What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2019

Skip to: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Educating Rita, Season’s Greetings, The Importance of Being Earnest, Be More Martyn, Ask Me Anything, And She, Naked Hope, The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, Stepping Out

And whilst I have been finishing of my Brighton Fringe coverage, summer has crept up on me, although it is still spring if you’re using the definition based on solstices and equinoxes, so there. This time of year is quieter than the rest of the year as a lot of theatre companies wind down and turn attention to fringes, but not everything stops and these are the things I have for you.

As always, the rules of what goes into recommendations can be found here.

Safe choice

To begin with, four choices from companies I’ve seen before and rated their work. No play appeal to everybody, but if you like the sound of what I’ve written, and what they’ve written, you can be as confident as can be you’ll can be.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

The most high-profile play on this list is https://www.expressandstar.com/resizer/1poSMJdAa390LgsPYy1wD3IoVc8=/990x0/filters:quality(100)/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-expressandstar-mna.s3.amazonaws.com/public/6HOJZXV52ZCGRJBPTUAM5BX2SA.jpgNorthern Stage’s headline play this season. This is a stage adaptation of two very famous books written by Khaled Hosseini. Although I haven’t read either of the books, I saw the film version of The Kite Runner, which was excellent. Both stories are set in Afghanistan before and after the rise of the Taleban, and in The Kite Runner it followed the story of a boy who is forced to flee with his father leaving behind his best friend. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, the focus is on women in Afghanistan. No-one needs reminding of the deal that women had under Taleban rule, but this story is about more than, promising strength and unity in the darkest hour.

This is a co-production between Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep. Sometimes the co-producer has an easily-recognisable artistic influence on the production – for Birmingham Rep, I don’t know how they’ll influence the play. But Northern Stage has done many faithful stage adaptations over the years, both on its own and as part of a joint production, and everything I’ve seen so far has been done to a very high standards. With a lot of reasons to be confident in both the book and the theatre company, I’m confident this will go down a hit. The Birmingham Run has now come and gone, but the Newcastle from has just started, over the 30th May – 15th June, at Northern Stage.

Educating Rita

The Gala Theatre restarted its in-house productions in 2016, but the best performance had to be Educating Rita, and, more specifically, the performance of Jessica Johnson. My only regret was as this production never went outside Durham, her performance as Rita got little recognition out of my home city. Until now. Theatre by the Lake in Keswick must have been wowed by her performance and signed her up for their own productions. The rest of the line-up is equally formidable: Max Roberts, the until-very-recently-artistic director of Live Theatre has been directing this (and My Romantic History last year showed just how good his directing can be); whilst long-time colloborator Stephen Tomkinson, who has shown himself to be a very versatile stage actor at Live, takes on the role of Frank.

Surprisingly, there’s only one week of performances in reach of either city. That is in the very last week at Darlington Hippodrome on the 12th – 17th August. The reviews I’ve seen for far have been very positive. This may be a tour under Theatre By The Lake’s name, but with the Gala and Live showing when the key talent can do, they have a lot to be proud of here. Live Theatre sometimes produces plays that spark tours, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Gala play a part in such a tour of this scale. I hope when the time hopes the Gala will be shouting this one from the rooftops.

Season’s Greetings

I don’t announce every Ayckbourn revival on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but Season’s Greetings is one of my favourites from the “classic” back-catalogue. I’ve started thinking of early Ayckbourn plays as long checklists of bad life decisions to avoid, and this is certainly one of those. It’s a cleverly staged play over three rooms featuring relatives you avoided the rest of the year for a reason, the most excruciatingly inept puppet show (the Three Little Pigs, with extra scenes written in for their wives and families), and a healthy amount of indiscretions arising from a long checklist of bad etc. etc.

In line with recent practice, there is a new Ayckbourn in September: Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present in September – that, as always, will be something were you won’t know what you’re getting until you get it. Back to this play, however, I’d always assumed that when Ayckbourn finally did revive Season’s Greetings, it would be done round about November or December, but this has actually got the summer slot that most Ayckbourn revivals have been in recently. So this runs on various dates over 25th July – 28th September at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The Importance of Being Earnest

And finally, another classic play – but not quite as you know it. This is a production from HangFire Theatre, who I saw recently doing A Doll’s House. But not just a bog-standard performance; this was cut down to an hour with a cast of three playing four parts between them – and with this produced a very accessible version easy to follow but losing none of the impact of the original. The same treatment is promised for Oscar Wilde’s most famous play. They will have a tougher crowd to please this time with many people knowing Earnest like the back of their hand, but I’m confident they will work their magic again.

This is at the Gala Theatre on the 29th – 31st August, including a matinee on the Saturday. One word of practicality though: this is in the Gala Studio theatre rather than the main theatre. I really like what the Gala has done with the studio space, making it look like a proper theatre when these productions are on, but the one thing they had no control over was the glass wall facing the Walkergate complex, and all its noisy pubs. So I would advise going on either Thursday night or Saturday afternoon if you can. It won’t spoil your experience if you go on Friday or Saturday night, but it’s best to avoid the pub noise if you can work around that.

Bold choices

Next are three choices from plays that I know less about and are untested. So these are bit more of a gamble to watch, even if you like the description. But I heave reasons to be optimistic about the groups who produced these, so these are gambled with the odds in your favour.

Be More Martyn

I previously recommended this for Brighton Fringe, but, as it happens, it’s coming straight to the north-east after the festival finishes. It is rare for me to put anything in safe or bold choice if I’ve never seen the group before. But this play, from Hope Theatre Company, is something I’ve heard a lot of praise for via my Manchester contacts.

This is a piece of verbatim theatre using the words of his friends of Martyn Hett. He was one of the 22 victims of the Manchester Arena in May 2017. As news of his death broke, #BeMoreMartyn trended on Twitter. It’s been described as a heartfelt tribute to someone fondly remembered and deeply missed in Manchester. The tour calls at Live Theatre on the 6th – 8th June at Live Theatre.

Ask Me Anything

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/093-DSC_3341.jpgAnother exciting visit to Live Theatre is The Paper Birds (this time as a co-production). The Paper Birds also specialise in verbatim theatre, and the last play of theirs, Mobile looked at Britain’s complicated relationship (and often unnecessary obsession) with class difference. Ask Me Anything looks at life as a teenager today. As opposed to a teenager 20-30 years ago. Back in the days when the internet was unreliable or non-existent, it was up to magazines like Just Seventeen to teach you the ways for the world. Now anything on any subject can be brought up in an instant.

It’s an interesting premise, but the big selling point of The Paper Birds is their amazing staging. Mobile was set in a caravan with all sorts of technical wizardry and innovation. They are sticking with the unconventional setting this time round, with the Cabaret area in Live Theatre made to look like a teenager’s bedroom. Out go tables and chairs and in come the bean bags. It will be a huge challenge to live up to the wow factor of Mobile, but whatever they have in store, you can expect something unique. This is on at Live Theatre on the 11th-13th July.

And She

Bonnie and the Bonnettes made an excellent debut two years ago with Drag Me To Love, which was the autobiographical story of Bonnie (aka Cameron Sharp) who moonlighted at the age of fourteen as a drag artist in Doncaster. The play had a poignant ending when Cameron loses Bonnie after the club closes, and then finds Bonnie again. Before that, however, there is a reenactment of some of Bonnie’s greatest hits, which were very very funny.

As well as their show, they’ve been running the BonBons Cabaret, but this is their first full follow-up. This is a play all about their mothers, and mothers in general. It will be a hard act to follow Drag Me To Love, so this may be the theatre equivalent of the second album challenge. But Cameron, Hattie and Rebecca have been developing this act for years now, and made all of the characters their own, so expect something told the way only Bonnie and the Bonnettes can tell it. This is on the 6th & 7th Septmember at Northern Stage.

You might like …

One entry in the category this time round. Like safe choice, this is a play where if you like the sound of this I’m confident you’ll like it for real, but unlike safe choice, which needs to have a wide appeal, in this category, you can be a bit more specialised.

Naked Hope

Mark Farrelly is a solo performer with a number of shows under his belt, of which two are major successes. My personal favourite is The Silence of Snow, a play about the rise and catastrophic fall of Patrick Hamilton, but it is the other play that’s in most demand, Naked Hope, where Farrelly plays the famous eccentric Quentin Crisp, a man who led a semi-shambolic life up to the age of sixty, and then unexpectedly rose to fame as a celebrity raconteur after his memoir was made into a film with John Hurt. The play isn’t so much about that, though – it’s more about Crisp as a person, both before and after his rise to fame. One strand of the story is the homophobia he faced in various different forms, and his response – whether by choice or by necessity – of not giving a damn.

Although you can pick up the whole story from watching the play cold, I do think this play is best enjoyed by people who are already familiar with Quentin Crisp. Failing that, a quick scan of Wikipedia ought to be enough background reading. But what this play does best is start from the things that he was famous for and move into the areas of his life that aren’t so well know. And many of the funny lines in the play are lifted from the man himself. Just one call in the north-east though, and that’s at Middlesbrough Theatre on the 3rd July.

Also of note

Finally, to complete coverage of the main production at the major theatres, two more to report. I generally know little about these plays, but as I discovered last time with Approaching Empty, these can surprise me.

The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil

When a new artistic director comes into a theatre, often the debut will consist that the newcomer’s greatest hits. For example, when Chris Monks took over at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the people of Scarborough were introduced to his adaptations of The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and Carmen. This summer, we’re getting something similar to this at Live Theatre, where recently-appointed Joe Douglas is bringing back one of his biggest successes from the Dundee Rep. John McGrath’s play has been viewed by some as a Scottish equivalent of Close the Coalhouse Door, and indeed this play was written only five years after Alan Plater’s seminal work.

You may need to concentrate for this one. Close the Coalhouse Door covered a very complex history of mining in quite a complex way, and there’s more than enough complexities of industrial Scotland for this play to get its teeth into. But this will be an interesting thing to see at Live – this, alongside last year’s Clear White Light, should give us a good idea of the style Joe Douglas will be bringing to his future plays at Live. This is currently touring Scotland, but the run at Live Theatre will be starting shortly on the 12th – 22nd June.

Stepping Out

Not all new artistic directors start off with a revival of their biggest successes. When Paul Robinson took on the Stephen Joseph Theatre, I had a return of My Mother Said I Never Should down as a hot bet, but instead – perhaps in keeping with Theatre 503’s new writing philosophy of producing once then moving on – everything done at the Stephen Joseph Theatre has been new. Some new play, some directing of well-known plays, but all new to Paul Robinson’s directing.

The main attraction in the peak summer season (apart from the Ayckbourn revival, of course) from Paul Robinson over the last two years has been very well known plays: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The 39 Steps. The latest play, however, is less known. Stepping Out is billed as a feel-good comedy where ten strangers come together each week for a tap-dancing class. So hopefully there will be lots of tap-dancing. It’s also apparently been very popular where it was been performed. See this at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on various dates from the 20th June – 3rd August.

And that’s another season gone. Some theatres now have their programmes announced up to Christmas, so expect some interesting entries next time round.

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