Wow. We’ve made it past January and the world hasn’t ended yet. I was half-expecting the inauguration to conclude straight after the oath finished and an aide came up and opened a briefcase with a big red button in it, but no, it didn’t. This is going better than I expected. So it looks like I am going to be writing the January 2017 Odds and Sods after all.
This time, I’m going to put a bit more focus in what new works people are up to. I’ve been doing this a lot less than I would, but this January my radar of new work has been very busy. Let’s see what I’ve got for you.
Stuff that happened in January
So, starting off, something from Mark Farrelly that’s grabbed my interest. I last reported on Mark Farrelly at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe (this is coming up in the final week of the Vault festival if you’re round that neck of the woods), but it’s the play he wrote further back, The Silence of Snow, that prompted me to keep an eye on him.
This month, he’s still mostly acting, but he’s also directed Lena, which has had its very first scratch performance. Infuriatingly, I was in London that day, but my train home left half an hour before it was due to finish. So I can’t report on how good it was, but apparently it was a sell-out by a long way, which looks like a vote of confidence.
So in the absence of any information about the play, I think I can make a good guess. It’s billed as “A celebration of the magic of Lena Horne”. And Lena Horne was a jazz singer with one hand in Hollywood and another in political activism, until the day she was blacklisted – not for her skin colour but for her political views, at the time when nice Mr. McCarthy proclaimed that anybody who think workers should eat two crusts of bread a day instead of one must be a commie. Surely this has to be a key part of the story. Is it any good? I’ve yet to see, but the precedent from My Friend Lester is that even the simplest of setups – with only minimal dialogue between a multitude of songs – can make the loveliest of shows. I’m counting on you London readers to keep an eye on this for me.
Replay: the play
Another thing that’s brewing in London is Dugout Theatre’s latest production. I’ve seen six different plays of Dugout’s in Edinburgh now, which have ranged from good to outstanding. Their absolute best of the best is Inheritance Blues, but they’ve had some pretty good goes at topping this seemingly insurmountable personal best. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about this play because this is one of Dugout’s plays where they’re being cryptic on what’s about about. It’s not even a biopic so this time I can’t work it out by looking it up on Wikipedia
However, there is one important difference: For the last four years. Dugout’s material has been almost entirely devised by the company. I think you have to go back to 2011 for when they last performed other people’s plays. This is written and performed by Nicola Wren, who up to now has had little involvement with Dugout Theatre – as far as I can tell, her only involvement has been as “Fran”, the publicist of egotist Stackard Banks (a.k.a. Ed MacArthur) in a companion podcast to the play. So this collaboration may be very different from what Dugout has done so far. Quite a high chance this will be appearing in Edinburgh quite soon, given the portability of solo shows and Wren and Dugout both being fringe veterans, so I may be learning of the outcome of this soon.
Fangirls on Fire
I last covered a new project of Yve Blake’s this time last year. Yve Blake impressed me in 2015 with Lie Collector. The new project was Homeslice, devised in Australia, shown in people’s homes, and meant to come to the UK round about June. But then events overtook this and she got this Rebel Wilson scholarship, which is a really big deal in Australia giving her a year to write a musical, and meet a lot of famous people. The bad news for those of us in the UK is that she fell off the radar whilst writing this.
However, now that she’s pitching it somewhere in Los Angeles, her social media is twitching back to life, and from this we can have our first clues. We already knew that this was going to be about teenage fangirls falling in love with their idols based on interviews with real fangirls, but it did feel little tame compared to her previous works that were always a little bit twisted. However according to this instagram post, the fans interviews said they were “prepared to kill for love”, and it now looks like Yve’s going one step further and taking it literally in this story*. In fact, now that I think about it, the title “Fangirls on fire” also takes on a new meaning if read literally.
Don’t get too impatient though – this is down as coming in 2018, so that’s probably at least a year to wait. Homeslice isn’t completely on the back burner though. It’s currently in her What’s Cooking list rather than a past project, so we may not have heard the last of this. Please have patience, northern hemisphere, I’m sure it will be worth a long wait.
[*: At least, I assume it’s only a story. I can’t imagine any fangirls were confessing to murdering other fangirls in these interviews. Unless they were being interviewed in Broadmoor.]
Underground Venues lives on
That’s all in the way of previews for works in progress. As always, if I’ve seen you before and liked what you’d done, please let me know what you’re up to now. I am not one of these arts publications who dutifully regurgitates press releases from the biggest theatres and says it’s all great – everything I write about it what I’ve got faith in, no-one else.
So, other news, and the big news from festival fringes this month is that Underground Venues has found a new home. The key managed venue at Buxton Fringe, the venue – and to some extent, the whole fringe – had an uncertain future when the basement of the Old Hall Hotel, its long-standing setting, permanently closed to make way for some fancy pants spa thingamyjig in the building next door. A lot of people assumed that when registration opened on the 1st December, we’d know where Underground venues were relocating to, but Christmas came with still no news and some of us began to wonder if Buxton would really have to manage without.
But Buxton doesn’t have to do without, because on my list of possibilities, they’ve gone for option 3, The Old Clubhouse. This was probably the most logical choice for a managed venue, because there’s several examples of working pub theatre fringe venues in Brighton, and the upstairs rooms lend very easily to a smaller box office room and a larger performance space. Registration opens shortly, after which there may be some more information of how this is going to work, and I’ll write a proper article on what this could mean. One important thing though: Underground Venues lost two spaces at the Old Hall (Pauper’s Bit and The Barrel Room) but gained only one. Stay tuned for my thoughts on the possible implications.
The Empty Shop Think Tank
Another theatre looking for a new home is Alphabetti Theatre. There is nothing definite to report just yet, but the mood is quite optimistic that a new venue will be found sooner rather than later. At this rate, I could well be reporting this next month.
However, the big news this month has come from the city to the south. The Empty Shop is rather like Durham’s answer to Alphabetti in Newcastle, but it’s been around a lot longer in an enviable space that is neither wanted as a retail unit nor earmarked for demolition (although it had a close call with the redevelopment of the shopping centre next door). Anyway, this was started by two friends, Nick and Carlo, eight years ago back in its original location in Gilesgate. Three major things changed since then: firstly, they ended up settling down in their current venue where they’ve been since 2010; secondly, the venue became primarily associated with Carlo when this became his day job, although Nick remained involved; and thirdly, although the Empty Shop has always been a mixed arts venue, it started off mostly operating as a fine art gallery space – now it is barely used for this, with performing arts (especially bands) taking most of the booking. (This new article from Living North gives a more detailed history.)
Now, two big changes are coming, both with echoes of the past. Nick is now full-time at The Empty Shop, in time for the launch of The Empty Shop Think Tank or TESTT. The short version of this is that The Empty Shop has grand ambitions to become a much bigger player in Durham’s cultural scene, but first of all, they’re spending a year on a research and development project to come up with a plan. We don’t yet know what this will entail, but what we do know is that a lot of big players are involved here, including the Chief executives of New Writing North and the ARC Stockton and the director of the Baltic. That’s a huge statement of intent across the region, and tperhaps finally finally the turning point where the north-east starts valuing the home-grown talent of County Durham.
But before then, they’re opening up a new space called TESTT station. The original plan was for Empty Shop HQ to be a permanent location over and above temporary spaces running alongside it, but that’s not been done for ages. And, interestingly, there seems to be a heavy focus on a function as an artist studio and gallery, the thing that used to dominate the Empty Shop’s activities. No announcement yet on where, only that it’s the “single largest unit” they’ve used. That means something bigger than 17 Claypath a few years back (the old public reception of Durham City Council’s services), and that was pretty big. Quite a lot of keep an eye on here, and in a month or two’s time there should be a clearer idea of what’s happening.
This Dunelm House thing
Ho hum, lately I seem to be ending all these articles with some sort of rant. This months I’ve been getting angry over the reaction to Dunelm House. This is a big fugly concrete monstrosity built in Durham’s city centre in the 1960s for the student union. I can categorically tell you as an ex-student that it’s never been particularly loved – it’s an utterly impractical building, especially for wheelchair accessibility, and the appearance of the building was a standing joke amongst the students. And the worst bit is that this was done by Ove Arup, the guy who did the amazing Sydney Opera House. All I can imagine is that someone dared him. I have this vision of him being out of the lash one evening.
Ove Arup: Do you know what? I’m so famous now I bet I could design any old shit and they’d build it.
Drinking buddy: No mate, you’re deluding yourself.
Ove Arup: I could too! It could be any old bollocks and they’d build it and say I’m a genius!
Drinking buddy: All right, prove it. You’ve got this commission somewhere up north, haven’t you?
Ove Arup: Yeah, some student union. I could easily do some ugly grey job and those idiots would lap it up.
Drinking buddy: I’m not interested in whether you could. I’m interested in whether you will.
Ove Arup: Right, fine, I will! I’ll show you.
Anyway, now that the University wants to knock it down, suddenly the fact that Mr. Arup build this is causing an outcry, mostly saying how terrible it is that anyone could snub the great man this way.
Look, everyone has their personal preferences of what a nice building looks like, and if a majority of the people of Durham City want to keep it, I will concede to the majority view. What I object to, however, is people from outside Durham who’ve never lived in Durham dictating to us what buildings we are supposed to be awed by. You might think concrete looks beautiful (if the architect is on your approved list of culturally enlightened people), but you don’t get to dictate to us what we’re supposed to appreciate. This feels like the Apollo Pavillion all over again, where the views of a cultural elite were treated as sacrosanct, and the opinions of the people who actually lived there were seemingly treated as worthless (expect those who supported the position of the aforementioned cultural elite).
However, I am going to begrudgingly suggest a compromise. As I understand it, the original idea wasn’t to display bare concrete walls forevermore, but to allow ivy to grow up the side of the walls and have a green building – but that had to be abandoned when it was found ivy weakened the structure. If honouring a dead architect’s vision really is the most important thing to do, how about we honour his vision by converting all of the outside walls into green walls, which shouldn’t be too hard to do now. I personally think we have far more important things to worry about in Durham than hurting the feelings of a dead architect, or maintaining the approval of his fans, but if we must find a solution everyone’s happy with, there’s your solution. Durham University, you can have that idea of mine for free.
Stuff I wrote in December and January:
Since the last odds and sods was November, I’ve got two months’ worth of article to list here. Such as:
The Season Ticket: a prize above all prizes: Much of December was spent clearing the embarrassing backlog I’d been struggling to get rid of ever since the Edinburgh Fringe. So the catchup begins with Northern Stage’s The Season Ticket, a wonderful adaptation from Lee Mattinson about two lads at the bottom of society’s pile desperate to be part of St. James’s Park.
Frankenstein: a marvellous thing brought back to life: And hot on the heels came another outstanding play, Blackeyed Theatre’s adaptation of Frankenstein, shunning modern theatre’s electronic wizardry are redicovering old-school sound, set and puppetry to marvellous effect.
Halloween fringe roundup: Batch of reviews of local fringe-scale productions: Wytch, The Rooms 2016 and Swan Canaries.
Harriet Martineau mounts the air: Next on the catchup: Shelagh Stephenson’s latest play at Live Theatre, Harriest Martineau Dreams of Dancing. An intelligent play about the complex ideals of the early feminist; the only thing which didn’t feel right was the use of the Unthanks’ hit Mount the Air.
How did they get to this point?: And then, this unexpected gem came out of nowhere. A play that fused the history of Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre with the stories of homeless people shouldn’t have worked at all. But it did, and it was in fact outstanding.
Chris Neville-Smith’s 2016 awards: Wow, that was really tough competition. Even with more categories this year, I had to get really choosy. But in the end, I make the winner of best play Birmingham Rep & Touring Consortium’s Of Mice and Men.
What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2017: Started the year with my longest ever list of things coming up locally (and two things further afield) up to May. Might have to start getting pickier if this continues.
More alternative Christmas: No Knowing and Snowflakes: Okay, so the 2016 backlog went into 2017, so here were two reviews of No Knowing and The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, both pleasing things fitting for Christmas productions.
What you read in 2016: Really of nerdy interest to me more than anyone else, the annual report of which pages on this blog were read the most. Never fails to surprise me how unpredictable this is.
James and the giant talent: Now that I have a nephew and niece to introduce to theatre, I saw James and the Giant Peach. I’m a child-hater so I can’t comment on what to recommend to kids, but the production values of the play were incredible – easily up to standard with touring West End shows on a fraction of the budget.
January fringe roundup: And at last, at last I clear the backlog. Reviews of Between a Man and a Woman (not local for once, caught this in London on a flying visit), The Unepxected Guest at the People’s, an unexpected gem Chopping Chillies and Each Piece verbatim theatre about dementia.
Holy shit, did I write that much? Right, that’s January. See you in February if the world lasts another month.