Here’s a brand new thing on this blog: a preview of a season of an individual theatre. For some reason, I got invited to the launch of Northern Stage’s next season. (Actually, I think this may have been the second of two launches, in which case I was on the B-list, but never mind.) So, in return, I am going to write a preview on what’s to come. Any other theatres who want this service, you’re welcome to do the same. 🙂
Just to lay down one ground rule before we begin: this is not going to be a comprehensive list of everything that’s coming up. If you want that, I think North East Theatre Guide is running their original press release. What it does mean, however, is that everything that’s listed here has properly grabbed my interest – nothing below has been included out of any sense of duty.
So starting with the most prominent one, it’s the Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland. Most prominent because they were handing out Alice in Wonderland-theme drinks saying “Drink me”, except that instead of causing you to shrink and grow it contains a magical liquid that makes the world spin around you. Anyway, this is an adaptation from Theresa Heskins, best known as the artistic director of the highly acclaimed New Vic in Stoke, and this play was originally written and directed by her back in 2011. This adaptation is not always faithful to the original: in this, Alice lives on a barge and she enter a “wonderland” – also a theatre – through a trap door rather than a rabbit hole. Judging by the reviews of the 2011 production, it looks like this pleased most people, but there was a minority of purists who were disappointed by it. Beyond that, I can’t make a call without seeing it.
But the best reason to believe we’re in for an excellent production is that it’s directed by Mark Calvert, who directed James and the Giant Peach last year. As I wrote in my review, the thing that impressed me the most – and everyone else I spoke to – was that the production values were on par with your typical West End show on tour to the Theatre Royal or Empire, done on what surely must have been a fraction of the budget. What’s more, he’s got the same creative team as last time. So we can look forward to another production with a cast playing live music on stage, stunning staging, and some very clever ways of representing impossible things on stage – I was impressed with how they represented a giant peach, so we can look forward to finding out how they do the shrinking and growing.
Now moving back to the start of the season, Northern Stage’s other headliner of the season is A Song for Ella Grey, a stage adaptation of a David Almond story, and if you’re thinking this name sound familiar, it’s because another story of his, The Savage, was shown as Live Theatre last year. Probably the signature touch of Almond is he weaves together the magic and fantastical with the modern and gritty. Last year it was a kid whose escape from life was writing about a “savage” who went round eating people. This time, he transplants the myth of Orpheus to Tyneside. I don’t normally use quotes from press releases, but Lorne Campbell’s comments on this play seem spot on, and could just as easily have been about either play.
“For me, David’s writing is everything fiction should be, magical and fantastical without ever letting go of an unvarnished and uncompromising reality. A Song For Ella Grey is an incredible book about growing up, it contains all of the passion and intensity of being a teenager while dealing with profound honesty and courage with death, grief and the reality of surviving tragedy.“
Northern Stage aren’t going to have a easy task clearing the bar set by their quayside counterparts; that was one of the best sets I’ve seen at Live (and their standard of sets is excellent), and the projections from Novak were also great. But Northern Stage also has its own excellent track record of staging. Provided Lorne Campbell doesn’t go for a “concept” take on the directing (something I think is his Achilles’ heel), and instead repeats the magic he worked for Get Carter, there’s a lot to be hopeful for here.
A lot of shows touring to Northern Stage. As usually is the case, most of these touring shows I know nothing about, but my eye was caught by The Wipers Times. I don’t really pay attention to what’s going on in the West End, but this one I’ve kept hearing about. Originally a BBC drama in 2013, and subsequently adapted for the stage, this is a story of the satirical magazine of the same name. It wasn’t by any means the first – disrespectful cartoons go all the way back to George IV, but it was printed in the first world war, probably the worst time in British history for press freedom. Whilst papers back home were little more than shameless propaganda recruitments tools, this became a kind of predecessor to Private Eye and, so they say, served a morale-booster in spite of the misgivings of the bigwigs. Little surprise that it was Ian Hislop who was inspired to write about it.
And the other one getting my attention is Pink Sari Revolution, as it is directed by Suba Das who’s just done East is East. I don’t automatically recommend directors just because they did a play I liked, but Suba impressed me on a technical level with some ingenious blocking on a set that would have spelt slightline disaster for a lesser director. (He says it wasn’t his doing, that was down to his cast, but I’m sure he’s downplaying himself here.) This time it’s a production touring to Northern Stage rather than by Northern Stage, and it’s Pink Sari Revolution, the story of Sampat Pal Devi, a pioneer of women’s rights in India who took things into their own hands. It took a particularly horrific gang rape in 2012 (and the subsequent outrage in India) for this to get the world’s attention, but the gujbalis pre-dated this, whose methods included giving wife-beaters a taste of their own medicine. Should be an interesting story.
Although this is programmed separately to the main Northern Stage programme, their Edinburgh Fringe programme was announced at the same time, and for me the clear highlight is The Letter Room. The very first ensemble to be formed under Northern Stage’s North programme, they really impressed me two years ago with Five Feet in Front, a sort-of Sodom and Gomorrah tale. Now they are returning with No Miracles Here. We don’t know much about this yet apart from this involving Northern Soul; they’ve only just started rehearing, and they devise theatre so they might not know much either, but they showed two years ago how good their all-round skills are: the lighting, staging and live music they all did for themselves were excellent. If you can’t get to Edinburgh, I’m sure this will appear in Newcastle at some later point.
And finally, the upcoming Stage 3 programme was also announced. This is also programme separately from Northern Stage’s main season. Stage 3 was recently refurbished to function more like a proper theatre space, and there’s quite a lot of high-profile acts lined up. (One snag is that this space used to be a good option for groups to hire off their own back; now it’s not such a great option, but that’s a debate for another day.) Out of these acts, however, the one that leaps out if How To Win Against History from Seiriol Davies. You might recall him playing the music in Caroline Horton’s wonderful Mess that visited Live in 2013 – if you don’t, I’m afraid I don’t have time explain the hilarious line “I’m providing the subtext.” Anyway, this musical play is about Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth Marquis of Anglesey, whose tastes in how he dressed didn’t fit in with the world he was born into. This was the best reviewed show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. Yes, the best, earning no less than six five-star review, widespread acclaim outside the fringe, and in case you don’t trust reviews, I can also vouch that I heard a lot of (unprompted) praise from randoms I spoke to in Edinburgh myself. This is doing an encore run in Edinburgh (who wouldn’t?), but if you can’t get to that, he’s got two dates in October. Only puzzle is why such a successful show is in Northern Stage’s smallest space. So I advise booking early for this, as it could well sell out.
All of these will appear in the relevant What’s Worth Watching articles coming in due course (either Edinburgh Fringe or autumn/winter 2017), and reminders will come up in due course. Remember that there’s plenty of other stuff I’ve not listed here which could also be worth watching – I haven’t, for example, had time to cover the Hartlepool Monkey that invaded the audience at the press launch – so have a look at the rest of the programme and see what appeals to you.
So thanks for inviting me – same time in December?