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.

So, here we have the story of Alphabetti Theatre interspersed with the stories of homeless people. What is the link between the two? Because this is told very much as Ali Pritchard’s personal story, with the three actors taking turns narrating Ali’s own words. As well as the Herculean effort made to run the theatre, his other is taking is taking notice of the people of Newcastle the rest of us don’t notice. Some stories are interviews taken from homeless people as research for the play, others are stories that crossed over into his life without asking. And there are some heartbreaking stories in the play, one of the saddest being a woman whose newborn baby was taken into care before she’s left hospital.

How does this play, heavily reliant on a writer’s personal experiences, succeed where so many others fail? The answer, I think, lies in how deep you’re prepared to go. Most plays I’ve seen that rely on self-indulgence run short of interesting material. It could be these artists’ life experiences just aren’t interesting enough, but I wonder if the more likely problem is that you’ve got to dig deep into your memories if you want a good story on stage – memories, I suspect, too personal for most people to make public. But laying your whole life open to public gaze is a massive gamble. Most gambles can only spoil a play, or, at the very worst, your reputation as an artist. This kind of gamble also risks the alienation of family and friends. That’s a much higher price to pay.

But whatever the reason for going ahead with this risk – be it optimistic naivety, gung-ho recklessness or an ingenious calculation – it’s paid off handsomely. Some parts of the story teeter perilously close to sensitive real-life matters; I won’t go into details, but it was handled well, with a suitable balance struck between relevance to the overall story and a respectful distance from other people’s affairs. The overall message, though, was something that surely struck a chord with many in the audience: they will be familiar with the blood, sweat and tears that goes into any artistic project – but keep it in proportion; there are people out there with far worse problems than you.

The play was nicely added to by the twin staging devices of projector and live music. Ben Walden provided some fitting animations of the map of Newcastle, together with Ali and Rex, Newcastle theatre’s most famous dog. The big name, however, was Haythem Mohammed, providing the music. So well-known and respected is Haythem Mohammed, an easy trap would have been to play his most recognisable tunes and maybe end up making the play about him. (That mistake was sort-of made Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing with the over-use Mount the Air.) But he refrains from doing that, and uses his trademark percussive guitar techniques to provided an understated but perfectly fitting soundtrack to the story. Don’t worry, Haythem fans: he gets the spotlight at Alphabetti on the 11th January with his album launch.

How Did We Get To This Point? is quite possibly the riskiest play I’ve ever seen anywhere, let alone Newcastle. If it was a circus trick it would be a brand-new trapeze stunt performed over a pit of spikes and man-eating crocodiles. As such, this play needs to come with a warning of “Don’t try this at home kids,” and I’d urge anyone thinking of writing a play about their own lives to that detail to think very carefully about whether you know what you’re doing. But hey, it worked, and worked better than I could have possibly imagined.

And the response play …

Straight after How Did We Get To This Point was a short response play: Wrong Place, Wrong Time. This was written by Steve Byron, dramaturg to the main play, and the solo piece stars Paula Pennan, which north-east fringe fans will remember best as bullied schoolgirl Donna in Lee Mattinson’s Donna Disco. However, she is playing a much rougher and scarier teenager this time round. If Lee Mattinson ever wishes to write Donna Disco 2: Payback Time, Paula Pennan would be perfect for the part of a vengeful Donna raised from the dead embarking on a murderous rampage.

Anyway, enough digression, back to the response play. Pennan plays Nicky, telling her story from childhood through to her teenage years and eventually to a fateful bust-up with a stranger she deeply regrets. Through a combination of a neglectful mother, irresponsible older brothers, and a school swift to point fingers and slow to understand problems, it’s a journey on a slippery slope for a girl who could have turned out so differently. Byron writes a sensitive portrayal which Pennan acts very convincingly.

The only complaint? There’s very little room to leave people guessing in this play, especially with the key quotes quotes pinned up to the wall. I suppose the purpose of this was to indicate the inevitability of the path Nicky in condemned to follow, but the side-effect was that from the very start I guessed very accurately what was going to happen in the beginning, middle and end. This, I think, is one of the snags of response plays, not leaving the play’s author with much room to do anything different. There again, How Did I Get To This Point? was originally a response play to Wet House, so maybe this too can sprout wings and take a life of its own.

All in all, a superb job from Alphabetti under the circumstances I least expected a superb job could be done. Really, the only pity is that this is such a specialised play appealing to such a niche audience (you really needed to be quite familiar with Alphabetti theatre to properly appreciate it), it can’t really have much of a life in the wider theatre world – The Frights remains Alphabetti’s best exportable product. But it does show how Alphabetti Theatre can surprise us when we least expect it. As they go into the unknown once more on the search for yet another new venue, we can look forward more than ever to what they come out with on the other side.

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