Chris Neville-Smith’s 2016 awards

Phew. Here we go one more time. I’ve counted how many plays I’ve reviewed in 2016, at it’s come to 92, with 3 others still pending. Yeek. I had no idea it was that many. Now it’s time to do the annual awards. It’s always an interesting exercise to do – whilst I have some front runners in mind for some awards, for many of the other categories I have no idea who’s going to win it until I’m forced to sit down and go through everything that’s a possibility.

Couple of slight changes this year. There are three new categories included; two quirky ones and one serious one. Other change is that the categories are going to be revealed in a slightly different order than before. This is because there is still one play left in 2016 for me to see, so I’m going to start with the categories it can’t win (e.g. it can’t win best new writing because it’s an adaptation). I have already pencilled in winners, but there’s still time for a late game-changer.

As always, the eligibility for this award is based on the highly arbitrary list of what I’ve seen in 2016. Most major productions in Newcastle and Durham get a chance – after that, with touring and fringe productions, it gets more arbitrary, with some winners only on the list by chance. One important exclusion to remind you of is that plays that have been in previous years by the same company on the same run are usually not eligible – this is so that long-running shows don’t unduly dominate the awards year after year.

I’ve run out of jokes about metaphorical drum rolls or inappropriately scantily-clad celebrities opening envelopes, so let’s get straight to it. Continue reading

How did they get to this point?

How Did We Get To This Point? was a gamble to the point of sheer recklessness. But it paid off and Alphabetti’s alternative Christmas show is the best thing they’ve done.

Picture on wall: man holding sign saying "Keep your coins, I want change"How did Alphabetti Theatre get to this point? Their end-of-year production was very much a hastily-arranged Plan C. The original plan fell through when another theatre nabbed the writer they intended to commission. Then the next idea, to do a plan based on talking to Leave voters about the why they voted, but they wouldn’t come forward. (More on that subject another day.) With December looming, by this point one would normally be in damage control mode, forgetting hopes of a ground-breaker and settling for something merely okay. Anyway a plan was made to sort-of revive How Did I Get To This Point?, a play they once did as a studio production at Live Theatre a few years back.

It’s not often I know the background to a play in this much detail. The reason I know this one is that the history of Alphabetti Theatre, up to and including the production of the play, is the story of the play itself, interspersed with stories of homeless people. By this point, loads of red flags ought to have been flying. Self-indulgence and self-referencing is difficult to pull off, and doubly difficult if you’ve decided to do this at the last moment. This could have been a disaster.

And what do you know? Against all odds, How Did We Get To This Point? is the best thing they’ve ever done in this theatre. Continue reading

Harriet Martineau mounts the air


JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits

Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.

Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?

With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow. Continue reading

Halloween fringe roundup

Hooray! My review backlog which has been piling up ever since the Edinburgh Fringe is now down to single figures. Which means I can now catch up on three fringe plays I saw in late October and early November. Two of them were deliberately timed to coincide with Halloween because of Halloweenish moods or themes. That last one’s timing is more coincidental, but sod it, let’s put it in this article.

All in all, it was a pleasing set of three. Let’s get to it.


One venue that’s lately been working to put itself on the cultural map in Newcastle Castle. (Yes, they are aware that they are naming a castle after a city that in turn is names after the Castle, which is a bit meta, but no-one’s come up with a better name yet.) They’ve been doing various weekends of fictional worlds, such as Tolkien and Narnia. Theatre has started appearing in these events. For instance, they put on a play at the Tolkien weekend which I didn’t see but apparently, it was some guy who took it to the Brighton Fringe – anyway, I heard it’s quite good. ūüôā But the main event is clearly Wytch, a play from Twenty Seven productions running for two weeks in Newcastle Castle’s Great Hall. Why there? Because that was the place that the witch trials on 1650 took place, one of the darkest times¬†in Newcastle’s history. Continue reading

Frankenstein: a marvellous thing brought back to life

Dr. Frankenstein about the create his creature

Faithful to the book, innovative to stage yet shunning electronic wizardry, Blackeyed Theatre’s take on Frankenstein outshines the multimedia extravaganzas.

Technology has transformed theatres. There was a time when the only way to get music of a decent sound quality was to bring your own orchestra along, a sound of a thunderstorm has to be done with complicated off-stage equipment, and lighting was a complicated affair only possible in the bigger theatres. Nowadays it’s possible to to achieve all this even in the smallest fringe theatre spaces. Such is the advance of technology it’s easy to forget there was once a great art to staging plays without electronic wizardry. Not a better way or a worse way, but something different.

But one group who doesn’t want to let this go is Blackeyed Theatre. This groups does a range of plays in a range of styles, but this particular brand first appeared in 2013 when a team led by director Eliot Giuralarocca did Dracula. It was a small-scale production with a cast of five and no sound effects other than what the actors produce on stage, and apart from one bit of over-ambitious doubling (that caused Van Hesling to have a fight with Dracula played by the same actor), it was a good production in a refreshing style. Now the same team is back with Frankenstein. They’re still faithful to the book, still using a small cast, and still have no sound other than what they’ve done a stage – but they’ve built on what they did in Dracula, and gone from a good adaptation to an outstanding one.

Continue reading

The Season Ticket: a prize above all prizes

Scene from The Season Ticket

Sometimes touching, sometimes brutal, The Season Ticket is a great four-way collaboration portraying lives on the fringe of society.

Could you assemble a better team? Lee Mattinson has already shown how skilled his writing is with¬†Donna Disco and¬†Chalet Lines. ¬†Pilot Theatre wowed us with one of the best staged plays ever with¬†The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Northern Stage, of course, as an excellent track record of mainstream productions. And¬†Purely Belter, the film adaptation¬†already made of the book this is based on, is a cult classic in Newcastle. And yet seemingly surefire collaborations don’t always work out. Such high expectation can set up such bitter disappointments. But not here.¬†The Season Ticket is every bit as good as I hoped it would be, and more.

Gary and Sewell are two young lads at the very bottom of the pile. Gary has a sister who is desperate to get her A-levels so that – it is quietly understated – she can get out and move on to a better life – Gary has given up on going to school, and best friend Sewell has seemingly given up in general ever since his father died. The two of them begin in the middle of an inept petty crime, looking for suitable luxury household appliances to burgle from their headmaster’s house. Perhaps, it’s suggested early on, it’s got something to do with Gary having a half-inattentive alcoholic mother.¬†But it emerges that she, too, has her own reasons to give up, once it emerges what sort of person Gary’s father was and what he did to them. Continue reading

Odds and Sods: November 2016

Welcome December, and what may possibly be the last odds and sods of 2016. I’m not planning to do an odds and sods for December because you don’t tend to hear much other than pantomimes, pantomimes and more pantomimes. Unless, of course, 2016 decides to go out with a bang and have a figure from us beloved throughout the theatre world. (My money’s still on Boris and Sergey’s suggestion though. If 2016 really want to go out with a bang and take a national treasure, David Attenborough’s in big trouble.)

Anyway, let’s not carry on tempting fate by suggesting further celebrity deaths, what happened in November.

Alphabetti needs a new home

Alphabetti Theatre barAlphabetti Theatre deserves a break. First they lost their original home at the Dog and Parrot, and put all their work into setting up a new venue. They ran into financial trouble and had to do more fundraising. The extent to which they were supported and the acts they’ve had booked is a treatment how well they’ve done. So now what do they get? Their landlord wants the basement back.¬† To be fair to the landlord, this was always part of the deal. They, and many other organisations in the same building, were able to rent the space for cheap because the building was earmarked for redevelopment and no-one else wanted it. Until now, I’d always assumed that this would be like Pauper’s Pit in Buxton, where the redevelopment that is definitely going ahead next year takes place over a decade later, but this time, seems the landlord actually meant it. Continue reading