Odds and sods: February 2019

So it’s back to business. February was the opposite of a slow news month, with two pretty major stories breaking. Well, one major story and one story that everyone probably made out to be more important than it really was but where nonetheless everyone had an opinion. I’ve given my thoughts at length on both C Venues losing its main building after allegations of poor employment conditions and the row over using a puppet to depict an autistic child, but apart from that there’s been a few interesting developments elsewhere.

Stuff that happened in February

Excluding the two big stories, we have:

Brighton fringe back to growth


Whilst all eyes have been on Edinburgh this month with the surprise news of C Venues losing its main home, there is a small but notable development at Brighton. As always, the programme was announced in February, so all eyes were on the registration numbers. Brighton Fringe don’t make it easy to follow this because their coverage of growth keeps switching between number of registrations and number of performances, but the registration numbers are up at 998. This compares to last year’s figures of 968 and 2017’s previous record of 970. So it’s a 3% growth.

Growth should be too much of a surprise. As I reported last month, there’s reasons to expect that growth of major venues will lead to growth overall for a fringe – venues like The Warren and Sweet are always oversubscribed, and many companies from outside the areas will opt for a major venue or nothing at all. In this case, we have new spaces at Junkyard Dogs (which we probably need to consider a major venue now) and  The Warren, although The Warren appear to have used some of their extra capacity for longer runs. It is now also confirmed that Sweet Venues Brighton has dropped the Dukebox – I will try to find out why in due course – but the net change is still more venues.

As always, there’s the question over whether this is a blip or a pattern. A one-off rise of 3% is different from a rise of 3% per year, and the last few years’ growth figure are too much of a roller-coaster to pick out a steady trend. But the big unknown quantity to factor in is the effect of the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe that everyone talks about. So far, Edinburgh has confounded all expectations and carried on growing, but will they finally hit the ceiling? Will would-be Edinburgh performers look to go elsewhere? If it does, the extra 3% from a couple of larger venues in Brighton will pale into insignificance.

Northern Broadsides: Laurie in, Conrad out

Last month I wrote about the confirmed news that interim artistic director of Northern Broadsides, Conrad Nelson, was not going for the permanent position. So naturally attention shifts to who would be appointed instead. The answer, it turns out, is Laurie Sansom. He might not be a familiar name to Broadsides fans, but his CV is impressive, being former artistic director of both the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. The fact that a touring company with no theatre of their own is attracting candidates of this calibre is a huge vote of confidence.

So what will Laurie Sansom bring to Northern Broadsides? We can perhaps get some clues from his previous list of plays he produced, mostly classics similar to what Northern Broadsides would have revived under Barrie Rutter. One thing we are unlikely to have a repeat of is Barrie Rutter’s on-stage presence. He was in almost every play he directed, and was very much the defining feature of his plays – Laurie Sansom, however, is a director only. However, I was fortunate enough to see The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, and that was both excellent and it has a distinctive style. If that play is representative of his work, his style should suit the Broadsiders very well: playing to their strengths, but also a style that’s new and different.

However, the unexpected news which I hadn’t predicted at all was what’s happening to Conrad Nelson. So successful are his director/writers collaborations with Deborah McAndrew, they would surely have been welcome to carry on doing what they were doing no matter who was in charge. But it turns out Nelson isn’t just leaving the post of Artistic Director – he is leaving Northern Broadsides completely. The writing on the wall – as always, easy to say this in hindsight – was that he and McAndrew are now heavily involved in Stoke-based Claybody Theatre, who have already produced one play of theirs. Claybody tells me there’s another McAndrew play coming shortly. Will they take over from Northern Broadsides and tour their shows across the north? That would be a game-changer if they did.

Gala Studio and A Doll’s House

One play I saw in February that I can’t review is A Doll’s House from HangFire theatre – as I was invited on a friends and family ticket it’s something I wouldn’t be able to cover impartially. However, I think I can safely mention here that’s it’s an impressive adaptation that effectively condenses a 2½ play into one hour and a cast of three, with no sign of losing any of the story of a woman coming to realise she’s little more than an social status accessory for her husband. It’s also a very accessible adaptation – it’s always a shame when such good stories are overlooked because of dogged adherence to wordy original – and with the entire run in the Gala Studio selling out, it seems that a lot of other people thought so to. Definitely one to look out for in the future.

One interesting development that accompanied this, however, is that this is the first time I’ve seen a play in the Gala Theatre Studio – made up as a theatre. To give a quick potted history of the studio space, when the Gala was built, what is now the studio was then “the restaurant”. Sadly, like the IMAX cinema and 510-seat theatre that touring productions were supposed to be queuing up to use, this was another case of the over-optimistic City Council catering for a market that turned not to exist. So the restaurant became the “studio”, and got mostly used for conference bookings. There was the odd scratch night (where a table + chairs arrangement suited the space quite well), but apart from that it wasn’t really a suitable space to be used as a theatre – until now. Not sure whether A Doll’s House was the first play to be set up this way or whether there have been studio plays before that did this, but someone has really gone to town with the studio and built in raked seating to make it into a proper theatre space.

The only snag – and unfortunately they’re stuck with a decision from the 2000s here – is that the studio has a glass outer wall that faces straight on to the Walkergate complex. It’s great for a view over the River Wear, but hopeless for keeping out the noise from all the pubs blaring out music on a Saturday night. If the Gala studio is to carry on working in this theatre configuration, it might be better in future to do plays mid-week rather than weekends. But, annoying music aside, A Doll’s House shows that the studio space can run successfully as an actual studio theatre. Speaking of which …

Summer in the City

On the subject of small venues in Durham, we have some news from The Assembly Rooms. For anyone who’s following this, Durham University’s theatre is currently closed for a year whilst major refurbishment is being carried out. At the same time, the Assembly Rooms is slowly moving towards being more than just a theatre for student productions. For months there has been various bits of speculation and off-the-record remarks, but we finally have something definite. In fact, it’s two related things.

So coming up in June is Summer in the City. This is a successor to Durham Festival of the Arts, which until last year was a post-exam season of mostly theatre and music. And apart from Elysium Theatre doing a couple of Beckett plays, the festival was entirely a student one, and consequently got little attention outside of the university. But this year the Assembly Rooms is trying to branch out beyond the University, and the first thing to be announced publicly is The Spare Room. This is a temporary black box space, which for three days will be open to theatre companies local to Durham.

This is early days – we have yet to see what ends up programmed in this space. But the hints I’m getting at the moment is that this is intended to be the first of many schemes. So what we see lined up in June may be a taster of what’s to come. And if something like this does become a regular feature, that, combined with the a Gala Theatre studio space and an increasingly-utilised City Theatre between them could start to form a fringe theatre scene.

Empty Shop at Hartlepool

And finally, something from a Durham-based organisation but not taking place in Durham itself. The Empty Shop is doing a residency in Hartlepool. This is a scheme supported by Hartlepool Borough Council, and encompasses three related projects. This has actually been going on since October last year, but it’s only recently the project has started to get going. One of the main events is the Church Street shutter project, where public art will be going on to shutters, starting from April.

Community engagement in areas of low cultural engagement is the in thing at the moment. But there is one thing the Empty Shop does better than a lot of these schemes. Often, the idea of cultural engagement is to bring in artists from outside to provide/perform work for the local community. Or they have events where locals can participate but the artistic direction stays in the hands of people from outside. Whilst both of those are nice to have, what is doesn’t do is offer support for local talent. This Hartlepool residency, however, does all three, with a welcome emphasis on the latter.

In fact, I’d say that as far as two-way cultural engagement does, this is doing a better job that high-profile schemes such as Sunderland Stages and South Shields’ Cultural Spring. If this goes well – which I’m confident it will given Nick and Carlo’s experience setting up this sort of thing – I hope other places can take lessons from this.

Things I wrote in February

Seven articles. My, I have been busy.

Odds and sods: January 2019: Like this article. But a month ago.

Today is Time to Talk day. Let’s talk.: I’ve been getting noisier on the matter of being on the autistic spectrum recently. I used the 7th February as the chance to say what barriers I believe I face. Although if you want the proper rant, you can instead come this way.

Autumn 2018 fringe roundup: My final catchup of 2018 plays, including The Turk, The Important Man, Box Tale Soup’s Dorian Grey and Jess and Joe Forever.

What should be done about a Fair Fringe: My thoughts on C Venues getting booted from Chambers Street. I have little sympathy for C Venues, but I’m concerned about other people have too much power and too little accountability.

Approaching Empty: the house built on sand: Not the first play I saw in 2019, but rushed to the front of the queue because it was outstanding.

On Puppetgate: My thoughts on the furore over All in a Row. I wasn’t offended, but I can see why other people were, and it was needless offence. Even so, things need to be kept in proportion.

Guest post: Jake Murray on starting from scratch: Finally, the second guest post. Elysium Theatre is the fourth company set up my Jake Murray – in the run-up to Miss Julie, he says how it’s done.

There you go. See you again in March.

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