Okay, we’re quite a bit into March now, so I’d better hurry up with this. Sorry this is late, but I didn’t want to delay the Vault Festival reviews any further as I had a couple of press ticket reviews waiting on that. But now that’s out of the way, let’s turn attention to what else happened in February.
Beyond the End of the Road
You may recall that last September I reviewed a scratch performance from The November Club, a theatre company heavily based in rural Northumberland. Beyond the End of the Road is set in such a small community, a fictitious village based on interviews with people in similar real villages. As well as the research to get the community feel right, there’s lots of live music in the story, with guitars and other instruments cleverly used to represent all sorts of props. The most promising bit, however, was the story of two outsiders returning to their home village for different reasons. And then, just when things got interesting – it finished.
At the time, it was hoped the piece could be taken further and completed, but that was all dependent on funding applications. Well, they got it. What’s more, I’m told they got everything they were hoping for and they’re proceeding with Plan A. So it is now being produced in full and it will be touring to eight places in Northumberland. Nothing yet on if it will perform somewhere more accessible for the rest of us, but surely that must be on the horizon if it goes down well. I hope so, because I want to know this finishes.
Country Durham and Teesside please take note: this is what happens when you support local talent rather than import everything from Newcastle. Recent improvement noted, but you have a lot of catching up to do with Northumberland.
Alphabetti lives on?
Having pulled off a stunning fundraising campaign last summer when the theatre looked in danger of closure, sod’s law struck and the landlord wanted the basement back. The news must have given a bit of a fright once everyone though Alphabetti was home and dry, because forced relocation is precarious for any customer-facing business, but ever since the news broke, the mood has been optimistic, and attention is already shifting from if there will be a new venue to when and where, as well as what the new venue will be like. Whilst there is no official announcement yet, we can pick up some clues from the latest North East Artist Development venues brochure that came out for this month’s Meet the Programmers event. Alphabetti is listed for the first time, their venue move is included in their listing, and from this we can pick up two clues.
Firstly, the intended opening date is down as “no later than September 2017”, and that, I understand, is a cautious estimate. There are some hopes of being able to do this sooner, but they’re currently allowing 6 months to relocate. It may be less; the only bad news is that we have to rule out the ultra-optimistic scenario of the seamless transition where Alphbetti closes its doors on March the 11th and opens the new doors on March 12th. There’s going to be a few Alphabetti-dry months, we just don’t know how many.
The more interesting detail is that the new venue is down as having an increased capacity. This could mean two things – and which one is important. It could mean another single-space theatre with higher audience capacity, or it could mean more than one space in the new theatre. A higher-capacity space would make the new venue more viable to established touring groups, who lately have been accounting for an ever-larger share of the programme. An extra space, on the other hand, would make it easier for entry-level groups to get somewhere to perform, because demand for the current space is currently way over supply. My view is that the latter is more important to the north-east arts scene (although a larger space accommodating bigger-acts has the advantage of better financial security). Or maybe the new venue will have both more spaces and bigger spaces.
Keep an eye out for the announcement of the new venue – what’s inside could have a big effect on the direction of theatre in the north-east.
Enter the Old Fire Station
Now let’s turn attention to a new venue in Sunderland. The breaking news this month was the approval of plans for The Old Fire Station, a new arts venue in Sunderland. This will cover a number of things, but the thing of key interest to theatre fans is a 450-seat theatre. This would be a big deal in most cities, but in Sunderland this is especially significant. At one end is the Sunderland Empire, by far the biggest theatre in the region that takes West End touring shows (sadly also West End ticket prices to match). At the other end is the amateur Royalty Theatre, with absolutely nothing in between. The Royalty slightly plugs the gaps with hires, such as Sunderland Stages which sometimes uses if for touring professionals, but Sunderland is pretty much the only major city in the north-east without a suitable venue for mid-scale theatre. Newcastle does, as does Darlington, Durham, South Shields, Washington, Stockton and Middlesbrough, so it’s long overdue that Sunderland gets one.
With the Empire being cost-prohibitive to many people, I’m hopeful that this new venue, when done, will offer something more open to the people of Sunderland to see. What I’m less hopeful about is whether it will offer something more open for the people of Sunderland to take part in. The closest venue to what the Old Fire Station will do right now it probably the Arc Stockton, championing the cause of theatre in areas of low engagement But so far, this cause is dominated by bringing in culture from outside, often Newcastle, rather than nurturing local talent to send elsewhere. There’s things such as writing and performing classes, but that’s not good enough – you need to be supporting local performers on stage on equal terms to those your bring in from Tyneside if you want to be serious about cultural engagement. So far, I’ve only seen Arc significantly support one local performer (Daniel Bye). Better than nothing, but a long way to go.
By far the easiest thing The Old Fire Station could do for Sunderland is import in work from places like Newcastle where the cultural ecosystem is already in place, but that’s exactly the problem: it’s easy. When you’re faced with the choice of an easy solution, or the hard but far more valuable solution of supporting local talent, it’s tempting to just do easy thing, ignore the hard thing, and declare it a success. I hope, whenever this is is build, they don’t give in to this temptation. Sunderland can do a lot better than that if they try. This new venue is good news for Sunderland no matter what – I just hope they don’t squander the chance of excellent news.
Brighton Fringe expands again
After last year’s unprecedented 20% growth in fringe acts at the Brighton Fringe, from 720 acts to 900, the big question was whether this growth was a one-off or part of a longer trend. After all, Edinburgh Fringe has been known to trumpet about growth in growth years and keep quiet in flat years. This time, however, there were certainly good reasons to believe the growth would continue. Growth is unsustainable if there is not an increase in ticket sales to support it; Brighton has no need to worry there, because ticket sales even higher, by 30%. However, that’s not an automatic guarantee of growth. Anecdotally there was reports of a huge disparity in beneficiaries of the growth in sales, with week 3 acts particularly losing out. Festival growth is still unsustainable if the extra sales all go to the same few big names.
But there’s no need for that note of caution this year, because in 2017 Brighton Fringe has grown again. It now 970 acts, which is 7.8% increase on 2016. Not as spectacular as 2016, but enough to put to bed the possibility that it was just a spike. Again, sales figures will need watching closely to see if they also rise. One other figure we might want to start looking at, however, is Edinburgh Fringe registrations. Edinburgh growth flatlined in 2016, although ticket sales held steady so there’s no reason to expect a decline in 2017. But the gap between Edinburgh and Brighton is closing. So far, there is a widespread perception amongst much of the arts world that the Edinburgh Fringe is the only fringe worthy of any attention. But if Brighton continues growing and Edinburgh continues flatlining, at some point that will change. Currently Brighton is 30% the size of Edinburgh in terms of registrations (up from 24% in 2015). How big does this have to be before Edinburgh loses its monopoly?
Another thing to keep an eye on is the length of runs. Will that gap close with the three-week norm of Edinburgh? Last year the new Sweet Venues Brighton took a gamble and made a 7-day run the standard show length, whilst The Warren’s runs were more like 3 days. This year, it looks like no change. Sweet still has 7-day runs; Warren might be edging to 4 days as a new norm, but there’s too much variance to be sure of a shift. (Anyone who’s got these stats in a spreadsheet, feel free to do some number-crunching.) So far, the results of Sweet’s experiment are inconclusive.
Whilst I’m on the subject of festival fringes, at the time of writing the unexpected news has just broken the Buxton Fringe is gaining the Rotunda, a 130-seater pop-up venue. I will come back to this next month when we should know more about the line-up of the new Underground Venues. Interesting times ahead for both venues.
This last thing I’ve included just for completeness. I last wrote about Homegrown back in 2015 during my Edinburgh Fringe coverage. Away from the festival, a row was brewing down south over the National Youth Theatre pulling a controversial play about radicalisation. Not knowing anything about the play, I cannot say whether it needed to be pulled. For all I know, it might have ended up on the wrong side of the law, or it might have comprised the safety of the young actors. If that was given as the reason, I might have given the benefit of the doubt. But the reason given – claiming halfway through the rehearsal period that they play isn’t up to standard – was just feeble. Does anyone believe that suddenly deciding this for a play with contentious themes is a coincidence? I certainly don’t.
However, I can now following this up and say that the National Youth Theatre did one decent thing, and that’s setting the play free. It’s reappearing at the Young Vic, although not as a full performance. The script is being published, excerpts will be performed, and there will be a discussion around the issues the production was meant to raise. Doubtless the discuss will include why the NYT canned it.
In fact, March 6th is tonight. So we should be hearing shortly whether there really was an extremist agenda like the NYT claimed and then un-claimed. My guess is that the play probably isn’t extremist and someone mistook depiction of extreme views with endorsement of them. But even if it is, I have said time and time again and free speech is only really free if you defend the right of people you express views you loathe. Let’s get this play out in the open and find out what it actually says. And if it’s bad ideas, let’s fight them with good ideas.
What I wrote in February:
And now, the usual roundup of what I wrote since the last Odds and Sods:
Underground overground: what happens next?: In light of Underground Venues’ move to the Old Clubhouse, I looked at what this may mean for the Buxton Fringe as a whole. Of course, now that this new rotunda has arrived some bits are out of date already.
Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best: The first full-length play I saw in 2017, and what a play it was. Deborah McAndrews had a long string of great adatations of classic texts for Northern Broadsides, and this was no exception.
The Empty Nesters’ Show: Then it was the turn of The Empty Nesters’ Club, John Godber’s new play about what happens to parents after their children leave home. He’s done better plays, but the depiction was spot-on.
The problem with political theatre: About time I wrote something controversial again. This was me venting my frustrations over the ineffectiveness of most political theatre, if you aim it at people who already agree with you.
Roundup: Vault Festival 2017: Okay, didn’t actually write this in February, took me until March. But there you can find my reviews of seven plays at the Vault, plus one down the road in Theatre N16.
And that’s you lot. See you next month.