Beyond not just the end of the road

Production shot of dance scene

In a region that rarely looks beyond Newcastle for culture, The November Club gave a shining example of what happens when you do with Beyond the End of the Road.

It’s my eternal bugbear: the mindset ingrained over much of the region’s cultural scene that the north east is Newcastle. For all the talk about cultural engagement, for years in Tees Valley and County Durham this amounted to importing all the talent from Tyne and Wear. Usually writers based in Newcastle telling stories based in Newcastle. On the rare occasions the plays were set in places beyond Tyneside, the depictions were generic north-east suburbs with only the basic nods to the local area – there was a time at the Gala where it was virtually guaranteed you’d have a reference to getting cut off by the tide at Holy Island. In recent years, things have started edging in the right direction, but still the most depressing thing is the numberpeople in the north-east who complain, quite rightly, about nationwide funding and attention favouring London at the expense of the rest of the country. It’s depressing because the same people seem fully aware that exactly the same thing is happening between Newcastle and the north-east – and don’t appear to have a problem with it.

But amongst the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations in the region, there is one group that won’t settle for bringing in everything from Newcastle, and that’s Northumberland-based The November Club. Beyond the End of the Road is set in rural Northumberland in a town known as “place”. Far from treating this village as another Tyneside suburb, this place is distinct from the distant city not only by the surrounding countryside but by its isolation. A bypassing is being built around the place (yes, this play on words is a common theme here), and in charge is a someone apparently part workman, part narrator and part oracle, seeming to everyone’s backstories. Coming to the place are two outsiders, one seeking refuge from an unhappy marriage with a sister she barely knows, another come to give his brother advice on how to run his farm, unsolicited but very badly needed.

Although the November Club is based in Northumberland, the creative team is still very heavily Newcastle-based, with the writer, musical director and most of the cast coming from there – the long-term goal, surely, has to be Northumberland being able to create its own talent. However, November Club does the next best thing, heavily engaging with local communities, not by simply bring them a play to take or leave, by talking to them and painstakingly researching everything there is to know about what it’s really like in these communities. I cannot speak for the people of rural Northumberland to say whether this is accurate, but if I let the people of rural Northumberland be the judge, it looks like they got it spot on. I cannot begin to stress how important it is – trust me, those of us with lives outside Tyne and Wear can tell the difference between a play written by someone who knows and understands the area and one with a bit of rudimentary research on Google Street View.

This is not to talk down the talents of the Newcastle-based creative team though. It is unusual for the Sage to programme theatre, but when the entire cast sings, uses their instruments as props to represent everything else of stage, and the entire musical score is written for the play, there couldn’t have been a better play to have. There wasn’t a weak link throughout the cast and musicians, but a lot of the success surely comes down to the efforts of Laura Lindlow and Katie Doherty.

I’ve seen the odd piece written by Laura Lindlow on and off in the last few years and liked the way it was going (not to mention some stellar directorial credits to her name too), and she does not disappoint here. The story as a whole may have been devised by the cast, but she added a lot to it – a single line here and there, the way it was worded, frequently gave away far more about the characters than they meant to let on. A running joke was the visiting lighting designer repeatedly hearing “What’s that love?”, but it’s little touches like that which work so well to portray community out in the sticks.

Katie Doherty too adds a lot to the play.  She’s mostly known as a stand-alone singer/songwriter/musician, until recently based in Newcastle, now moved to Northumberland. I’ve seen her do live music for a play before, although in hindsight I don’t think providing music between scene changes gives you much chance to shine. Here however, the music in integral to the play and not a bolt-on, and that, I think, makes all the difference, with the folk style fitting very well.

There’s only one thing that didn’t quite work out as well as it should – and it’s a pity to say this because this was part of the community engagement I was saying good things about. As Beyond the End of the Road toured to different Northumberland villages, they involved locals who sang, played extras, and had a ceilidh after the play. There was also a bit in the middle where some real locals told some real stories, and it was nice to include these, but the trouble was by this point in the play, the plot had developed so much I just found myself wanting to get on with. Maybe it would have made more sense to spread the stories throughout the play, so as to not break the flow, and also hopefully mean we can pay attention to these rather than wonder when the story starts again.

Still, if that’s the price that must be paid for community engagement, it’s well worth it. If you want an example of how to do community engagement – not to mention produce a great play in the process – this should be the blueprint for how to do it. The extra thing I hope The November Club can do in the long run is truly develop some local talent. Community participation is welcome but not enough – in the long run groups like The November Club should look to local talent. Don’t stop bringing in people from Newcastle, because home-grown talent can’t work in isolation from this, but the goal I think they should aspire to in the long run in one day seeing someone from someone in Northumberland doing what Laura Lindlow or Katie Doherty’s doing. That’s a long-term aim though. In the short term, carry on doing what you’re doing.

But I think the big lesson here is how different Northumberland’s cultural scene is to the counties south of the Angel of the North. There is nothing like the November Club in Durham, Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough or Redcar and Cleveland, and we need to ask why. The answer, I suspect, is that whilst most councils’ ideas of local engagement has historically been bringing in groups from outside the area, Northumberland hasn’t settled for that and gone the extra mile. Whatever the reason, the cultural leaders of Durham and Tees Valley need to ask themselves some serious questions of what Northumberland is doing that they’re not. The November Club have looked beyond the end of the road – but a good start for everyone else would be to look beyond the A1 Western Bypass.

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