In late summer and early autumn, I saw two plays on the big stages: one is regarded by everyone as a classic; the other is known a little less as a play but I nonetheless heard everyone rave about it. There is always a bit of trepidation when I see a play this well-regarded – just sometimes, I don’t share the enthusiasm of everyone else. Classic plays can also be let down by misguided productions. So how did these two fare against high expectations. Skip to:Toast, Educating Rita
Toast isn’t your usual subject material for a play. Nigel Slater has made a name for himself as a chef, but to most people he is better known for his writing about cookery. However, Toast – his memories of his childhood and how he decided to cook for a living – is his smash hit. Originally a book, it was made in a very successful TV programme, and now it’s a stage play. Autobiographical plays are often overrated; there are countless solo plays around at the moment from actors who I suspect substantially overestimate how interesting their life stories are to other people. But the thing that I think makes this such a success is how Toast accidentally captures a snapshot of life in the 60s and 70s through the eyes of a child.
It is the child’s perspective that makes the play the success it is. A strong theme running throughout the play is the difference in attitudes of those two decades, but that is revealed slowly through a child’s innocence. To begin with, it’s mostly simple things: holidays, school games, and most precious to young Nigel, cooking together with his mother. This recreates so convincingly the little things in live that give a child so much joy, and resonates so strongly right down to us recognising the favourite sweets that we once oh God damn it I miss being kid … Sorry, where was I?
The first sign of a different time is Nigel’s father with his attitudes to gender roles, some old-fashioned, some just bizarre. In the latter category is the incredibly arbitray and confusing list of which sweets are boys’ sweets and which are girls. A bit more of a problem is his attitude to Nigel’s favourite hobby. Remember, this is the 1960s, four decades before masculine sweary TV chefs were invented, so Dad thinks cookery is for women, otherwise it will turn you into a Nancy boy (where, to be fair, he wasn’t entirely wrong, but that’s a later chapter in this story). However, young Nigel’s carefree life is about to be changed forever. His mother’s asthma attacks are getting worse. The moments when his mother tries hide what’s happening from her is one of the most moving pieces of theatre I’ve soon. And then … it’s the 1970s. Nigel is now a teenager, in a much scarier world.
Nuance plays an important part in the story too. Nigel’s father might not have the most progressive attitudes, but he is not a bigot and more a product of his time, doing the things people like him are expected to do, thinking the things people like him are expected to think. Father and son are never that close because he views bonding as the mother’s job, and once all parental responsibilities are thrust upon him, he’s really out of his depth. Tensions especially arise when a new woman enters if life. But way this is resolve is once more a touching moment of the play.
A lot of people have been praising the play for the music. I loved the music too, but the choice is cleverer than most people appreciate. It is isn’t just greatest hits from the years of the play. As a child, the songs we hear are his mother’s favourites, gentle songs to reflect a gentle life. Whilst the songs later in the play, including Psycho Killer which everyone raves about, belong to the more unsettling world that Nigel now lives in.
In the interests of balance I am obliged to say that the factual accuracy of the story is disputed. Specifically, the depiction of stepmother Joan Potter (real name Dorothy Perrins) is one that her family contests. The play does tone this down a bit compared to the film version; on the screen she is shallow social climber and a complete bitch to young Nigel – in the stage version, some of the worst moments are left out and the resentment is portrayed more as a two-way escalation. Nevertheless, this is a good time to remind everyone that plays based on real events need to be treated with some caution – creative writers get a lot more freedom than journalists and factual claims don’t always get the scrutiny they should. This doesn’t dent the enjoyment of the play, but, as with all stories based on real events, the factual content should be treated with due caution.
That disclaimer outside, Toast is a good all-rounder. A lot of stage adaptations made famous as a screenplay first play it safe and try to be scene-by-scene remakes, which is fine, but this could easily have been written as a stage play from the outset. That’s something that may have been helped by Director Jonnie Riordan also being the choreographer, so congratulations to him and script writer Henry Filloux-Bennett for the stage version between them. The tour is still going and will be coming to York Theatre Royal in late November (19th-21st), but there will surely be another tour after this one. Well done to creative team and the five-strong ensemble for a play that’s still stick with me over a month later.
(An early version of this review was given during my Edinburgh fringe coverage. This is a tidied up version.)
The other high-profile tour that got me interested was Theatre by the Lake’s production of Educating Rita. But although Theatre by the Lake is based in Cumbria, this is very much a north-east production. Stephen Tompkinson, has been in numerous TV series, but in the north-east he is also known for the plays he does with Live Theatre, including the complete psycho Freddie the Suit in Faith and Cold Reading and shady non-league football manager Kidd in The Red Lion. This time he is of course playing Frank, who isn’t a psychopath, merely a schambolic/alcoholic lecturer. The other big name from Live Theatre is Max Roberts, who stepped down as artistic director last year and – as is a good idea for recently-retired artistic directors wishing to give their successors some space – is keeping himself busy directing this touring production.
But whatever big names might be selling the tickets, it is Jessica Johnson who makes this play what it is. Two years ago she played Rita as the Gala Theatre restarted its in-house productions and – no disrespect to the other guy – she stole the show. There is of course a whole range of emotions Rita needs to go through in any successful production of this play, but Jessica Johnson brings it out from the start. In scene 1, Rita walks into Frank’s life brash and in-your-face and ready to be educated, but it doesn’t take much for her insecurities to come through, the result of a lifetime of being told this life’s not for people like her. As the story continues, and the goes through the end of her marriage and a discovery of a new self and finally standing up to Frank as an equal, Johnson gets all of this.
Max and Stephen deserve credit too. Tompkinson’s touch I liked the most was Frank’s alcoholism. As the scenes progress, his movements become increasingly impaired, whether or not he’s actually drinking anything at the moment. Much as I enjoyed the Gala production, one small but annoying issue was the set and movements that messed around the sightlines for anyone sitting in the front half of the theatre. This set is laid out more sensibly and, although he was in an enviable position to have such good actors to work with (not to mention such a great play), Roberts did what he needed to do.
I don’t ned to do a full review of this – my comments from the Gala’s 2017 production apply here. Apart from the sightline issue that was fixed here, all of the viritues of this productions were pioneered in the one directed by Rebecca Frecknall. As such, it’s a pity that she and the Gala Theatre are absent from the credits here, having done so much to lay the groundwork for this. But they have a lot to be proud of, and I hope they realise it.
That’s it. Another fringe season out of the way. So now it’s time to turn attention back to what else has been going on outside of the fringe scene. I know we’ve all been distracted by that petulant toddler since my last odds and sods in June, but there’s more to life than that.
Besides, this odds and sods is going to be more contentious than usual. Not everyone is going to like everything I say about three particularly thorny issues.
Stuff that happened since June
A lot of the big news over the summer is, of course, related to the Edinburgh Fringe. Most of that you will find in my live Edinburgh Fringe coverage. However, I want this to concentrate on what else has been going. So here’s some interesting developments that got my attention:
Seyi Omooba sues Leicester Curve
So let’s begin with the story that went into a new (and perhaps inevitable) chapter at the end of the month. Back in March there was the story of an actress in The Colour Purple who lost her part after some old anti-gay posts on Facebook were dug up. I took an interest at the time because this was potentially a freedom of speech issue. At the time, I accepted that Leicester Curve probably had no choice but to let her go – if you are producing a play that preaches a very pro-tolerance and anti-discrimination message, it would have been political and commercial suicide to have a key performer on record as advocating the opposite (at least on the subject of homosexuality). However, getting dropped by her agency was dubious. I hardly need point out why it’s not a good thing if agencies having the power to terminate the career of anyone caught holding an unpopular opinion.
But this latest move to sue the theatre and her former agents has lost her the small amount of sympathy I had. If she had sued over the practice of getting people fired for old social media messages, I would have considered supporting it – I am not comfortable with setting a precedent that it’s okay to destroy someone’s career by making public a view that they were keeping to themselves and not acting upon, however reprehensible those views were. She is not. She is suing because she claims it’s discrimination against Christians. That stands to set the precedent that it’s okay to express and act on any views you hold, however reprehensible those views are. All you have to do is justify your prejudices as something God told you to believe. What’s more, according to Omooba, Leicester Curve were prepared to keep her if she apologised and moved on. That to me looks like Leicester Curve went as far as they could to protect her from the outrage – but she instead doubled down as if this was proof she was hard done by. For the first time I can understand what might have made her agency drop her, instead of waiting until the hashtag hordes moved on: she was becoming a liability to everyone associated with her, and showed no intention to stopping being one.
Even so, I still feel some pity for her. The motives behind the original act of looking through someone’s social media posts in the hope of finding something career-ending remains extremely questionable, and this new development does not answer that question. But my main reason to feel pity is that it’s clear she’s been put up to this by Christian Concern, the organisation backing her case. This is a group that claims to stand up for the freedom to practice Christianity and for Christians to be treated with tolerance from others, but you don’t need to look far to notice that what they’re really after is taking away other people’s freedoms and treating them with intolerance. Religious discrimination isn’t the only way of frivolous claiming victimhood, but – and this applies to all religions, not just Christianity – this is the only one that actively uses this claim as an argument for their own preferred brands of discrimination and victimisation to be protected in law. The theatre world must close ranks and fight this, but we shouldn’t be mad at Seyi Omooba – we should be mad at the people who made her this way.
Goodbye to TESTT Space
Back to Durham now. One bit of interesting news is a new event called Durham Soup. The first event is in October, but I’ll wait for the first event to happen and I have a better idea what this is about before I report on it.
However, the big news from Durham since the last Odds and Sods is with the Empty Shop. There have been a lot of changes over the last three years. In 2017, they took on a new space, known as TESTT Space (where TESTT = The Empty Shop Think Tank), formely a large office space over the bus station. Then, last year, the announcement came that they were moving out of Empty Shop HQ, a space in the Milburngate Centre (now The Riverwalk) above a cafe – a surprise announcement, seeing as this had been around for so long it was almost viewed as synonymous with Empty Shop itself. Now the news has come that TESTT Space is going too.
This time, it’s not the Empty Shop’s choice to go but the landlord’s. The bus station and everything built above it was due to be demolished – that was how they were able to get hold of this disused office space in the first place. However, it was generally assumed that you’d need to build the new bus station first before you could think about knocking down the old one. Now the council have changed their mind and they’re going build a new bus station on the same site. I don’t understand how it’s possible to do that and keep the buses running myself, but it seems one inconvenient side-effect is that the lease is ending sooner rather than later.
However, although the timing of this news isn’t great, I’m quite relaxed about what this means for The Empty Shop. Losing the lease on your main venue can be perilous – something similar happened with Alphabetti Theatre three years ago, and had this happened six months earlier when they weren’t so financially secure, they may not have survived the transiation it to the successful venue they have today. However, the Empty Shop does this all the time – as Nick and Carlo point out, this is their 42nd of 55 spaces they’ve used so far. So whilst we don’t know what space 56 looks like or how this will effect the future of Empty Shop or the community build around it, I’m confident there will be one. We will just have to wait and see.
On the Milka advert
This is something I talked about during my Edinburgh Fringe coverage, but since it was buried in all things fringe, here’s a reprint so this can get the attention this deserves. In August there was uproar over the casting spec for a child in an ad for Milka. But whilst I see where the outrage is coming from, I feel this one of the cases where the underlying cause was ignored.
This ad on Spotlight was noticed by an eagle-eyed user who alerted the entire internet to it. It’s quite an achievement, but the casting spec was offensive in just about every way possible. Can’t have a fat girl because you’re advertising chocolate, no redheads because reasons, and must not be pre-pubescent. Errrm, okay. Unsurprisingly, when this came to light, the ad was swiftly taken down. Cue celebrations – but the underlying problem did not change, and that is is casting culture, or more specifically, casting culture in adverts.
Now, I could write at length about where I think the problems are in casting, and one day I probably will. There’s no end of stupid judgements made on appearance in the arts industry. But, for all their faults, nothing is anywhere near as bad as the advertising industry. The days when TV adverts gave actual reason to buy products are long gone. Instead, modern adverts work on a subliminal level. Why should I buy a new smartphone? More battery and disk space? Nope. According to basically every advert, people who buy the latest phone are cool and sassy and if you buy it you too will be cool and sassy and get to mix with the cool and sassy people. And in order to make this point, the advert requires cool and sassy people in the advert. And not just any old cool and sassy people, but exactly the right kind of cool and sassy, because this, along with everything else, is micromanaged by marketing executives in order to sell as much stuff as possible.
I strongly suspect that is the real reason why adverts pay so well. I don’t begrudge any actors for doing this – everyone’s got earn a living somehow – but it seems to me the real reason is not an act of charity on the part of advertisers, but so they get huge numbers of people to choose from and pick exactly who they want. And my other suspicion is that the spec seen in this advert is normal – it’s just that every else knows not to do it too obviously. Simply send out a vague spec, audition far and wide, and then pick based on what you’re really after, that need not bear any resemblance to what you said you wanted. Hair colour, age, weight, skin colour, perceived sexuality, whatever you like – how can anyone prove that’s what you based your casting on?
This is why I think getting Spotlight to withdraw one advert is a red herring. One would like to think that this would be a lesson to advertisers that you can’t have those casting requirements nowadays. It’s more likely that advertisers will take this as a lesson to not put this out on a Spotlight advert. I think we can safely bet that Christmas Milka ad featuring non-overweight non-redhead pre-pubescent girl is off, but it they’d kept that under the radar I have no doubt this would have gone ahead. In which case, how much else is going on under the radar? I’ve no idea what the answer is though. It’s very difficult to make people change their ways if they think it’ll cost them money. You might if you could somehow persuade them that stupid appearance-based casting doesn’t sell more, but that looks like a long shot. The first step, however, is to recognise this casting call as a symptom of a much wider problem and not just an individual problem that’s solved. Fail to realise this, and the chance of anything changing is zero.
Clear White Light sells out again
Moving one stop north, and the most interesting development from Newcastle theatre scene is the continuing success of Clear White Light. As I’ve previously reported, Joe Douglas’s first two performances for the main stage sold out virtually their entire runs. The first one, Clear White Light, has now come back for a second run. There is already one thing out of the ordinary here – whilst it is not uncommon for Live Theatre plays to sell out and come back for re-runs, it is rare for someone to score two in a row. Now an even rarer thing has happened – the second run of Clear White Light has sold out too. That’s unprecedented. Someone who has better stats can correct me if I’m wrong here, this may well be Live’s most successful production since The Pitman Painters. I’m going to stop short of tipping Clear White Light to be the next Pitman Painters – I suspect the key attraction of the music of Lindisfarne might not have so much draw outside the north-east. There again, it would have been easy to dismiss the prospects of a group of Ashington miners as only appealing to local interest, and we know what happened there.
Amongst all of the champagne corks popping, however, I will float a counter-argument. Much as returning a successful play looks good for Live, in general a returning play forms the centrepiece of the whole season, where there would otherwise be a new main production. The means, roughly speaking, every encore comes at the expense of an opportunity for another new play. Which wasn’t a big deal when only the occasional play made a return, but what if this becomes the norm? Will the long-standing model of one main production per season need to be rethought? Still a long way to go before we establish this is the new normal – two smash hits in a row doesn’t guarantee a third, let alone a fourth or fifth – but it might, and interesting times lying ahead whatever the outcome.
The future of Northern Broadsides – old and new
The other big change of leadership I’ve been following is that of Northern Broadsides. Founder and long-time artistic director Barrie Rutter stood down last year, and his unofficial deputy Conrad Nelson took over for a 12-month interim period. When applications opened for the permanent replacement, everyone assumed he had it in the bag, but instead the shock news broke that not only was he not continuing in the post as Artistic Director, but also that he was leaving the company completely. I should repeat at this point I have no reason to believe he was pushed – it genuinely does look like like he and his wife and long-standing collaborator Deborah McAndrew decided it was time for a change. More on that in a moment.
But first: what does this mean for Northern Broadsides? Laurie Samson got the job of Artistic Director, and as a former Artistic Director of both the National Theatre of Scotland and Royal and Derngate, which was a huge vote of confidence for the Broadsiders. I’ve only seen one play of his myself, which was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Fringe, which was excellent, and now, his first Northern Broadsides play has been announced: Quality Street. If you haven’t heard of this – and this hasn’t been performed much since the second world war – this is a Napoleonic comedy romance from J M Barrie written before his most famous book, Peter Pan. In case you’re wondering – yes, this the where the famous chocolates got their name. In fact, there is a collaboration going on between Northern Broadsides and the workers in the Halifax factory that makes the stuff. Although I know little about this play, my hunch is that the style he brought to Jean Brodie would go well here.
One small but notable detail is that, for the first time since God knows when, Northern Broadsides are coming to the North East (or as we round here like to call it, the proper north). I don’t know why it’s taken so long for a north-east theatre to take them on given their huge success in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but better late than never.
But the more interesting new project is from Nelson and McAndrew. They’ve been running a parallel Stoke-based theatre company called Claybody Theatre, which is now getting their undivided attention, and when they left there was an early announcement of a new Deborah McAndrew play that Conrad Nelson would direct. But instead of another reimagining of a classic story that made them into the respected figures they are today, instead it’s a play of very local interest: The D Road, about the dual carriageway that was built through the middle of Stoke and the effect this had on the Six Towns. (I only know so much about the road myself as my sister live there.) It seems that when Nelson and McAndrew said time for a change, it wasn’t just a change of theatre company, it’s a change of everything. This is of very local interest, but they’ve got Hugo Michael in thier cast who’s been in just about every Northern Broadside production of theirs. So expect Nelson and McAndrew to be off the national radar in the short term, but probably not for that long.
My verdict on Treegate
Finally, I’ve promised that I would have a look at this controversy over Tree, a headlining play at Manchester International Festival that grabbed everybody’s attention for the wrong reason. If you’ve somehow managed to let this one pass you by, the row here is that two writers allege in a blog post that they developed an idea with Idris Elba for a play, and the Young Vic got involved, only for artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah to announce that he and Elba were now creating a different play that was stealing their idea. The Young Vic’s side of the story is that they weren’t stealing anyone’s work, and instead they were developing a completely new concept based on Elba’s original idea.
Compared to some of the veryveryworstpractices I’ve covered on this blog, the Young Vic’s response is a little better. A lot of the points of disagreement are one person’s word against another’s. Tori and Sarah claim the Young Vic threatened them with legal action, the Young Vic claims the opposite, but with neither side showing supporting evidence I’ll have to draw a blank. Some of their arguments are weaker – their claim that an agreement with the Duchess Theatre doesn’t apply to the Young Vic might be legally right, but it’s hardly a argument for being morally right. But the main problem with the Young Vic’s side of the story is that it requires believing some not-so-plausible sequences of events. If we are to take their word for it, this requires accepting that Idris had an idea for a story, then he and Tori and Sarah developed it for years, called Tree, and the suddenly Idris came up with a completely different way of expressing his original idea, also called Tree but otherwise not in any way shaped by his two former collaborators. Really? It also requires us believing that when Kwame Kwei-Armah said he was writing a first draft, which he accepts he wrote but apparently had no intention of writing: its sole purpose apparently a “catalyst for debate” to “help shape the future of the narrative”, whatever that means. I have to say, for me the most plausible chain of events was that Kwame Kwei-Armah wanted to turn their play into his play – and when the writers wouldn’t play ball, Idris Elba claim of coming up with a new story based on his original idea gave him the excuse he needed.
I will concede that I would have to sit down and read the two scripts side-by-side before accusing the Young Vic of stealing other people’s ideas. However, even if I ended up deciding there wasn’t enough evidence, it’s still not good enough. Why? Because the Kwame Kwei-Armah and the Young Vic are in a position of power, as is Manchester International Festival. And I firmly believe that when you are in a position of power, the onus is on you to show you are using your power responsibly. I expect better than vague counter-claims amounting to little more than “you can’t prove anything”. If you are going to take one third of a collaborative partnership and claim that a new play based on an original concept is completely different from another play based on the same concept, you need a damned good argument to back up your claims. And on this occasion Kwame Kwei-Armah forfeited that chance when he started off working with Tori and Sarah and later dropped them without any real explanation.
The only thing I can say in the Young Vic’s defence at the moment is I can’t see anything in Tori and Sarah’s story that backs up the theory that there were treated the way they were specifically because they were women. They might have been, but you’d need a pattern of behaviour to support that claim, and even with one it’s a difficult claim to prove. It’s also difficult claim to disprove – but even if the Young Vic somehow exonerated themselves of that allegation, it’s a poor consolation. All that would demonstrate is that 100% of aspiring writers need to watch their back at the Young Vic instead of only 50%. Unless the Young Vic can come up with a far better explanation than the one they’re currently giving us, the take-home message here is surely to never let the Young Vic or Kwame Kwei-Armah near anything of yours that you wouldn’t them to rip off. And maybe think twice before collaborating with an agreement made on a handshake.
Stuff I wrote since June
Since my last odds and sods, here’s what’s kept me in/out of mischief (delete as applicable):
Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens: My month-long coverage, featuring reviews of all the Edinburgh Fringe shows I saw. Sorry I’m slow indexing this, let alone writing it up – in the meantime, Ctrl-F is your friend.
Apologies for the lateness of the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe roundups – I am currently in the thick of a house move that has taken up most of my time and energy. But these reviews aren’t going to write themselves and the backlog is getting bigger, so let’s get to it.
So Buxton has had its 40th anniversary fringe this year, and with it an extra three days were added to the festival – officially a one-off, but in practice it’s surely testing the water. As a result, Buxton ended up with its biggest fringe to date, with a record breaking 213 events, up from the PB of 183 in 2017. (The increase in performances was even more dramatic, at 750 up from previous record of 500, although this figure is artificially inflated by an unusually high number of fine art and site-specific performances – see my Buxton Fringe preview if you want more number-crunching.) So the next question was whether the fringe could sustain these extra three days – after all, this could decide whether the longer fringe becomes permanent.
Based on my observations, the answer appears to be “yes”. I am not aware of any official figures that would give us clues one way or the other (as Buxton has no central booking office there’s not really any way of keeping track of sales), but the mood amongst everyone I asked was that ticket sales were going well. I suppose on thing I didn’t get an answer to was what sales were like in the extra three days at the end of the fringe – if they tailed off that would dampen expectations. Whatever the truth, we will find out Buxton Fringe’s reaction by December, when registrations for 2020 open.
But that’s enough speculation for later. Let’s get on with the reviews.
Pick of the Fringe:
I managed to pack quite a lot in to Buxton this time round. But in the end, however, there were three obvious front-runners out of all I saw. Normally, as the biggest venue, Underground Venues dominates the listings, but this time another venue is a suprise winner, thanks to a joint colloboration from two groups that this venue chose to champion.
The three picks of the fringe are:
Debbie Cannon’s writing and performance is sometimes billed as storytelling and sometimes billed as theatre, but Green Knight fits very comfortably into both. An impoverished woman is handing herself over to the convent, but before she does, she tells a story she knows about King Arthur. It is, of course, the tale of Sir Gawain, but in this story she is the woman who tempted Gawain into dishonour. But, as with many of the best retellings, something new is brought to this. None of the events of Gawain and the Green Knight are changed, but the nameless wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert takes on a very different role. In the original, her sole role is a temptress; in this, she’s still still a temptress – but not entirely by choice. She’s in love with this perfect chivalrous man who’s come into her life. Added to this, she only married to escape her own father, and her husband is, to be honest, a bit of a cock; so Gawain is, for all his restraint and honour, inadvertently leading her into temptation as much as she’s leading him.