Okay, here we go again. Hope you all made the most of your month off theatre (two if you’re allergic to pantomimes). But February is coming, and with this another season of recommendations. As always, the rules for how I choose recommendations are here. Just a reminder that I rarely recommend a play solely because it’s being produced by a high-profile company – normally it will be on the strength of a writer, director, or performing company I’ve seen before. But that way, this means the little fish stand a fair chance against the big fish.
One notable omission is it stands it Live Theatre. For some reason, they still haven’t announced all of their next season. As soon as I hear what they’re doing, I will insert anything worth including.
So what have I got for you?
For some reason, winter/spring always seems to be full of safe bets, and this year is no exception. The follow plays are mostly plays or groups I’ve already seen, but the simple rules are that these are plays I believe have wide audience appeal and will disappoint few people. It will need to be the kind of play that interests you, but if you like the description here, I’m confident you’ll like it for real.
Northern Stage might have had a go with their take of Hedda Gabler last year, but, by all accounts, nothing beats the version of Ibsen’s classic at the National Theatre, running around the same time. In many ways, Henrik Ibsen’s writing was way ahead of his time, in an age when the mere suggestion that women could be anything other than docile accessories of their husbands was hugely controversial, but there can be no better example of this story: a woman married to a husband on a whim, now with a dangerous cocktail of boredom and recklessness. Destruction is inevitable – the only question whether she’s going to destroy someone else or destroy herself.
The National Theatre’s production adapts the story to the modern day, and whilst the world may have moved on, we must guess that the web of bluff, deceit and betrayal that Hedda is woven in remains the same. And the adaptation is written by Patrick Marber, who has impressed me twice so far with The Red Lion last year and Dealer’s Choice years back. It’s rare for a company I’ve never seen to go straight to safe choice, but on this occasion I’ve already heard enough. This is on a short tour, but it makes two stops in read of the north-east: Newcastle Theatre Royal on the 13th-17th Feburary, then York Theatre Royal on the 20th-24th February.
Deborah McAndrew comes into 2018 as the only writer whose plays have be named Best Production on this blog twice: first with A Government Inspector in 2012, and again in 2017 with Cyrano de Bergerac. But it’s not too much of a surprise, because she and her director husband Conrad Nelson have a string of adaptations of classics, and everything of theirs I’ve ever seen has ranged from good to outstanding.
So now it’s the turn of Charles Dickens to get the McAndrews/Nelson treatment, this story of Britain’s favourite Victorian social observer perhaps being chosen as it’s set entirely in northern England. We can expect a lot more music that makes the centrepiece of these adapations – apart from that, whatever they do, expect another piece both highly innovate but losing nothing of the original story. The tour takes in the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 17th-21st April and the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 22nd-26th May and
Now for the return of Pilot Theatre. I’ve only seen this York-based company in action twice, but both time they were excellent. Back in 2012 I was impressed with Roy Williams’s modern-day adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and then in 2016 I saw Lee Mattinson’s adaptation of The Season Ticket, in my opinion one of the most under-rated plays ever seen in the north-east. So now comes an adaptation of Graham’s Greene’s book of gang warfare in Brighton.
Where Pilot Theatre have excelled is set and staging. Especially in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which used a combination of a treadmill and projected backdrops for one of the most innovative stage productions I’ve ever seen. Provided this can be brought to this play, we should be in for a good adaptation. It begins on their home turf of York Theatre Royal on the 16th February – 3rd March, and the tour takes in Northern Stage on the 1st-5th May.
Paddy Campbell is a writer who I’d previously observed was at his strongest when he writes about what he knows, but when he took on this piece verbatim theatre about young people leaving the care system, he blew me away. normally, verbatim theatre is as good or as dull as the people you’re getting the stories from, but Paddy Campbell had a way of getting people to open up about their lives in a way few could achieve. Some stories are what you’d expect, others may come as a surprise.
Amy Golding and Curious Monkey did a fine job producing the play too. This would have been a good enough play with actors simply standing around reciting these verbatim lines, but this was done in a very creative way, meaning there was never dull moment. If you didn’t catch it last year, you must this time round, but you’d better be quick. because there’s only two days at Northern Stage, on the 9th-10th March, which I suspect will sell out quickly. They they go on a tour, but if you’re lucky enough to live in Alnwick, you can catch them at Alnwick Playhouse on the 29th March.
Wildcard entry last season, Bonnie and the Bonnettes’ flagship play earns a promotion to safe choice after a lovely run at Alphabetti Theatre. Based on Cameron Sharp’s own story of his years as a teenage drag artist in Doncaster, it’s a pretty simple story, but it’s done in a way that’s sometimes brash, sometimes poignant, but mostly very very funny. One thing I’ve noticed about them is that the three of them all have different characters – plot-wise, there’s not strictly any need to give the two “Bonnettes” individual traits, but it adds a lot to the play. They’re doing a short tour, with only a single north-east date, but if you are near the Arc Stockton on the 21st March, catch this and you’ll enjoy it.
And rounding off the sure choice is a John Godber classic story, but not by John Godber’s company. Revivial of famous plays by other companies doesn’t get an automatic place on my recommendations, because often they don’t get it. However, this is Blackeyed Theatre’s third revival so they must be doing something right, and I caught the second and they got it spot on. It’s not done quite the same way that Godber directs his own play, but it still fully does the play justice in their own way, and Salty, Gail and Hobby’s play of kind-hearted Mr. Nixon being worn down by an unsupportive sink school is just as relevant now as is was when it was written. Sadly no stop in Durham this time, but you can catch them on Feburary 21st at Middlesbrough Theatre, February 22nd-23rd at Customs House, South Shields, and February 24th at Queen’s Hall, Hexham.
Next are three picks of plays I haven’t seen yet and am yet to give a verdict. These are a bit more of a gamble to see, but all have reasons to stand out from the rest, and if you like it, it will be a gamble well worth taking.
It’s a bit late to put this in the recommendations because it’s almost sold out already, but this two-week run in Northern Stage’s smallest space is one of the most talked about productions for a long time. Partly because this is what Northern Stage does best, and partly because this adaptation is written by Laura Lindow, who now has a string of hits to her name.
Bold choice instead of safe choice because this play transplants Jules Verne’s story from Horsell Common in Surrey to more locally on Tyneside. Northern Stage’s faithful adaptations have an excellent track records – when “concepts” are applied to classic stories the record is a little more variable. But provided they all resist the temptation to try to be clever, this could be one of the hits of the year. This runs at Northern Stage from January 31st to 10th February, but you’d better be quick, because at the time of writing, only three performances have tickets left. Good luck.
As well as Teechers, Blackeyed Theatre are also concluding a tour of a classic Gothic horror story. After a good run of Dracula and an oustanding run of Frankenstein, there’s good reasons to be hopeful of this, and the only thing that stands in the way of safe choice is that those two productions were written by John Ginman; this is by another Blackeyed regular, Nick Lane, who I have yet to see in action. You can catch this in the north-east on March 14th-15th at Harrogate Theatre, then March 16th at Middlesbrough Theatre.
This last bold choice is on the list for an unusual reason. One thing that has featured prominently in theatre ever since an infamous June in 2016 is Brexit. Now John Godber has thrown his hat into the ring, with he and his wife Jane Thorton playing a couple on a tandem ride through Europe – with the two of them have very different views on the EU. I must confess, I’ve not really paid attention to this trend, and my reason why won’t be popular: I’ve lost confidence in the arts world understanding this issue. I have various reasons, but the big one is that prior to the EU referendum I saw people – even people I respected – unironically sharing jokes about the entire working class of the UK being disgusting Wetherspoons-guzzling Daily Mail-reading fatties in the debate on refugees, and then seemed surprised that large numbers of them turned out to vote Leave.
So why does this play grab my attention and not the other 999 Brexit-themed ones? Because John Godber, in my view, is one of the few people in the arts world who shown evidence that he gets it. I saw Poles Apart back in 2015, and whilst I’ve seen more memorable plots from Godber, the setting was very memorable: a clash between boorish working-class builders and a pair of thespians who call themselves left-wing but give away their own kind of snobbery. I don’t know what the Godbers will have to say about Brexit and the reasons for it, but whatever it shall be, it will be their own voices and not just an echo of an agreed script in theatre. Closest this gets to the north-east is the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 3rd-7th April, but it if does well, there’ll probably be another tour which should make its way further north.
This is something I introduced recently, mainly because all mainstream productions from theatres such as Live and Northern Stage are noteworthy, even if it’s from people I’ve never heard of. However, this time round, there’s a things coming up that are notable for other reasons.
We still don’t know what Live Theatre is planning for its next mainstream production, but the one thing that’s been on sale for months is Fleabag, known to most as a highly successful TV series of a woman living a highly disorganised and undiginifed life, coming to terms with a tragedy she may have played a part in. However this is the original stage version that inspired this. It’s been acclaimed by some as a ground-breaking story with a strong female character. I’m not entirely sure that’s a helpful description – that undervalues work with strong female characters written before, and if this play is as good as everyone says, it deserves to be known for something more than have a woman in it.
But there’s no denying that this play has been getting praise everywhere I’ve heard. This shows on the 22nd-26th May at Live Theatre, but I would advise booking this well in advance, because this could easily be a sell-out over the entire run.
The Gala Theatre made a return to producing its own theatre in 2016. It’s not on the scale on the Simon Stallworthy era – whatever you thought of his choice of plays, he got them out at a fair rate during his tenure – more like one a year. But the two that have been done so far were of a good standard.
This year, it’s Alan Bennett’s famous Talking Heads. I do have to say, this feels a little too safe to me. Yes, theatre should stage classics alongside new writing – after all, that’s what a lot of people want to see – but this play’s biggest selling point that it was a famous TV series. Educating Rita is best known as a film, but this is something you can make a lot of as a stage play (and the Gala’s production, bar a few weird decisions over sightlines, was excellent). But I’m less convinced you can make something memorably visual out of Talking Heads, which worked on television as close-ups of people’s faces.
But we’ll see, I’m happy to be proven wrong. And most people aren’t bothered about risk-taking and just want to enjoy a good play. So you know what you’re getting, the Gala knows what it’s doing and if you enjoy the monologues, you shouldn’t be disappointed with this. This shows on the 6th-10th March at the Gala Theatre.
Jesus Hopped the “A” Train
Full disclosure first. I know Jake Murray and we have been discussing ways we can pool our efforts to get a cultural scene going in Durham. I certainly have a big enough conflict of interest not to review this play. But this is certainly news, and in the long run this could be even bigger news for Durham than the Council’s renewed interest in the Gala. I didn’t really register arrival of Elysium when it set up in Durham last year, only vaguely noticed something was on at the Assembly Rooms during Freshers’ Week at Durham University. But it is a new professional company, whose inaugural production, Days of Wine and Roses was part of a two-leg tour taking in Manchester.
Initiatives to bring theatre to north-east communities outside Newcastle isn’t a new thing – plenty of these have sprung up around the region in the last few years. But there is one important difference here. For most (not all, but most) of these initiatives, cultural engagement means bringing in actors, directors, or whole companies in from outside, usually Newcastle; support for talent the area already has is next to non-existent. Even the Gala, for all its efforts, has so far not progressed beyond the odd scratch night slot. This is different. Theatre Elysium is already working in partnership with Durham Student Theatre (who have arguably already overtaken the Gala with original programming), after this, who knows?
However, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. First of all with have Elysium’s second play coming up. The main run is in Manchester, but there’s one date in Durham that’s just been announced, at Durham Assembly Rooms on May 14th. After that’s we’ll see.
The Last Ship
Sting. Hmmm. This is the flagship production of Northern Stage this season, but this is something I have issues with. Billed as “Sting’s personal political passionate musical”, it’s not that Sting wrote a musical, nor is it that the play is personal, passionate, or political. In fact, I don’t even have issues with celebrities getting involved in politics. In principle. In practice, however, it’s a different matter. You will rarely see any interview with an A-list star cover anything remotely unflattering – editors know that if their ask questions the celebrity doesn’t want asking, they can take future lucrative interview to rival papers. This isn’t an issue if you’re asking about a tour or album, but it does become an issue if they’re getting involved in politics. I sometimes feel that some celebrities want to be an influential as politicians without any of the scrutiny that we rightly expect politicians to be subjected to.
It’s fair to say I don’t believe that Sting is any better or worse than your average celebrity getting into politics, but his Newsnight interview didn’t fill me with much confidence. The interview itself was okay, I thought – Jeremy Paxman asked some tough questions, Sting did a reasonable job of answering them. But still he felt be was hard done by later, calling this an “ambush”, even though he was treated exactly the same as any other public figure on that programme.
This is a pity, because I have a massive amount of respect for Sting as a musician. Musically, he’s never disappointed me, and if it’s the music that’s important to you, you shouldn’t be disappointed. See it at Northern Stage on the 12th March – 7th April. But I’m uneasy over the idea of a public-funded theatre providing a platform to someone who already has his own platform to say what he likes, with next to no scrutiny to keep him in check the way the rest of us are. Sorry.
And one from the Vault Festival …
I don’t do previews of the Vault festival like I do for Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton, because I don’t know enough of what’s on to come up with a proper list. But there is one thing that deserves a mention.
This, seen by me at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2015, is the last thing I’d have expected to be recommending. The play is a rom-com, and the plot pretty much follows the standard rom-com tropes, right from the moment he and she meet by chance after a car shunt. (Note: I don’t advise this as a technique of meeting a partner – it’s a pretty costly one if it doesn’t work.) And yet this was unlike anything I’ve seen before, thanks to a sharp script and some excellent high-energy choreography from Buckle Up Theatre. Little touches such as exchanges of text messages are done so well and transforms would could have been a generic rom-com into a little gem that was a delight to see. This shows at The Vaults on the 14th-18th February at 6.10 p.m.
And that’s it for another season. But don’t go away. Coming up very soon, one of my controversial posts. Oh yes.