The Greatest Gatsby never told

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The Guild of Misrule’s immersive adaptation The Great Gatsby is still going strong a year for very good reasons. Far more than a novelty, it’s an outstanding theatrical experience unlike anything else you’ll see.

Like any festival, the Vault Festival has its share of hits and misses, but you’ll struggle to name a bigger hit than The Great Gatsby. For six weeks in 2017, the already eclectic crowd was joined by an assortment of dashing chaps and jitterbugs queuing for an immersive production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. With the entire run selling out weeks ahead, it was soon back by popular demand for one month only in June. Then one month turned into another month, then the rest of 2017, and now it’s still running whilst Vault 2018 goes on.

It’s not too surprising that a production like this is running for long, especially in London where there’s a market for just about every niche imaginable. (And come on, who doesn’t want to join a hedonistic 1920s party in their favourite jitterbug dress?) What is surprising is just how immersive this is. Usually “immersive” theatre is a promenade performance, maybe a bit of audience interaction, but without these bells and whistles it’s still structurally a conventional play. The Guild of Misrule’s adaptation, however, is so much more.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Great Gatsby, Guild of Misrule

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Taking Steps and A Brief History of Women

Production shot from Taking Steps

SKIP TO: Taking Steps, A Brief History of Women

It took a few years to settle down after Alan Ayckbourn left as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but a pattern has finally emerged: the earlier summer season is where his artistic director successor does his stuff, with a revival of a successful earlier Ayckbourn introduced later in the summer, and then a new Ayckbourn play in September and October. 2017 was no exception. For once, I couldn’t catch them in Scarbourough, but luckily, I can count on a transfer to the New Vic that’s now in easy reach of me.

It is difficult to tell how new Ayckbourns will turn out in advance. Ayckbourn has a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but a lot of his new plays have been using old tricks in new ways. Don’t dismiss that – when it works well, it’s outstanding, but it’s always a bit a of pot luck involved to see how the new offering turns out. But the revival on offer is something that I recommended, not just because I know and like the play – but because this play is one of the few where it’s important to see it done by someone who knows how it’s meant to be done. That’s where we shall begin. Continue reading

Breaking the Code: People’s show the way

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Bringing in their own touches, yet keeping everything that made the play the classic it is, the People’s Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code is a lesson to everyone in how to do this right.

Regulars here may have noticed that I review very few plays from conventional amateur dramatics. This is partly because the two I watch the most I work too closely with to review fairly, but it’s more that it’s rare for me to see anything that stands out. It’s a tough thing to do. A fringe theatre company working with a fraction of the resources can wow me with a great script or originality, but when you’re performing a well known play, what can you do? It must be said that a lot of amateur dramatics productions don’t help themselves by thinking that a good play is all about remembering your lines and standing in sightlines – even People’s productions have fallen into that trap before. But even with the best will in the world, there’s always the nagging thought at the back in the back of your mind that no matter how well you do, a professional company can do it better. Sure, the script might be great – and few would say anything else about Hugh Whitemore’s story of the Alan Turing and one of the nation’s greatest injustices against one of its greatest heroes – but that achievement isn’t yours.

So it is a rare pleasure to see the People’s defy these expectations completely, and put something that is not only on par with a professional company’s offerings, but in some ways even surpasses them. The People’s is at an advantage over most of its peers in that it has a far wider choice of actors – everyone here was suited to their part, from a suitably shifty Ron Miller to 1950-mentality detective Mick Ross to a suitably officious Dilwyn – but that is not what makes this play stand out. What stands out here is touches the People’s added to make their production unique. From the start and throughout, Leah Page’s creative set added a personal stamp on the play, but by biggest change – and a bit of a gamble too – was transforming this play from an intimate production with never more than three people on stage to a big productions with a cast of seventeen.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Breaking the Code, People's Theatre

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Odds and sods: January 2018

Right, thanks a bunch Manchester Art Gallery for giving me extra work to do. That’s okay, I’ve been meaning to get off my chest this new kind of censorship that’s been creeping into the arts. However, it does mean that odds and sods is now ten days overdue. I’m holding you personally responsible.

I skip December for odds and sods, because usually not a lot happens apart from pantos, pantos and more pantos. This time, however, there was a bit of a scandal; for a region where the local media says everything is awesome, this raised quite a lot of eyebrows. That kept me distracted for a lot of the last two months. But apart from that, and those silly people over in Manchester, here’s the other things that have caught my eye.

Stuff that happened in December and January

Enter Joe Douglas

So the big news from the north-east is that Live Theatre has chosen a new Artistic Director, replacing Max Roberts who announced he was stepping down last year. That’s about all I can say it this point. Joe Douglas is currently a freelance director based mostly in Scotland, but it’s hard to tell what his background means for live, other than the obvious thing of producing more new writing. As we saw from Paul Robinson’s arrival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, by the time the new artistic director commissions his own work, programmes it, directs it and performs it, it can take over 18 months before you get a good idea of what a new artistic director is going to bring. Continue reading

Why you should worry about the Hylas takedown

Waterhouse Hylas painting obscured by Mary Whitehouse saying

COMMENT: The high-profile removal of a popular painting has backfired very badly. But this should be a wake-up call over a new emerging threat to artistic freedom.

Grief, what were they thinking? If you witnessed the unfolding public reaction to removal of a much-loved painting from a northern gallery, a thought of that nature probably crossed your mind. Manchester Art Gallery says it’s delighted that they provoked such depth and breadth of feeling amongst the public, but when the vast majority of comments outright opposed the removal – with various unflattering remarks regarding the gallery’s management – it’s clear they’re in full-on damage control. And to anyone with the slightest grasp of public opinion, it was pretty obvious what would happen, especially when your reasons for doing it smack of moralising. It was completely unavoidable, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Or is it? Some people suspect – given the level of idiocy required to not realise how badly this would go down – that this was their plan all along. Perhaps it was all a publicity stunt. After all, a lot more people know about this painting now than before. And it might have been, but I can think of two other possibilities as to their true motives. One possible motive is a little more concerning than a publicity stunt, and the other one is a lot more concerning. Continue reading