January and loved it. The simplified description is it’s a three-person reproduction of the famous 1990s CGI blockbuster – except it isn’t. It’s so much more than that. It’s a story within a story, but the other story is the family who are doing a screening of Jurassic Park in memory of their mother, as this was the film they all watched together. As the story goes on, we learn more about the difficult history of the family and how they really got to where they are now.

If this sounds totally unworkable as a concept for a stage play – so did I. But it works better than I could have imagined, and if you’re hearing hype about it, it’s all true. There are three dates I’ve picked out in reach of the north east: 9th June at Cast, Doncaster, then 13th July at York Theatre Royal and then 21st July at The Customs House, South Shields. Big endorsement in particular to be playing in the main house at York Theatre Royal, but it’s easily good enough for the main house.

Henceforward …

Although I’m a big Alan Ayckbourn fan, I’ve rarely put his plays in my recommendations, rarer still when he’s directing it himself. This is because his plays tend to fall foul of one of two rules: the classic plays of his tend to highly recommended by all and sundry when I like to concentrate my publicity on smaller shows; or it’s a new play that could be unmissable, but I won’t know that until I’ve seen it. But it’s about time he got a recommendation, and I’ve chosen Henceforward … because this is reputedly part of his string of hits in the mid-1980s including Woman in Mind, A Small Family Business and Man of the Moment. It’s also one of the times Ayckbourn delved into science fiction, and whilst these ideas don’t always work it, they’re great when they do and this was said to be one of the best.

On a wider note, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is always the safest bet to see an Ayckbourn play because you can be confident they’ll do the best possible job with it. Alan Ayckbourn doesn’t always direct his own plays at the SJT, but on the odd occasion when someone else did the job they do as good a job as he would have done. The SJT gets it. Elsewhere, I have to say it’s a bit more of a hit-and-miss affair. Ayckbourn is generally easy to do well but even easier to do badly, and when companies (even professional ones) get it wrong they reduce the multi-layered characterisation to a series of stock 1970s sitcom roles. So in general, whether or not I specifically list a play in these articles, if you want to see a play done well, the SJT is always your best bet.

Bold choices:

Two things in my bold choices this time. These are things I have reasons to believe look promising, but the jury’s out until I have the chance to see it myself. The season we have …

The Season Ticket


This is a combination of two things that earned my respect. Pilot Theatre impressed we with their last visit to Durham Gala with their update of The Lonelines of the Long-Distance Runner, with some of the most innovative staging I’ve seen, including fully-projected scenes, and a treadmill used for the running and the rest of the play. They are teaming up with Lee Mattinson, who’s earned his stripes at Live Theatre and was last seen in action with The Sellotape Sisters at the Brighton Fringe, and whilst this play still has some work to be done, Mattinson has shown himself to be a good collaborator.

This is billed as an update on the book that inspired the film Purely Belter, although the source material is the book rather than the film. And yet, even though the film wasn’t out that long ago, life has moved to imitate art. In the book and film, Gerry and Sewell will do anything to get the money for a season ticket to their beloved Newcastle United. Since then, the price of season tickets has been exploited ever more ruthlessly, and sadly it is Newcastle United itself who became one of the most notorious offenders, with quick and easy Wonga-tastic solutions promised to get all the money you need.

This is running at Northern Stage from the 23rd September to the 8th October, which is quite a long run so clearly co-producer Northern Stage has faith in this. Whilst not everything I’ve seen Mattinson and Pilot does quite works out the first time round, I’m looking forward to seeing how this one fares.

The End of the Pier


This is a late entry to my list, which has made it to Bold Choice thanks to Frank Sumatra, which I saw last month at Alphabetti Theatre and found hilarious. Both that play and thisd new one are directed by from Neil Armstrong, who you thought had enough public adulation ever since his moon landing in 1963, but he’s not resting on his laurels and he’s now making a name for himself in fringe theatre.

Written by Armstrong himself this time, this looks set to be just as silly as Frank Sumatra if the description is anything to go by. Set in the days of the music hall, Lionel and Edith Bosh are the golden couple of the stage. Everybody loves them, except Lionel and Edith themselves who can’t stand each other. Only way way out: resort to murder. But who trying to murder who, I hear you cry? They both are, of course! At the same time!

This runs for a week between the 20th – 25th June at various venues over the north-east, including the Gala on the Friday and Saturday. And annoyingly, I’m busy every one of those evenings. I’ll just have to reply on you for reports.

Outside the north-east:

Not many things showing up on my radar this season. Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes will get their own lists closer to the time. Away from that, however, two things I recommend catching if you’re in the right place at the right time.

The Bookbinder


The thing I look forward to the most at every fringe is discovering something great that I’d never heard of before, and at the Brighton Fringe just gone, that was indisputably The Bookbinder. Part theatre, part storytelling, this was a dark fairlytale told almost entirely through puppetry of the objects on this desk of the Bookbinder who’s invited you in to consider you as his apprentice. Simple objects such as needles, thread, water and ink have so many uses in telling the story, but the key attraction is the pop-up book that was the cause of all the trouble.

This is coming to the Edinburgh fringe, and I will be highly recommending it then, but for anyone not going, your other chance to see this is Longleat House Library, Salisbury, on the 7th-11th June. This may be a long shot, but they’re based in New Zealand and they spend most of their time in the rest of the world. Seriously, if you can make it Salisbury next week, you’ll be glad you did.

Yve Blake: Homeslice


And staying on an Australasian theme, coming the other way at some point is Yve Blake, who I last saw at Edinburgh with Lie Collector. I loved it but the reviews were quite polarised, and a more cautious soul may have opted to follow it up with something more mainstream and crowd-pleasing. Instead, she’s stuck with her format of the hyper-enthusiastic millennial and upped the risk-taking further by doing a show set in people’s homes. This concept isn’t entirely a new thing, but this is the first one I’ve heard of the actively encourages the host to invite complete strangers into their home. And from the scant information I’m getting on my radar, this seems to be working.

Also on my radar is that she’s managed to scoop the Rebel Wilson scholarship. I’ve no idea of the ups and downs of theatre in Australia but apparently that’s good. And apparently she’s going to be using the scholarship to write a play about groupies, to which all I can say is that I’ll be disappointed if she’s not writing the parts of the groupies for herself. Preferably all of them. At the same time.

Anyway, enough disgressing. This show promises to be about “The Future. Robots. Old People. A love story like no other. Cool things you can do with torches. That one moment no one saw coming. Hummus. Other Dips. Strangers passing you the dips & the rest is a surprise.” If you haven’t seen one of her shows before I’ve probably lost you already and that description leaves you none the wiser. But the clue to watch out for is “That one moment no-one saw coming”. She is good at sneaking up dark themes into the humour when you’re not paying attention and suddenly changing the mood when you should have expected it but didn’t.

Still confirmation on when the UK run starts – as it stands, it will be some time between now and September, but plans change. I will keep an eye on this, and update this as soon as I have more information.

Also of note:

Finally, here’s a couple of things coming up where I’ve no idea whether they’ll be any good, but these mark particular events of significance.


paperbirds2The big news from Live Theatre this month has of course been the opening of Live Gardens. This is part of a bigger development performing a number of functions, but Live Gardens is the bit that the public will notice the most. It mostly serves as an open space, but of interest to theatre buffs is its use as a performance space. Trying it out first is The Paper Birds with Mobile.

The Paper Birds are frequent visitors to Live, but I’ve so far not caught anything. This one is a site-specific piece set in a caravan, and is about social mobility – not so much the barrier that stop people getting ahead, but the challenges faced by those people who do clear the barriers, and what they leave behind. This is a site-specific piece in a caravan with limited capacity, and even with several performances a day it’s liable to sell out. Find it in Live Theatre Gardens on the 8th-26th June at various times.

Next Up …

Finally, a small but very significant event coming to the Gala Theatre. After several years being nothing but a half-hearted receiving venue, there’s a big push at the Gala to make itself known again. They’ve done well so far this year to programme in plays that might before have given the Gala a miss, but now attention is turning to local talent the Gala supports. There won’t be anything grand just yet – the Gala does not have the funding tha Live or Northern Stage enjoys – but they are starting scratch nights similar to Northern Stage’s First in Three.

Submissions have opened for the first Next Up on the 28th June, and anyone thinking of applying can find information here. Three important things to look out for: how much interest will there be from applicants, how much of an audience will this get, and – most importantly – how much interest will come from County Durham itself? Right now, the priority surely has to be that this format works at all, but a close second is to avoid the trap Simon Stallworthy fell into and only support new writing from Newcastle. Interesting times lie ahead at the Gala.

And there you go. Sorry about the hasty article are the likely typos that probably plague it. Recommendation from two fringes coming seperately, and see you again for this in Septemberish.

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