I’m not quite done with 2016. I’ve got three final shows performed very close to Christmas that need reviews (two of which you can work out from the last article, the other which you can work out with a bit of sleuthdom), but 2017 is already underway and I’ve a whole new list of recommendations to go through. It’s a long one this time. My lists might be getting longer because I’m getting to know more good theatre companies, but there’s also quite a bit of good stuff coming from the usual suspects.
To save me repeating myself every time, I’ve written up a Recommendations Policy to explain how this works. Please bear in mind that I make the rules up as I go along and what I said yesterday might be wildly out of date next week. If you can’t be bothered to read through that, the only thing you need to remember is that this is a cross-section of the good stuff out there, not an exhaustive list.
So what can I recommend for you?
The following five plays are ones that I’m confident anyone thinking of seeing it will like. Either I’ve seen the same play by the some company before, or I have other reasons to be just as certain about it. Provided this sounds like your sort of thing, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
After years as a faceless receiving venue, the Gala had a terrific 2016, introducing a new successful scratch night, programming better theatre, and re-introducing in-house productions. The last in-house piece was the original commission The Fighting Bradfords. This time, it’s the turn of a well-known classic. Obviously, this won’t appeal to everyone that The Fighting Bradfords appeals to – die-hard new writing fans may have no interest in something that’s not original. Conversely, this play will reach out to an audience who are willing to go to safe bets but not the gamble of new writing.
But for a safe bet choice, there are few better plays they could choose than this masterpiece. The story of mature student Rita, who attends an Open University course to be “educated”, it might seem like an ordinary tale until the class divide comes into play. For Rita, the price on an education isn’t just money or time. Trapped between the snobbery of some in academia against the inverse snobbery of her working-class family and husband, a choice is looming between her future or her family. Told through a series of tutorials between Rita and alcoholic tutor Frank, Willy Russell may have written this for his home town of Liverpool, but the plays themes still resonate today. Catch this at the Gala Theatre on the 4th-8th April.
Educating Rita comes hot on the heels of Invincible, which toured to the Gala last year. This is also about class divide and snobbery, but a new kind that didn’t exist in Rita’s day. Affluent Emily and Oliver have moved up north and invited their working-class neighbours Frank and Dawn over for olives and anchovies. Not beer. For although Emily and Oliver imagine themselves to be as left-wing as they come, they are clueless as they can be as to what real work-class people want. Efforts to introduce them to Karl Marx and abstract art go about as well as could be expected.
Torben Betts writes a lot of political plays, and whilst they sometimes get bogged down in soapbox moments, this is as sharply-observed and intelligent as they come. This is first major revival from the Original Theatre Company is now extended to 2017, and whilst you’ve had your chance at the Gala, you still have chances to catch them at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 22nd-25th February, then Harrogate Theatre on 15th-18th March. Do not miss it this time.
Frankenstein (Blackeyed Theatre)
One highly-trumpeted production coming to Northern Stage shortly is Dr. Frankenstein, one half of their Queens of the North season. It’s a variation where Victor Frankenstein becomes Victoria Frankenstein. Hmm. Jury’s out on this idea. Before you ask, no, I’ve got no problems with the idea of introducing a powerful woman into a classic story, but the point of this particular story wasn’t the power of the central character for creating the creature, but his powerlessness once he’d created it. Maybe this is taken into account. We’ll see.
In the meantime, however, there is another adaptation of Mary Shelly’s famous novel which I’ve seen and I can wholeheartedly recommend, and that is – sorry Northern Stage – Blackeyed Theatre, another group who took in the Gala Theatre on their last tour. What makes Blackeyed Theatre different from all of the other adaptation is that they don’t use modern stage techniques, instead relying on the techniques used before there was recorded sound in the theatre. But don’t dismiss it as inferior to proper multimedia experiences – the sound effects they produce entirely on stage are perfectly atmospheric.
They key attraction, however, is the life-size puppet used as the Creature. Life-size puppetry is enjoying a wave of popularity at the moment, and this won’t disappoint you. Again, their 2016 tour has gone down well enough for a 2017 encore. It won’t be returning to any of the north-east theatres they called at last time, but they will be taking in Harrogate Theatre on the 2nd-4th February, Leeds Carriageworks on the 3rd-4th March, with the only stop in the north-east this time being Bishop Auckland Town Hall on the 18th March.
Another play performed to Northern Stage is Cyrano de Bergerac, with Northern Stage’s version set in a gymnasium. However – sorry Northern Stage again – the version that’s grabbed by attention this season is not them but their namesakes Northern Broadsides. This is another work of the wonderful Deborah McAndrews, who together with her director husband Conrad Nelson do a wonderful series of adaptation, almost always transplanted to Yorkshire. I liked Accidental Death of an Anarchist and The Grand Gesture (based on The Suicide), but the one I loved the most was A Government Inspector replacing a corrupt Russian town with a corrupt borough council somewhere on the Yorkshie/Lancashire border. They did a good original play too, An August Bank Holiday Lark.
I don’t know what they have in store for Edmond Rostand‘s famous tale of unrequited love, but you can expect music and an insanely talented cast, although for once it looks like they will be sticking with the original time and place of Paris in 1650. This will begin a three-week run at New Vic, their co-producers on the 3rd February, and then it will tour, and your options in reach from the north-east are West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 28th February – 4th March, the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 4th-8th April, and finally York Theatre Royal on the 11th-15th April.
Whilst I have yet to discover if Queens of the North will work, there is one Northern Stage production coming up which I’m happy to rate as a surefire success now, and that’s the classic tale of arranged marriage in 1970s Salford. East is East is best known as the Film4 screenplay from 1999. If you’ve seen the film, you can be sure you’ll like the stage play it was based on; screen version stayed quite loyal to the story, even using the same cast. If you haven’t seen it, honestly, it’s a terrific story which is as good as everyone says, looking at the conflict the segregationist and racist mentalities of the older generations against the younger generation wanting to be part of their new home country.
Although the play and film are very similar, there are a few interesting moment in the play that didn’t make it into the film. In the film, one of the Khan children goes to the pub for his first drink on the night of his arranged wedding – in the play, there’s a bit more to that moment. Find out at Northern Stage on 18th April – 13th May, touring to co-producers at Nottingham Playhouse straight after.
Now for some picks that I have reasons to believe could be good, but where you’ll have to turn up and see. Usually it’s for plays I haven’t seen yet; however, this time, there are two in the Bold Choice lists because they’re different.
Paddy Campbell’s been keeping me brief on all the projects he has in the pipeline, and now that it’s official, I can finally tell you of his first iron in the fire. Leaving is a play about what happens to young people in care when it’s time to set out on their own. Bold choice because this is a verbatim play, and different from the conventional plays that Paddy Campbell has written before. But he should be in a good position to do this. Whilst I have some reservations about his play scenes finishing at arbitrary point, he really knows his stuff about what he writes. Wet House explored a world where some alcoholics are let down by the care system, whilst in Day of the Flymo, a young lad in trouble in spite of the care system’s best efforts. Expect whatever he has to say here to be an eye-opener.
This is a joint production between Curious Monkey and Northern Stage, and takes place at Northern Stage from 23rd February to 4th March (not Sun/Mon). Stage 2 can sell out quickly if a show is popular, so book early if you want to be on the safe side.
And now from leaving the care system to leaving the normal family home. But this play isn’t about joyous bright-eyed youngsters going off to University, but the sadder experiences of the parents left behind. Hinting that this may be real on the real experiences of John Godber’s wife, Jane Thorton, she plays Vicky, and this promising to resonate with any parent who’s dealing with the empty bedroom.
John Godber’s new productions are a mixed bag. Some of them don’t really stand out from his better works, but when he has new things to say, he says very interesting things, often not afraid to step out of line with artistic consensus and say his own thing. After a two-week run at producing Theatre Royal Wakefield from the 25th January, it will tour, with opportunities to see it in the north-east at the Gala Theatre on the 6th-7th February, then Middlesbrough Theatre on the 8th-11th February, Queen’s Hall Arts Centre on the 28th February, and finally the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 13th-18th March.
Something I discovered at Sunderland Stages, this is down as a bold choice as something different and experimental rather than something untested. This is a play that covers two seemingly disparate themes: taking up instruments you’ve put away for years, and what to do when you’re given six months to live by your doctor. The connection? This is the true story of Mark Lloyd, whose last wish was to have one final gig with the band he used to play with.
There’s a lot of experimental devices in the play, not least including “house musicians” in each performance; as such, this play won’t be for everyone. But the best bit of the play is doubtless Mark’s story, told as tracks 6-10 of an ten-track album of his life. This is on a tour that takes in The Customs House on the 31st January, and the ARC Stockton on the 1st February.
Speaking of Sunderland Stages …
This is quite a way off, but I think I’ll include it. Mobile was last in the north-east in Live Gardens as their inaugural production, a perfect place to locate a play set in a caravan. Yes, that’s where the play is performed, not just where it’s set. Anyway, now that I think about it, Sunderland Stages was the obvious places for this to go to next. With a programme that brings art to the communities with a series of pop-of theatres, what better an idea than this play with its very own performance space brought along.
This is another play that relies heavily on verbatim theatre about people’s experiences with Britain’s complicated class system. Mobile is unique in doing verbatim stories or the topic it covers, but it is certainly unique in the multimedia extravaganza that goes on inside, with kettles, microwaves and clocks performing functions you’ve never seen before. This will show at various time on the 26th and 27th May. I don’t know yet where this caravan will be, hopefully someone will say so closer to the time. [UPDATE: It’s the Market Place.]
As you might be aware, there aren’t that many places to sit in a caravan. The performances at Live Theatre were very popular, so there may not be enough seats. Forward planning is advised – as soon as I know more about what’s going on I’ll let you know.
You might like …
One thing now which probably has a niche interest – however, if you like the sound of it, I’m confident it shouldn’t disappoint.
Steve Gilroy’s been off the radar for some time, but every since Motherland at the Edinburgh Fringe he’s been regarded as the master of verbatim theatre, and he probably still holds that title, although lately he’s been facing some hot competition from FYSA Theatre with The 56 and E15.
Anyway, one project he has coming up is a play on dementia. This time, he’s collaborating with a musician to have music in the play. This is a work in progress play rather than a finished piece, but I’ve seen his WIPs before and they do look quite close to finished products – even if they have scripts in hands, you forget them after a while. Don’t expect anything too cheery though. Live Theatre in the studio on the 27th-28th January, post-show discussion for both performances.
Finally, one thing I’m listing where I have no idea whether or not it’s going to be any good, but it’s interested me sufficiently to suggest giving it a go.
I saw a scratch performance of this in the Gala Studio, from Bonnie and the Bonnettes, pictured above. Gentlemen, before you fall in love at first sight with any one of these three lovely ladies, did you properly read the title? Yes, leading lady Bonnie Love is also knows as Cameron, who became a drag artist in Sheffield at the age of 14. This project is in preparation for the Edinburgh Fringe, and their next one-night performance at Northern Stage is another step in the development.
The excerpt at the Gala looked interesting – whether this can translate into an hour-long piece I have yet to see. However, the performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart is hilarious and was the highlight of the evening. You can catch this on the 23rd March at Northern Stage.
Outside the north-east
I really don’t know enough about what goes on in the rest of the country outside of festival fringes, so I can’t really offer a comprehensive guide, but there are two groups I absolutely must mention.
The Vault festival is coming up. Most of the acts there are new things I don’t know about, but there’s a few names from the Edinburgh Fringe I recognise. It’s worth giving Skin of the Teeth or The Club a whirl if you’ve not seen them before.
However the one you absolutely must not miss is the wonderful The Jurassic Parks on the 8th-12th February. It’s now on its third name, having previously been Jurassic Park and Dinosaur Park, but it’s still the same story within a story. On the surface, it’s a three-person rendition of the famous Spielberg film. But the real story is the story of the Park family. With the dinosaur story running with close parallels to the difficult past of the parks, the sum of this production is many more times than its parts. I’ve already seen it twice, and I almost timed my Vault visit for a third one.
Alternatively, if you have seen it before, I recommend giving their new show a try, Mars Actually, running the following week on the 15th-19th February. So different was Jurassic/Dinosaur Park to anything I’ve seen before, I cannot begin to guess what they have in store here, other than this being set on the Red Planet in an indeterminate future. However, there’s a hint in the show description that this might be quite dark, with a poem containing the line “Wiser for the errors of the Eartly ancestors.” Superbolt will be hard-pushed to top the success of the other play, but could they do that?
Another terrific play that’s making a return is Sparkle and Dark’s masterpiece, last seen at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. This is the story of Ellie, also known Blaze in the fantasy world of comics she built up with her mother, alter-ego Silver. Now Blaze is searching for Silver; in reality, her mother is dead. Then The Beast arrives in her fantasy world. Or does it arrive in the real world? As Ellie sinks into depression, fantasy and reality get blurred in a terrifying way.
Here’s the bad news: apart from the core creatives, the play is being completely recast. I will miss the old cast, especially Lizzy Muncey who made a fantastic Ellie. But we still have Lawrence Illsley’s superhero soundtrack, Shelley Knowles-Dixon’s fantastic choreography and set, and yes, Louisa Ashton will still be sexy villainess Yolanda, the part she obviously wrote for herself because she enjoys it too much. This will be touring over the south and Midlands, including a week at The Pleasance in London at the end of March. If you can’t reach any of those, there’s also a Brighton Fringe booking for anyone determined to time their Brighton visit around that.
That’s 14 plays recommended now, and my wrists are killing me. However, there’s two more things that aren’t really theatre that I just have to mention.
Haythem is a percussive guitarist who is a regular at Alphabetti Theatre, including the music for their surprise hit How Did We Get To This Point? He also does the circuit of Newcastle’s pubs and clubs. As I’ve said before, he should just be doing a pubs and clubs circuit – he should be performing at The Sage. But The Sage’s loss is Alphabetti’s gain, and that is where he will be launching his new album. It’s on the 11th January at Alphabetti Theatre, and yes, that’s this Wednesday. Hurry hurry hurry. If you can’t wait, you can whet your appetite with this.
I’ve mentioned John Robertson show many times, but I’m mentioning it once more because – hip hip hooray! – he is coming to Durham. If you remember 1980s text adventure games, you’ll be right at home here. If you don’t, it will take a bit of explaining- … oh, forget it. You’ll pick it up as you go along. Just remember: 1) Always check pockets, never Czech pockets, and 2) if all else fails, just join in shouting “YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE!”. Find out what this is on the 22nd April at The Assembly Rooms, Durham.
And that’s finally it. 16 events, 3,200 words. Phew.