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. 🙂 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.
The play is written by Lee Mattinson, who has been very busy this year with The Sellotape Sisters and The Season Ticket, but still found time to pen a third play. This follows the story of one family, the one that included the only male victim. Witch-hunter did have a suspiciously high tendency to accuse women of witchcraft, but unfortunately for young Matthew, anyone will do if you look a bit weird. Matthew is a naive boy whose only real friend is a mouse called Nicholson – not a good idea when any animal is assumed to be a familiar. When this strangeness is used as excuse needed by a visiting power-crazed bloodthirsty witch-finder. A desperate plea his family to get him freed only makes it worse for all of them.
The best thing about this play is the depiction of a witch trial. The unfairness of the witch trial is portrayed in a terrifying land at the height of the Puritans’ power. The witch-hunter is judge, jury and executioner. He decides the method of proving a witch, claiming only he has the expertise, and of course it’s stacked against the accused. He gets paid of every witch caught. Any attempt to protest at the injustice is dismissed as the devil speaking. If ever need to know how the phrase “witch hunt” came to be used for any hysteria-induced show trial, look no further than this witch hunt.
The play was, however, a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s not the most unpredictable play; from the beginning to the end, you have pretty good idea what’s going to happen. Okay, this play is drawn heavily on the real historical accounts of the trial so there’s little opportunity to drop in unexpected plot twists, but I wonder if they passed up an opportunity to explain why this sort of show trial was accepted in Puritan-ruled Newcastle. To be fair, this is hinted at in the beginning of the play when Matthew’s cousin gets a bit too excited with gossip of who’s been named a witch. Maybe Mattinson and Six Twenty Seven could have made more use of doubling with the angry mob and made them more into people betraying their friends and neighbours as they are swept up in the hysteria. A hard thing to work in, but maybe.
But it’s a good entry from Newcastle Castle into the theatrical scene, both in terms of audience turnout (it was close to a sell-out for the entire run) and quality of the play. I’m afraid when I hear a witch trial, I will always think of this trial first (am I a bad person?), but for a more down-earth portrayal about how terrifying the reality was, this is the play for you.
The Rooms 2016
Reprising their original The Rooms same time last year, this is another set of three short plays at Alphabetti Theatre, which, like last year, makes use of the numerous small rooms around the basement in Alphabetti’s current home. The key change advertised from last year is that the three solo plays are all for male characters, as opposed to the three women last year. We had Word Salad, where a drugged-up creative searches for the elusive Catherine in the ladies’ toilets, Night Trade takes outside in the alley where a homeless guy beings some people along for some dubious business, and A Terrorist’s Guide to Romance takes place in an underground bunker, temporarily built into Alphabetti’s main stage.
All of the plays were decent ones, although the nature of the event does tend to make them a bit sameish. If I was to pick a favourite of the three, however, I’d go for A Terrorist’s Guide to Romance. I like the way Laura Lindow’s been going lately with both writing and directing, with Beyond the End of the Road in September showing particular promise. Like all the plays, a lot of the story is left unspecified – we never know the real name of “Citizen X” briefing his fellow freedom fighters (play by James Hedley), but we know two things. Firstly, there is a lost woman somewhere in his backstory that somehow pushed him down the path he’s chosen. Secondly – and this was the best bit of the writing – we never know what he’s fighting for, but he’s all excited about “the change” that’s coming.
There’s one thing this year’s rooms did better than last year, and that is that this has made a lot better use of the spaces the plays were acted in. Last year, two of the plays were straight monologues, which was fine, but this time round there was a lot more engagement with the audience and generally interaction with every nook and cranny available. Strangely enough, this has come about more by accident than by design. I’d wondered if there’s been some overall artistic direction at work, but apparently not – instead, all three directors were left free to do their own things. I can only guess that having had a chance to witness how this works last year, they’ve taken the opportunity to see how it can work better.
No maniac Tory-idolising women putting poor people into chicken nuggets this time round – I think that one from 2015 remains my favourite, even though it didn’t quite fit with the overall mood of the format. But still a good follow-up to what was originally an experimental use of spare rooms around the building. Can this continue into 2017 when Alphabetti won’t have the same venue available? Find out soon.
The Swan Canaries
Finally, something over in Sunderland. Nothing particularly Halloweeny about this one, just how the timing happened to work out. This is another play from Sunderland Stages, the scheme by Sunderland City Council to try to bring theatre to the people rather than the usual people to the theatre. This time, it’s at the Royalty Theatre. In Sunderland Stages, venues tend to be matched up to target audiences, and this one, set in the 1910s and heavily using the songs on the period, was aimed at an older audience
But Arletty theatre’s play is far from an undemanding gentle sing-song, and it’s something worth watching across all ages. This is the story of the Chilwell Shell Filling Factory, and the months leading up to the explosion that killed 134 people in the desperate final summer of the First World War. At any other time, this would have been another tale of worker exploitation in dangerous factories. But the factory girls returned to work the following day and within a month the factory was producing more than ever before.
It must have been a very different mentality for that to be possible, and this war effort mentality is portrayed very well in the play. The sing-songs and pranks that take place throughout the place might be a bit of fun on the surface, but underneath it’s a distraction from all that’s going on. On the one hand, most of the women in the factory live in fear that any moment a telegram might come home with news of a brother or husband or fiancee or son; on the other hand, accidents are so commonplace they become routine. Little wonder they needed to take their mind off things.
Only small shortcoming of this play is that this talented cast of four women don’t seem to be pushing themselves as far as they could. Did they have to operate their own tech on-stage? I know they perform is many venues without lighting and sound (such as their original Buxton Fringe one), but in a theatre that’s capable of doing this properly, it was a bit of a distraction. And I’m sure they could have made more of the singing. This might be a personal preference, but with the music such an integral part of the play, I could see four-part harmonisation adding a lot to the play. I think they could do it.
Anyway, Swan Canaries is a nice play. Well, as nice as you can make a play where a large proportion of the workforce die at the end, but then, slaughter and misery isn’t a great hook to get people interested about history, and understanding why King and Country were so important one day.. Then performance at Sunderland was a one-off, but this is being revived on and off since its 2014 premiere, so there may be more chance to catch this. Not a bad showcase for Sunderland Stages, and long may this format continue.