Whilst I recover from Brighton, I can turn attention to the big theatre news up here in the north east, which is the opening of LiveWorks, Live Theatre’s latest development. Ever since the cuts started in 2010, Live has been busy expanding its estate, presumably motivated by getting itself a reliable income stream from real estate. With a mixture of artistic and commercial functions, we first had the Broad Chare Pub, then we had the addition of the Old Schoolhouse, and now we’ve got this addition on formerly derelict land running all the way to the water front.
As I’ve been writing about before, one question that can reasonably be asked is: should Live be getting involved in this? Some parts of the new building will be used for the arts – youth theatre is the big one this time round – but other parts are simply being rented out to any business who bids for the office space. Is it appropriate for an arts organisation to play such a strong role as a commercial landlord? It’s a valid question, but I’m okay with this. A business (especially a creative one) prepared to pay for office space on the quayside is quite likely to be prepared to pay a premium for the prestige of being part of such a prestigious theatre. Provided Live don’t lose sight of what they are there for, I look on this as a smart use of assets and a smart way of getting money.
It was excitedly hinted a few weeks ago that the entire commercial space had been hired out to a single company, but nothing’s been heard about that since. If this true it would effectively amount to a major commercial partnership. My eyes remain peeled.
Anyway, all of what I’ve written about so far is stuff that goes on behind the scenes with little to show on Joe Public’s radar. The most prominent thing to the public is the new Live Gardens. It functions as a public space out in the open most of the time, but also has a use as an outdoor performance space. It would indeed be interesting to do some outdoor theatre there (once the paperwork is filled in for Newcastle Airport to divert all flight paths over the performance which is apparently compulsory for all outdoor theatre), but the first thing up is a performance space brought into Live Gardens. Step forward The Paper Birds with their show performed inside a caravan.
Mobile is a very ambitious piece that I’d say covers about twice the material you should attempt to fit into a 45 minute play. The second part of a trilogy of attitudes to class, this looks at what happens to people who move between the traditional classes. Drawn from a series of interviews and presented as verbatim theatre, we see that the achieving dream of doing better than your parents did isn’t always that simple, especially reconciling your old world with your new one. Some of the stories are composited into a tale of our host who is temporarily moving back in with her mother in her caravan on an indefinite basis. Other stories are told through the medium of- … well, I’ll get on to that in a moment.
A common mistake made in theatre, both on-stage and off-stage, is to clump class into three simplistic caricatures of upper, middle and working class. Mobile, much to its credit, recognises that it’s a lot more complicated than that, and the stories we hear cover so many different scenarios of real lives. Some are inspiring, some are oddities – such as the man who likes tattoos and Staffordshire bull terriers but shies away from both because it might make him look like a chav. And some are more difficult – the hardest story (used for our hostess), I thought, was the woman facing the prospect of moving back in with her mother. The mother was delighted at the prospect of spending some time together; but she couldn’t help look on this as a failure, ending right back in the place she’d work hard to move on from.
However, there is a price to be paid for The Paper Birds’ ambitions. So much is crammed into such a short amount of time that none of the stories really get a chance to develop. We don’t really get much chance to know our hostess as a person beyond the collage of stories assigned to her, and the snippets of other people’s stories tend to finish just when they’re getting interesting. Okay, this is verbatim theatre and you can only work with what you’ve got, but it is possible to make gripping stories out of it (as Motherland and The 56 did so successfully). One thread near the beginning that was very interesting was asking people to guess other people’s names and occupations based on appearance. One big question in real life is do people get unfairly judged on common-sounding names or careers – but time pressure means we move on from this before there’s a chance to really get to grips with this.
But the thing that makes this unmissable is the staging. You see, this is no ordinary caravan. Virtually everything in there plays a part in some technical wizardry at some point in the play. There are screens outside the window when the caravan drives away, kettles, radios and microwaves all take on unexpected uses, and all of this is tightly choreographed into the performance. My only regret was that I was so busy marvelling at how well this had been done I fear I may have missed some important bits of the people’s stories. If anything the staging was so good it was too good. But trust me, this has to be seen to be believed. Get a ticket whilst you have the chance.
On the whole, both Live Theatre and The Paper Birds can be happy with this. If Mobile shows the innovative capabilities of The Paper Birds, the sky’s the limit for projects like this. And if Live were hoping for a good start to show what their new outdoor space can do, they got it. Sadly, that’s their only play programmed into Live Gardens this year, so we’ll have to wait until next summer to see how this is followed up, although there is the “opening” coming in July. (I’ve never understood this logic in opening things that are already open, but that’s how it goes.) Look forward to the next one, whatever it may be.
Mobile runs until Sunday 26th June in Live Gardens, running repeat performances each day at various times.