Skip to: Di, Viv and Rose
Paul Robinson’s new writing debut for the Stephen Joseph Theatre is an interesting insight into to misunderstood world of subcultures. That is where Goth Weekend was at its strongest.
Ever since Chris Monks unexpectedly announced his departure from a theatre in Scarborough with a very famous predecessor, one of the big questions was where the Stephen Joseph Theatre would go next. Paul Robinson’s appointment was announced in early 2016, with a strong indication that the theatre wanted to go in the direction of new writing, but such is the long timescale of planning theatre programmes that it wasn’t until late 2017 that we had our first real indication of what kind of new writing we can expect. Goth Weekend isn’t Paul Robinson’s first play directed at the SJT, but it is the first next play, so all eyes were on this.
There were two things notable about this choice of play. Firstly, it’s a co-production between the SJT and Live Theatre. This might seem a tall order, with these two theatres’ audiences having very different tastes, but the crossover has worked before, and brings a unique touch to both theatres. Secondly, it shares in common with And Then Come the Nightjars, Paul Robinson’s last touring production in his previous job at Theatre 503, a setting of a world described in detail. Then it Bea Robert’s story of a farm during and after the foot and mouth outbreak – now it’s Ali Taylor’s play the world of Goth subculture.
But before we consider anything Goth, we begin with story of non-Goth father and daughter. It wasn’t long ago that Ken’s wife and Anna’s mother died, and Ken has taken it worst. So badly, in fact, that Anna has taken it upon herself to run her father’s life for him to get him back on track. Tonight, this involves setting him up on a date. But intended date fails to find the right pub and instead he meets Belinda, messed about for the upteenth time with her band not getting the booking she was promised. They hit it off straight away. Mission accomplished, right? Not quite. Anna is horrified that 1) her middle-aged father bring a woman back in the early hours, and 2) Belinda is a Goth, as is her son Simon.
All is set for friction between the two families. Well, sort of. Anna and Simon get on better when they find they have one thing in common: neither likes the idea of being a step-family, if on opposite sides of the coin. Anna is particular about who her father dates for obvious reasons, but Simon wants his mother and father to get back together. Nor is he happy with Ken’s attempts to suddenly become Goth. That plot thread is important. A lot of this play is how Goth culture isn’t just dressing up for a weekend in Whitby, it’s a way of life. Ken’s transition from middle-age-friendly knitted to Goth regalia is a good unspoken feature of the play: his first outfits are painfully bad, but even as his Goth dress sense improves it never really rings true. Wanting to fit into Belinda’s world just isn’t enough.
Once again, it’s Jessica Johnson who makes the production. It’s fair to say she tends a play a lot of similar roles of a woman with a boisterous mouth but a kind heart, but she does it so well and this is no exception. Belinda is fighting two battles. One is with the way that society perceives Goths in general – this is only ever incidental to the story but acts of nastiness are never far away. The other is a personal battle to find herself as an individual as her estranged husband has a more successful Goth band. Even though it’s obvious to everyone but her son what a low-life he is, his invitation to have her back in the band for Whitby Goth weekend is a dilemma that tears her apart.
There was only one thing that felt missing from the play, and that was seeing through what it started. And Then Come the Nightjars was great because, from start to finish, it portrays life on a farm, not only during a high-profile event that everyone knows about, but what happened next after the news moved on. Here, however, the final quarter of the play lost its individuality and felt more like a generic story of two mismatched people overcoming their differences to find each other. Nothing wrong with the ending as such, except that it lost an opportunity to tell more about the life that people like Belinda choose to lead.
If plays like Goth Weekend and Then Comes the Nightjars are what we can expect from the new writing strand of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, there’s a lot to offer, with plays like then giving us insights to other worlds near to us. So don’t feel you need need to give us half measures. Goth Weekend has a lot to say about subcultures. This play should say more.
Also showing: Di, Viv and Rose
New writing isn’t the only thing Paul Robinson is programming. Also featuring prominently in the inaugural season was Di, Viv and Rose, a play about three woman who shared a house at university and remained friends for the rest of their lives. It might be fair to say at this point that I may be outside of the target audience is here, not because I was a bloke in an audience of 90% female, but because my first reaction is “Friends? FRIENDS? Who needs friends?”* However, I shall take this play for what it is: a mostly gentle play following three ordinary lives. Even when traumatic or life-changing events take place, their friendship do a lot to make things better.
(*: Actually, I did ask a couple of women about it, and their reaction was a along the lines of “What, becoming lifelong friends with your student housemates? Lifelong enemies more like it.”. However, I’ll take Amelia Bullmore’s word that it can also turn out more nicely)
Act One follows their time at University in the 1980s. The three could not be more different. Viv is a serious academic using her course to develop theories of how the corset is historically a tool for the oppression of women. (Di and Rose think she’s reading too much into this, but 2017 just chuckles and says “Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”) Di is enjoying her freedom away from her conservative parents to come out as a lesbian and live her own life. Rose, for her own reasons, goes on a mission to work her way through what feels like the entire male non-gay population of the university. That will have eventually have consequences. But those worst thing to happen is the thing no-one predicted. A thing one of them may not have come back from were it not for her friends.
Then we come to act two, covering the next thirty years. This is the bit I wasn’t convinced by. All time-frames can work as plays, but after you’ve portrayed three years of thee women’s lives in intimate detail, it then feels like something’s missing when the next three decades are zipped through. Events as life-changes as births, marriages and deaths pass in the blink of an eye, too fast to see how their friendship mattered in these events, the thing that defined the first act so well. Which brings me on to my suggestion. Amelia Bullmore has been asked about adapting this this for television; so far, so she resisted. I think she should do it. It is right that a tale a lifelong friendship should have the time-frame of the whole lifetime, but we saw with the time constraints of this stage version that you can only do that by whizzing through years of their lives; that doesn’t do the story justice. A TV series, where this isn’t the same upper limit on running time, would, I think, allow this tale to have the treatment it deserves.
The production was good; Lotte Wakeham understood the play well, and the transition to the round was also managed well. The two plays between them are a good start for Paul Robinson’s vision of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Will these two plays appeal to everyone? No, but new writing, and nearly new writing, rarely does – it’s a series of risks that may or may not strike gold. But this, combined with safer-bet choices with wider appeal such as Little Voice means that it will be exciting to see how this new chapter for Scarborough pans out.