Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards

Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.

But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.

Best new writing:

Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.

Vivians20Music201969In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more. Continue reading

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The Lovely Bones: down to earth

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Northern Stage’s joint collaboration to bring Alice Sebold’s novel to the stage works wonders, with production values comparable to the West End, and without falling into special effects overkill that marred the film.

Skip to: Under Milk Wood

It’s rare for regional theatre to try to take on the West End for production values. Even with Royal & Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse joining forces, productions on the scale taken for granted in central London are a risky business unless you can be sure you’ll sell the tickets. So an adaptation massively successful novel of Alice Sebold is a pretty safe bet to draw in an audience – or is it?

The most well-known big-budget version of The Lovely Bones is the Peter Jackson film – and many people consider that a disappointment. The Peter Jackson film can maybe be described as a version of Ghost, but with 2009-level special effects instead of 1990-level special effects, but that arguably misses the point. Both stories involve a central character who is murdered (in Susie Salmon’s case, raped and murdered) who lives on in the afterlife, but beyond that two don’t have much in common. The driving theme in Ghost is a hero desperate to stop his killer before he harms anyone else he loves. That theme is also there in The Lovely Bones, but it’s not the main theme. And the supernatural that dominated Ghost are only incidental here, with Susie free to observe the world but near-powerless to intervene. No, the dominant narrative in the story is a family struggling to come to terms with the worst kind of bereavement in the years to come. It is this, I think, that this adaptation gets in a way that Peter Jackson’s didn’t. Peter Jackson relies on fancy effects to create Susie Salmon’s own personal heaven – in this play, her heaven is the world her family still live in, getting on with their lives the best they can. Continue reading

They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay – but what does it say?

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Northern Broadsides has a great track record in adapting classics for a modern-day audience. This re-telling of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, however, sells the story short for laughs.

I may not make many friends with my current batch of reviews, but I’ve seen several plays with sell-out ticket sales, or overwhelming acclaim, or both – and I’ve not shared the enthusiasm. They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, however, is going to be the toughest one to write, because I had the highest expectations for this. Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have a long track record of adapting classic plays for contemporary settings, and indeed another Dario Fo play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was my first experience of their collaboration, and that was excellent, with a masterful mix of comic timing and poignant messages. This time, however, one has come at the expense of the other, and the play is so hammed up for laughs it drowns out the serious meaning behind it.

When a play fails to live up to high expectations, it is tempting to write a review focusing entire on the negatives and ignore all the positives. So I shall begin with the positives. All of Northern Broadsides’ productions, from the darkest to the most farcial, have been produced to the highest production values, and this is no exception, with the fast-moving action executed flawlessly. The premise also gets off to a good start too. The play begins in a flat in Sheffield, where Anthea comes in with some big bags of shopping. Or rather looting. She confides to her friend Maggie that the local supermarket has pushed up prices one too many times and the impoverished customers won’t take any more and chose to help themselves. However, acting on the spur of the moment has its drawbacks, and Anthea finds herself loaded with plenty of items she doesn’t need, such as pet food. Then the two women have to hide the ill-gotten gains from the policemen looking for it, such as the anti-capitalist commie constable, or his boss, the anti-commie capitalist sergeant. Before, then, however, they must also hide things from Maggie’s husband Jack, who has never done anything illegal in his life (although some people might consider his dogmatic obsession with union rules and regulations to be a crime). And so we go from there. Continue reading

Odds and sods: November 2018

And it’s another slow news month. In theatre, that is. Not such a slow news month elsewhere. But we don’t talk about that.

Here’s what’s been happening back and forth in theatre land.

Stuff that happened in November

Goodbye Empty Shop HQ

So it’s confirmed. Empty Shop really are letting Empty Shop HQ go, for a number of reasons given in their own blog post. It’s not clear how much the redevelopment of the Milburngate Centre has to do with the decision, but Empty Shop’s scope is now a lot wider than one venue: the recent addition of TESTT space above the bus station and their work bringing in Miners’ Hall in as a venue are things that were unimaginable when HQ first opened. This doesn’t come as too much of a surprise – I’d heard nothing about plans for what to do about HQ, and no news suggested no plans. Empty Shop is now being run from TESTT Space – which, somewhat paradoxically, means that TESTT Space is now Empty Shop HQ instead of Empty HQ.

This announcement does rule out on theory I had – I’d idly speculated that The Assembly Rooms would temporarily take over the space to help with the current overspill of student productions necessitated by the year-long closure of their theatre. (As far as I can tell, the student productions are managing by using the remaining performance-friendly spaces in the university more intensively.) However, this does leave a question mark hanging over the future of inclusive performance spaces in Durham. TESTT, at the moment, is heavily focusing on visual arts rather than performance arts. I can’t begin to say how valuable Empty Shop HQ was to me when I was starting off, and I don’t believe I’m the only one here. Continue reading

Two by Two Pints

When you have a set of plays to review, it is often tempting to look for common themes between plays. In early autumn, as it happens, two plays came along with not only shared the theme of pubs, but were also very heavily themed around the number two. More by accident than by design, the two plays have a lot more in common besides. So let’s get right to it.

SKIP TO: Two, Two Pints, Talking Heads

Two

8736534The Gala Theatre are continuing their in-house productions with another classic, Jim Cartwright’s famous story of a night in a working-class pub. This is a safe bet for any theatre to choose (more on this in a moment), but Two is a safe bet for a good reason. It’s lots of little stories of snippets of people’s lives, all played by the same two actors. Some are funny, some are tragic, and one or two where the bar staff really ought to intervene. But it’s a busy Saturday night, and besides, the husband and wife who run the bar have their own problems to keep them busy, and it’s not their constant bickering and put-downs throughout the evening. That is just their way of distracting themselves from something in their past they can’t ignore, however much they might want to.

All you really need for Two to be a success are two capable actors who can play all fourteen characters convincingly (although I did once see a student production who played it with fourteen different actors, somewhat missing the point of the title). Luckily, the Gala can call upon Christopher Price and Jessica Johnson, who were both naturals for this. But this isn’t quite a paint-by-numbers production. Two was originally intended as a small studio piece and it’s not a straightforward play to scale up to a bigger stage. In a fringe-scale venue it’s treated as normal that there’s no set and virtually all interaction with props are mimed, but in bigger theatres expectations are different – but a fully naturalistic production with two actors is impossible. Continue reading