What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2016

Autumn equinox has just gone, putting an end a period over the first three weeks of September where people violently argue over whether it’s already autumn (as per the meteorological definition) or still summer (as per the astronomical definition). So now that you’ve all finished arguing over that, let’s go into this list of recommendations.

You know the score by now: I’ve searched the listing of the north-east theatres and looked for stuff that grabbed my attention, but this is a cross-section of stuff out there worth watching, and not an exhaustive list. For future reference, if I have seen you before and reviewed you favourably, you are encouraged to send me press releases for new projects if you’d like to be included here – I will probably pick up on what you’re doing anyway, but sometimes things escape my attention and a press release is a good backup. If I have not seen you before, it is unlikely you’ll get on to this list – invite me to review you and I might get you on the list in future seasons.

Long list of recommendations this time, so let’s get started.

Safe choices:

The following plays are all plays that I’m confident will be good. Most of them I’ve seen already and liked, and the others are ones where the writer, director and/or producing company have such a good track record I have full confidence in their new work. No play is every for everybody, but if you like the sound of it from my description, then this is my firm call that you won’t regret seeing it for real.

It’s a long list this time, thanks in part to a large number of touring shows taking in the north-east for a change. We have got …

Frankenstein

A puppet of the Frankenstien monsterNorthern Stage has just announced their own original take on Frankenstein, but that’s not until next year. Before then, Blackeyed Theatre are touring with their own production. They were last in the north-east in 2015 with an excellent production of John Godber’s classic Teechers, but it’s their production the year before, Dracula, which is the main reason to be excited.

Most theatre productions now are multimedia extravaganzas, and I’m sure Blackeyed Theatre could have done a good production that way if they wanted to, but instead they rediscover the lost art of acoustic sound, something very rarely heard ever since recorded sound took over. We’ve already had a sneak preview of their thunder drum on Twitter, and coupled with some masterful scripting we can expect from John Ginman that allows such a such a complex story to be told with such a small cast, you can expect a good production here.

This is on a national tour which has just started, but there are four chances to see this in the north-east: the Gala Theatre Durham on the 17th-18th October,  Middlesbrough Theatre on the 19th October, then Alnwick Playhouse on the 20th October, and finally Queen’s Hall Hexham on the 21st October. A lot of good touring companies ignore the north-east completely, so a good turnout for this would be much appreciated.

1972: The Future of Sex

The 1972 cast sitting in a row

This devised piece was a surprise hit at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. Devised as an ensemble piece and themed around the so-called sexual revolution of the 1970s, a lesser group would have made this into a mish-mash of unrelated scenes. The Wardrobe Ensemble, however, made this into four stories: a boy confused with his own identity after watching too much Bowie, a couple who can’t decide whether to do it, and two more couples who oooh baaay-beh let’s get in o-o-o-on. Sort of. Because this 1972 isn’t the absurdly fictitious version we future generations like to imagine of discos, drugs and debauchery, but a still deferential society where elders live in the 1950s, attitudes to women aren’t especially enlightened, and many teenagers know little of sex other than the not-terribly-informative blue movies hitting the screens.

The ingenious touch, however is the flash forwards. Many plays do flashbacks to how things were into the past – this zips forward to the 20th century and we see the disappointing conformism and mediocrity that these youngsters’ lives come to. Another recurring theme is how porn’s unrealistic expectations of sex seem to sour relationships whether the decade, whether it’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover from 1928 or Deep Throat from 1972 or hornyslutz.com from 2014. Adding in some hilarious inner thoughts spliced into the dialogue and some great original music, you are highly advised to catch this. They toured the south earlier this year, and you now have you chance to catch it in Newcastle at Northern Stage on the 18th-19th October. Damn. Two unmissables in one week.

And Then Come the Night Jars

Farmer pointing gun at vetThis clinches a late entry to the list thanks to the performance I caught at Live Theatre earlier this month. This is most notable to northern theatre because it is directed by Paul Robinson, former artistic director of Theatre 503 who produced this, and now brand-new artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. For Scarborians wondering what the future holds in store for their favourite theatre in the round following last year’s unexpected departure of both executive director and artistic director, this is a taster of what to expect.

Unlike the rest of the safe choices on the list, this is a conventional play with quite conventional writing, but it’s a good omen if it’s the shape of things to come at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. At first glance, this play looks like it’s about farming during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 – but it is in fact more than that. Stretching over a decade, the play is in fact about an unusual friendship that forms between a farmer and vet. For although the day when one comes to destroy the other’s dairy herd plays a large part in the story, this is just a chapter in a bigger story, encompassing both their own troubles and the changing landscape of farming and the years go on.

The Live Theatre performances have come and gone, but it can still be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 19th-20th October. Yes, looks like it’s all happening that week.

Morgan and West: Parlour Tricks

Morgan and West drinking teaThis is a theatre blog and I wouldn’t normally put a comedy/magic show in listings intended for theatre, but this is a rare chance to catch them in the north-east, so I’ll recommend them whilst I can. For those of you who don’t do the festival fringe circuit and have no idea what I’m talking about, Morgan and West are, in their own words, Victorian time-travelling magicians. Always staying in their character of spiffing chaps, they perform a variety of tricks that infuriatingly elude me for how they’ve done it – they can even catch you out with magic tricks whilst they are explaining how very same trick works.

This is one of two shows they are touring. The other one is expressly billed as for kids but they are both family friendly – to be honest, the only real difference between the two shows is that the other one uses children as the audience volunteers, whilst in this show the grown-ups get the fun. You have three chances to catch them, at Richmond Georgian Theatre on the 13th October, then Helmsley Arts Centre on the 14th October, with Washington Arts Centre straight after on the 15th October. Sadly, they are yet to perfect their time-travelling to simultaneously perform at other north-east venues at the same time, but it’s good to see yet another successful fringe act act take in the north-east.

The 56

One final encore. I’ve already recommended The 56 in numerous previous recommendations, including last season when they went to Live Theatre. Quick reminder: this play is a verbatim piece about the Bradford City Stadium, told from the point of view of three witnesses – one in a stand at the other end of the stadium, and two other who had narrow escapes. LUNG Theatre have done several pieces now, but this remains my firm favourite. I’m including them once more because if you couldn’t make it to Live, you have one final chance at Darlington Jabberwocky Market on the 1st October. Either see it at 8.30, or come at 7 for a double-bill with another play called Labels.

Bold choices:

Now for these. A recap of what a bold choice means: these are things that I have reasons to believe are good, but they are untested one way or the other. You might find this good or mediocre. However, if you want to take a chance and maybe be the first to see the next great thing, here’s a few things I think are worth taking a punt.

The Season Ticket

NNP-NORTHERN_STAGE_ST_JAMES_13This was already in last season’s picks, and the play has now started, but here it is as a reminder. The Season Ticket is a collaboration between Lee Mattinson and Pilot Theatre, and that’s a collaboration of the big guns. Lee Mattinson has hits to his name such as Donna Disco and Chalet Lines, whilst Pilot Theatre impressed me with the excellent innovative staging of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It’s a bold choice because they both take risks, and not all the risks they take work out, but this will be great if they get it right.

Adapted from a book of the same name, but mostly famed for the film Purely Belter, this follows the desperation of two friends to get the money for season tickets for their beloved Newcastle United. Interestingly, it seems Newcastle United has been quite co-operative allowing the cast to be photographed in the hallowed grounds, because I cannot think this play is going to be terribly flattering about their practices of ticket pricing, nor do I imagine a certain payday loan sponsor is going to escape flack. The run has already started at Northern Stage and runs until the 8th October.

Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing

harriet20dance_0Now for a mainstream production at Live Theatre. This got into my picks because the writer is Shelagh Stephenson, who you may not have heard of, but you have almost certainly heard of The Memory of Water, her most famous work. If you haven’t seen this play, maybe fearing it sounds a bit pretentious, see it. It’s not pretentious, it’s wonderful, charting a relationship between three sisters that is lot more complex than first impressions suggest. (And when I say see it, I mean the play, not the film – Before You Go was a misguided adaptation that did the play a disservice.)

This play is vague as to what it’s about, but the titular character is an anti-slavery campaigner in a world of racial intolerance, so we can expect this to feature quite heavily. There again, the blurb also says it’s a world where, I quote, “a negligent husband may die from a pig falling on his head in the street.” If you’re wondering how this fits into the play, your guess is as good as mine.

Bold choice because Stephenson’s scripts are unpredictable. The Memory of Water is a fantastic play I’d recommend to anyone. Five Kinds of Silence is also good, but it’s a bloody depressing play from start to finish and more of an acquired taste. How will this fare? This is a long run at Live Theatre from the 10th November to the 3rd December.

The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes

Publicity image of play: two kissing silhouettes in snowI saw an early version of this play at last year’s Live Lab Christmas Adventures, back when it was a 20-minute play. Short plays are a strange beast to get right. Bite-size are the masters of this and find great 10-minute plays from every corner of the world. After that it goes downhill very quickly. Most other ten-minute plays I see come across as fragments of a story that feels like it belongs in something longer. Getting a good self-contained story in this time-frame is fiendishly difficult. But Nina Berry finally succeeded where countless others failed with a beautiful love story taking place over two decades. (Again, don’t worry about the pretentious-sounding title, there’s nothing pretentious about the play itself.) Now, as one of two Live Lab associate artists for this year, she’s commissioned to make this into a 70-minute piece.

But will it work as a 70-minute piece? It’s a gamble that frequently backfires. I’ve seen too many decent self-contained stories because dull and slow-moving when stretched out beyond their natural length. Terminal Velocity may be able to escape this fate because in the original story there were hints of further chapters to the tale of Rosie and Charlie that were only touched upon in the original. So there’s a good 70-minuter to be made here if she gets it right.

The definite good news, however, is that it’s in December which means you don’t have to go and see a horrible corporate pantomime instead. Catch it at Live Theatre on the 8th-17th December.

Putting the Band Back Together

longimage_bringingthebandbacktogether_prodshot

This is a last-minute entry on to this list following a showing at the press launch of Sunderland Stages. More on Sunderland Stages in a moment, but Putting the Band Back Together was one of the shows hosted by Northern Stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that I kept hearing good things about. It’s based on a true story of Mark Lloyd who, not so long ago, was diagnosed with terminal cancer with six months left. He decided the one thing he wanted to do more than anything was get his old band back together, which he did, in Washington Arts Centre (which was quite fittingly where I saw the performance).

This is in bold choice rather than safe choice because it’s different rather than untested. It’s a very ambitious piece that tries to take on a lot things in one hour. Abandoned instruments feature quite strongly, as does the “house band” of different musicians brought in for each individual performance, and as a result there is some evidence of a devised piece put together that may not be to the tastes of conventional theatre purists. But the absolute gem in the play is the telling of the final few months of Mark Lloyd’s life, told as tracks 6-10 of a 10-track album of his life. It’s these moving stories that make the play its own.

Anyway, you’ve got to be quick. Washington has come and gone, so your last chance in the north-east for this tour is Northern Stage on the 28th-30th October. Yes, it starts tomorrow. Hurry hurry hurry.

You might like:

One final thing in my recommendations. The category is for stuff I expect to be more specialist tastes. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this sounds like the thing for you, but if this grabs your interest, I recommend giving it a go.

Hitting the Wall

This one on of several pieces I saw at this year’s Buxton Fringe which is so different I don’t know what to call it. It could be consider a play, or a Powerpoint presentation, or neither, or both. Whatever it is, it’s the story of Wayne Soutter, the first (and so far only) man to attempt to swim frmo Scotland to Ireland from the Mull of Kintyre – the reason why he remains the only person to attempt this route is that it’s also pretty much the most dangerous route on offer, with strong currents poised to take even the strongest swimmer of course.

One man narrates the story in a largely factual manner, and the other plays Wayne. I was sceptical as to whether this could work at all, but it did. A large part of long-distance swimming is confidence management. Too little confidence and you won’t push yourself and give up. Too much misplace confidence and you can push yourself too far and end up dead. The show maintains a very delicate balance and keeps audiences guessing until the end on which way it goes. You can catch this at Northern Stage for a one-off performance on the 30th November.

And one other thing of note …

Normally I end this lists with things of note outside of the north-east. Nothing to report this time – everyone on my watchlist is being rather quiet at the moment. Remember, if I’ve previously given you a rave review at the Edinburgh Fringe or wherever, I want to know what new things you’re getting up to. So instead, a few words about Sunderland Stages. As I mentioned earlier, I saw Putting the Band Back Together as part of the launch – now there’s another seven plays to go.

This is part of a scheme to try to get people going to theatre who wouldn’t normally. This is especially important in Sunderland, where the only professional theatre is the highly corporate and insanely expensive Sunderland Empire. If you can’t afford that- where else can you go? But it’s fiendishly difficult to get non-theatregoers into a theatre, and it’s more than just money, because when affordable tickets have been tried before the results have been quite disappointing. For what it’s worth, I think I agree with Alan Ayckbourn who once said that the traditional working class think theatre looks down on them. That’s not an easy perception to change.

So Sunderland Stages aims to tackle this by bringing theatre to venues non-theatregoers might regularly frequent. So most of the plays take place in shops, colleges and libraries. The plays are also aimed a variety of ages with different themes intended to appeal to different people. I’m pleased to note the Royalty Theatre is included amongst the venues – a different council might have been too culturally snobbish to associate itself with an amateur theatre. There is one important thing this festival doesn’t do, and that is support local talent, with all acts being imported from outside Sunderland. However, I have been assured that they have seperate schemes going on to support local talent within Sunderland.

Will it work? We can only wait and see. When you’re trying to break down stupid class barriers in theatre, there’s little you can do but try out a new idea and hope for the best. But as far as ideas goes, it’s a good set of ideas and I hope this bears fruit.

Phew! That was a long list. Join me again in January.

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