What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2017

This is a bit later than normal owing to all the Brighton Fringe coverage I’m in the thick of writing, but there’s also a new season of stuff coming up in the north-east. Annoyingly, I can’t be sure this is the full list because Live and Northern Stage don’t announce their new programmes until later this month, so there’s a chance they might have a gem up their sleeves that I don’t yet know about. If they do, I will add this to the list as soon as I know about it.

Yes, I know it’s June so some people might say “How can this include spring”, but I’m using the atronomical definition where spring runs until the summer solstice on June 21st, so ner.

Remember, a cross section, not an exhaustive list. A cross section, not an exhaustive list. A cross section, not an exhaustive list. That’s the only rule I need highlight, rest of the rules are here. So, what is there to look forward to?

Safe choices:

So let’s start with some plays that I’m making firm calls on. No play is ever to everyone’s tastes, but if you like the sound of this here, I’m sure you’ll like it for real.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

I rarely make recommendations for the big theatres. Most productions there are thinks outside my interest, such as jukebox musicals, and when I see things that look good, the plays normally get enough publicity with or without my help. But I absolutely have to recommend the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book. The story of Christopher, an autistic teenager who naively embarks on a detective mission to find out who killed a neighbour’s dog, he begins to learn the hard way that life is complicated – but in doing so, also learns to cope better with the confusing world around him. Quite a big thing is being made by same people at the moment that you shouldn’t write stories about LGBT people or ethnic minorities or other minorities if you’re not one yourself because you can’t understand it. Here, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Haddon said didn’t do any research into autism, but I can tell you straight off he got this spot on.

Simon Stephens penned a fine stage adaptation, but it’s director Marianne Elliott who adds the master touch to the play. If you haven’t heard of her, you will have heard of War Horse – she directed that too, and her innovative vision and staging turns a great play into an outstanding one. Sometimes the themes cut close to the bone, but it’s a sympathetic and understanding tale, and there’s few better thinks you can see to help understand a different way of thinking that has been so easily misunderstood for so long. This has already started its run at Newcastle Theatre Royal until the 10th June.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Paul Robinson came to the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a promise of continuing the new writing programme started off by Chris Monks and Henry Bell, and if what he brings is anything like And Then Come the Nightjars, his final play for Theatre 503, it should be good. But you’re going to have to wait until the autumn before before you see this in action at the SJT, because he’s starting off with a well-known play. But as far as well-known plays go, there’s surely no better choice for Scarborough than The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. In case you’ve somehow never seen either the play for the film, this is the story of Laura, a quite girl constantly humiliated by her mother, until her latest sleazebag boyfriend discovers she has an amazing voice if only she can find the confidence. And if the people around her don’t let greed get the better of them. That’s the hard bit.

I’ll confess that I only know the film adaptation here, but the beautiful thing about this story is its simplicity, so I expect the stage original to maybe have some changes, but be just as good. And with both the Stephen Joseph Theatre and – I believe – Paul Robinson having a great track record in small-scale musicals, I have high hopes of a fine SJT debut for their new artistic director. The run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre goes is various dates over 15th June – 19th August.

Taking Steps

Staying at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, regulars will know that as well as new plays, Ayckbourn regularly revives old ones. I don’t put all of these in my lists as it would swamp my recommendations, and besides, Mr. A already has all the plugs he needs. But I’m going to highlight Taking Steps for the reason that it’s arguably the strongest example of an Ayckbourn play that’s best seen in the round. Ayckbourn almost always writes plays to set seen in the round first and thinks about adapting for the end-stage later, and it usually transfers fine, but the staging of this particular play – a three-storey house with all three floors shows at the same level on stage – is something that by far works best is it was meant to be performed.

Ayckbourn plays are often incorrectly described as farces, when often they are really dark dramas masquerading as comedies. Taking Steps is one of the few Ayckbourns that can be considered a farce, and even this isn’t you’re usual farce. It sets up ridiculous situations and cases of mistaken identity, but far from the light comedy theme you normally expect from a farce, this covers some desperately unhappy people trapped in lives they can’t escape from, sometimes teetering on the bring of suicide. So this might not be for you if you were expecting some light entertainment, but there again, Ayckbourn plays, but there again, that’s rarely what his plays are about. This run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre goes is various dates over 13th July – 5th August.


This is an unusual entry straight into safe choice of a play I’ve never heard of by a group I’ve never heard of, but it’s just stormed the reviews at the Brighton Fringe and now it’s coming to the Washington Arts Centre. I am very wary about recommending plays solely on other people’s star ratings, because sometimes a series of five-star reviews means nothing more than approval from reviewers who went to hear some opinions they already agreed with. This play, however, looks like more than an approval-seeker, and – more importantly – I am hearing praise from people whose opinions I trust.

The play itself, I am told, is very heavily based on the true story of writer Lisle Turner’s grandfather. In 1941, he is a solider in the scorching Sahara chasing escaped an escaped German officer. Now it is 1991 and he is in a care home, ridden with dementia. But it’s more than a monologue recited from a rocking chair though, with the play praised for its physical theatre and sudden changes of mood. But you’ve only got once chance to see this, on the 8th June at Washington Arts Centre. Yes, I know there’s some election going on, but you’re not in a hurry to see which set of cretins end up in charge until 2022, are you?

Bold choice:

Only one entry in bold choices this time. This is mostly for new plays, and being new it’s hard to know how they work out. But if they work out well, you could be one of the first people to discover them before they make it big.

Beyond the End of the Road

I caught an early version of this as a scratch performance last year. The story is set in a fictitious village in Northumberland, but the November Club did a lot of work talking to people in real villages to convincingly portray this one. I can’t comment on the accuracy myself (I’m too busy complaining about the numerous poorly-understood depictions of Teesside), but it looks like the people who live there gave it the thumbs up – and regardless, it’s refreshing to see a rare play in the north-east that doesn’t think Northumberland, County Durham and Teesside are generic suburbs of Newcastle.

But that’s not the only reason this grabbed my interest. The main thing is that there was a very interesting story building up before the scratch version ended. There were many plot threads going on, but the central theme, it seems, revolves around two outsiders, both locals who moved away then returned for reasons surely relevant to the story. On top of this is the musical score, an all-singing cast, and their instruments used in all sorts of innovative ways to represent different items as the story goes on. True to form, The November Club are doping most of their performances touring small venues in rural Northumberland, but for most of us the easiest one to catch will be a one-off performance at The Sage (yes, never heard of the famous classical music venue being used for theatre before, but this couldn’t be a better choice) at the Sage Gateshead of the 27th June.


Now a recommendation of a play where I don’t know whether it’s any good, but it’s nonetheless grabbed my interest enough to draw this to your attention.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

The average person, so this play says, speaks 123,205,750 words in a lifetime. Imagine if you were only allows to speak 140 characters a day. This sounds like a promising premise for a story set in a terrifying dystopian future, where everyone uses this as an excuse to spot the most cretinous opinions using the character limit as an excuse to not back it up with any facts or evidence. And they’ll just follow up those 140 character with another 140 character over equally moronic narcissitic drivel until the world is drained of any reason or- … I’m sorry, I got mixed up there. I thought we were talking about Twitter. I’m sorry, let’s start this again.

The average person, so this play says, speaks 123,205,750 words in a lifetime. Imagine if you were only allows to speak 140 words a day. I’ve no idea how this works as a play, nor am I sure where quintuplified citrus fruit comes into this, but Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons scooped pretty much every acclaim up for grabs at the Edinburgh fringe last year. I’m putting this as a wildcard rather than a safe or bold choice because widespread critical acclaim is a less reliable indicator for plays with abstract concepts that it is more more conventional ones – it is hard to tell if the praise is widespread across the board or just from a minority of critics with similar tastes. But it’s certainly one of the most talked about shows from Edinburgh, and it’s another couple for the Assembly Rooms to get this.

I’ve actually been following the Assembly Rooms’ outside productions with interest. Until recently, the only non-student bookings have been private hires outside of term-time, but lately they’ve programmed in fringe hits Police Cops and The Dark Room in the few gaps where there’s no student production on but still plenty of students around to see this. But it’s open to everyone and not just students (as are the student productions). Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons shows on the 16th and 17th June at The Assembly Rooms, Durham.

Outside of the north-east:

Sadly, most of the great theatre I see at fringes never makes its way this far north outside of fringe season, but I do like to keep tabs of what’s going on. One thing that’s been drawn to my attention this time.

For future reference: anyone wanting coverage here is best off sending me a press release. I try to keep track of what’s going on outside my home region, but there’s so much to keep track of, much of it doesn’t come to my attention. Anyway, I can tell you about …

My Friend Lester

Bille and LesterI saw this lovely play back in 2015 at the Brighton Fringe, about the “musical romance” of Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young. It was only a musical romance and not an actual romance – both of them had a string a miserable marriages, and self-destructive traits of drink or drugs that sent them both to early graves. One must wonder if the reason they were never a couple is because they both had such low expectations of love that they didn’t want it to spoil what they had.

This isn’t only Billie Holiday musical around and the moment – there’s at least two large-scale musicals I’ve noticed in the West End recently. But My Friend Lester is very different. They do not try to be Billie and Lester look-a-likes or even sound-a-likes. Their premise is that Billie and Lester were unique performers, and you should not try to imitate their individuality but instead do it your own way, which they largely do. Maria McAteer and Bjorn Dahlberg perform their songs in different styles, but it’s still a delight to listen to. And there’s only snatches of story between the songs – the play is very close to being a collection of Pres and Lady Day’s greatest hits – but the few lines spoken on stage tell the story so well.

This version is extended from the hour-long one done in Brighton, but I’m told that the format will remain largely the same and not try to be more like the megabudget musicals. There’s a London performance coming up on June 11th at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, and for any readers who happen to be in the south-west, there’s another performance at the Merline Theatre, Frome on June 16th. Now please come up north.


This is a theatre blog so my attention goes there, but I do see the odd bit of comedy at fringes which I like to recommend when it comes into the region because we don’t get enough. Just one this time.

Morgan and West

Morgan and West are household names on the fringe circuit but deserve more recognition in the rest of the country. On the surface, they are a magic act, but there are two things that make them distinctive. Firstly, they are no ordinary magicians, they are Victorian time-travelling magicians, and quite spiffing chaps to boot. You don’t have to be a Victorian or a time-traveller to so magic, but it provides a distinctive flavour to their shows. Secondly, they have an annoying ability to catch you out with the most basic tricks, even whilst they’re explaining the very trick they doing at the time. The age-old saying of “the swiftness of the hand deceives the eye” is a very true one for magic, and on the very rare occasion I spot what they did, it’s all down to the art of distraction.

Last time I highlighted a visit to the north-east, it was a single visit to Washington Arts Centre. Well, you Washington folk must have made a good impression, because this time they’re here for longer, with all three of their shows on offer. Firstly, on the 15th July is the Utterly Spiffing Magic Show for Kids, then on the 16th July there’s Parlour Tricks at the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle. All their shows are family-friendly, but the kids’ one aims to get children on the stage. They are also doing stuff on the 21st-22nd July at the Great Yorkshire Fringe if you’re closer to York.

And I think that’s all. As always, this excludes Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes, both of which will get their own lists. Have fun, and see you in September or thereabouts.

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