Newcastle’s big two theatres have been busy in the last month, with main shows going head to head at the same time. Unusually, both productions are revivals. Not too unusual for Northern Stage to do a revival (though less often than it used to be), but unusual for Live to do this. The Red Lion only just counts a revival, having premiered at the National Theatre in 2015, but off-hand, the only revivals I can think of at Live are re-runs of successful shows previously premiered there. Even Northern Stage haven’t done that many revivals lately if you don’t count the “concept” productions such as Hedda Gabbler and Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Red Lion
I didn’t pay much attention to The Red Lion when Live Theatre first announced it because neither the play nor the author rang a bell. But it should have done, because whilst I didn’t remember the name, I certainly did remember one of his plays, Dealer’s Choice, performed by a then-unknown Dugout Theatre shortly before their rise to stardom. This play, a dark play about six men trapped in a dangerous spiral of high-stakes poker, always stuck in my mind amongst the hundreds of plays I’ve seen. He’s notable for other plays too, but this is the one I based my high expectations on, and he did not disappoint.
Set in the world of semi-professional non-league football, this play is inspired in part by Marber’s own experience in saving his own local club from bankruptcy. So you might think that such a play would be a homage to the beautiful game, free from the influence of spoilt millionaires and self-serving shareholders. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong.
Apart from Marber, the other big name signed up to this play is Stephen Tomklinson, known to most for soaps, but remembered by Live regulars for his role as the insane gangster Freddy the Suit. Fortunately for everyone’s well-being, Tomskinson’s character does not go round murdering people who owe him money, but he’s still a pretty shady geezer. As the best manager the club has seen in years, Kidd could be a local hero, but he’s too wedded to the greasy pole (and owes too much child support) to settle for this. Working alongside him is Yates (John Bowler): a footballing legend who once got them through to the FA Cup Third Round, only to fall from grace both professionally and personally after a disastrous stint as manager. He disapproves of Kidd’s ethics, but Yates too has his own self-interests, just more personal ones. Only Jordan (Dean Bone) shows any real integrity. He’s the club’s new star play who refuses to dive when the ref’s not looking – but even he has weaknesses that prove his undoing.
The Red Lion has sold extremely well at Live, and whilst this may be down in part to the popular subject material of football, it must have help that Marber wrote such a super script. In spite of there only being three characters in this full-length play, you never lose interest. All three characters have intricate background, never forced into the script like many plays do with backstories, but always worked into the dialogue without break the flow of the story. It’s a three-way power-struggle – four-way if you count the unseen management that Kidd claims wants to sell off the ground – and the balance of power constantly ebbs and flows and men play off against each other, and Kidd tries to put his silver tongue to work for the deal he can’t afford to lose.
Max Roberts did a fine job directing this play, but the thing about the production I want to single out the most is the set. Live have a good track record with sets, often finding ways to to make a statement about the story without resorted to the dreaded “concept set”, but this did the job particularly well, with little touches such as one peg per player and the faded red lion that inspersed so much loyalty in the club all helping define the play. In fact the only aspect of this production I’d question was the decision to have no interval. I realise that there’s no easy place for an interval in a play of three scenes of equal length, but 1 hour 45 minutes is an awfully long time to do in one go. Interval-free plays, I feel, work best when you continually ramp up the tension and there’s no real spot for a break – this plot, I feel, was a little too slow-moving to justify this format. But that’s just a personal preference of mine.
Some new writing purists might note that this play isn’t new writing by Live’s usual strict standards, as this play had a successful run in London before Live produced their own version. I have to say, I can’t think when Live last produced a theatre already successfully produced before (excluded revivals and extra runs of their own productions). But I think they’re allowed a safe bet every once in a while, and there’s few better choices they could have made than The Red Lion.
East is East
Now over to Northern Stage. Unlike Live, Northern Stage start revives classic plays a lot more frequently, and apart from the odd “concept” adaptation (which, it must be said, has variable results), they tend to be generally faithful productions. So East is East was about as safe a bet as can be – but when the standards of the faithful productions are as good as Northern Stage’s, you can expect high standards, and that exactly what we get here.
This play is one of the best-known plays out that, thanks in a large part to the 1990s FilmFour version for the big screen. Terrific though the film is, however, is it quite a different experience from the original stage play. The plot is the same – George, wishing to be a man of standing within his local Mosque, betroths two of his eldest sons to marriage, but his British-born children have other ideas – and the characters in the Khan family also remain the same. But the film told the story in the wider community, from the Pakistani community over in Bradford to the racist neighbour in Salford. The stage version, however, is almost entirely told in scenes between the Khans, into a much more intense – and some say much darker – storyline.
Like The Red Lion, one of East is East‘s biggest strengths is its character development. The six Khan children are all different are all in various state of rebelliousness from their father: from Tariq, Salford’s own Casanova who rejects all culture that came from “the Pakis” (to use his words); to Meenah, very much Anglicised but enjoys the culture of both communities; to Maneer, a devout Muslim following in his father’s footsteps, but even he draws the line at forced marriage.
The most interesting relationship, though, is the marriage of George to his English wife Ella. It would have been easy to make George into a tyrant; instead, he’s shown as a man torn between two cultures, too beset in the good life of Muslims he grew up with in Pakistan. One interesting thing that came out of the after-play discussion is that Ayub Khan-Din wrote backstories for the characters way beyond what’s covered in the play, including how George and Ella first met, and that the family was a happy one until the children were old enough to start rebelling and Ella had to choose which battle to pick. George and Ella’s marriage at its best shows up in the touching scene where George enthusiastically brings home a dentist’s chair as his latest bargain.
The play was directed by Suba Das. Faithful revivals of plays can be a bit of a thankless task for the director – unless you are prepared to go for a new take on a play (which is risky), you can put on the greatest production and the writer takes all the credit. But one thing I can definitely credit him for here is a technical one, and that’s the blocking. In order to make use of a rotating stage for the set change, you get the dreaded triangular stage, which is a nightmare for sightlines. The otherwise excellent Educating Rita suffered for this at the Gala, and that was with a cast of two. Somehow, Suba Das managed to do a movement plot where sightlines were never obscured, and without the usual solution of obviously contrived movements to into the dreaded line. Clearly an accomplished director here.
It’s been two decades since East is East first played, but it’s never lost its relevance and Northern Stage’s version does it justice. It’s still running until the end of this week, so catch it if you haven’t already. My only thought of this is that it’s been quite a while since Northern Stage has done this sort of thing. Not so long ago, Northern Stage revived lots of classic plays to a consistently high standard, but now not so much. Live Theatre I think will always be almost exclusively new writing, and Northern Stage should do its share of original theatre too, but don’t forget the classics. That’s a strength Northern Stage should value.