Let me begin with an apology for being slow on the reviewing front in the last six months. I don’t use this blog for a running commentary of things going on in my life, but those of you who know me will be aware that I’ve been getting a lot of hassle, firstly from some circumstances that forced me to move, and then the process of buying somewhere that turned out the be ten times as complicated as it needed to be. But I’ve finally done it. I’m a homeowner, and to celebrate I’ve subscribed to the Daily Mail so I can obsess over house prices. I’m already sick of those idle spongers in their social housing. Nice Mr. Dacre told me so.
Anyway, what this has meant for the blog is that I’ve fallen behind a lot, partly the time needed sorting things out, and partly as I was feeling in a bit of a hole over this time. This has also meant I’ve missed a few plays I was hoping to watch and review – if that was yours, I do apologise. (My tour with Elysium Theatre also produced a couple of casualties.) However, we are now into December and January, which is my down time and my chance to catch up.
So let’s start the catch-up with two productions I saw at the Gala, both adaptations of famous works. One was a stop of a highly-anticipated local tour, and the other was an in-house production – but a different kind of in-house production to anything you’ve seen at the Gala before. And that is where we begin.
Lord of the Flies
All eyes may be permanently on the theatre news from Newcastle, but one thing that has been slowly but steadily taking place in Durham is the increasing influence of Durham Student Theatre – and, in parallel, the increasing influence of The Assembly Rooms, their main venue. That venue has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, a secondary studio venue will be opening shortly, and both venues are looking to take touring professionals. The Assembly Rooms also partnered with Elysium Theatre, although this has recently been overtaken by the latter’s other partnership with Queen’s Hall Hexham. But along with this, there’s a third strand reaching out beyond the university, and that an unprecedented collaboration with the Gala Theatre and Unfolding Theatre. Taking on students as cast but professional produced and directed, Lord of the Flies was one of the most notable productions in Durham for some time.
This stage adaptation of William Golding’s novel used here is Nigel Williams’s, as used by none less than the RSC. The obvious different in the production is, unlike the originals when a plane full of schoolboys crashes on an unknown island, here the characters are mixed male and female. Should you make that change that change to the story? From a pragmatic perspective, the answer is an unequivocal “yes” – when you’re embarking on the most high-profile exciting project for years, there would have been (justified) outrage if half of Durham University weren’t allowed to apply. Even so, changing from a single-sex cast to mixed cast is not without its challenges. I saw a DST production of Glengarry Glen Ross a few years ago where two of the cut-throat estate agents were women. It was a good production and the two women were just as convincingly ruthless as the men, but it still didn’t quite ring true. In a setting where casual misogyny was accepted as normal behaviour, it felt implausible that two women would have been treated the same as the men they were written for.
In the end, however, I think I agree with the ethos of director Annie Rigby here. Her view is that, contrary to Golding’s idea that this is what happens without the civilising influence of women, women can be just as vicious if they want. That is certainly the case here: Layla Chowdhury plays Jack, head of the school choir, rival to leader of survivors Ralph, and general nutjob (only surpassed by the other nutjobs attracted to the breakaway faction Jack leads), and whilst the mannerisms are understated at first, once Jack’s true colours come out Chowdhury plays it very convincingly. It’s not quite clear whether half the survivors are now women but the play is keeping the original names, or whether the characters are still all boys but half are depicted by women, but it doesn’t really matter; once the play gets going you forget about this. I suppose that in a real mixed group it would only be a matter of time before someone tried hitting on someone else, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story and you don’t think of this. So good call there.
The production is somewhat let down by some early weaknesses in the script though. One of my pet hates I’ve developed in the last few years is stage adaptations that completely miss the point of the original – I don’t have that problem here, this play, both through script and production, gets the spirit of the piece right. But Nigel Williams condenses the story too much for its own good. The key events of the first few weeks now take place in a continuous scene. In the book, Ralph and Piggy’s fragile system of law and order breaks down after some of the boys forget to light a fire and passing boat misses the smoke. In this stage version, they accidentally set fire to half the hillside, put it out, and then a boat comes and they forget to light another fire, all in the space of fifteen minutes. Wouldn’t the boat have seen the smoke from the previous fire? That alone could have been overlooked, but there’s also vital plot developments as trust deteriorates and rivalries fester – something that’s near-impossible to convey with so few time intervals. I suspect Nigel Williams aimed his script at people who’d read the book and used their knowledge to fill in the gaps, but without that, I fear, you lose a lot of what’s needed to understand how the characters turn out the way they do.
That’s a shame, because this is the only thing standing in the way of a good production being an excellent one. Apart from that, it’s got so much going for it. The standard of acting is up there with the fully professional productions – that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how good the best DST actors are, but it certainly came as a surprise to a lot of the audience expecting a stock student production. I was impressed with the set too – as functioning as a multi-purpose set for various locations on the island, it gave a good feel for the bleakness too. And even if you didn’t quite follow what led to the events, once you got to the two tribes on the island at war with each other, the effect was striking, with the pig-killing chants being particularly effective.
I can understand why DST/Gala/Unfolding theatre chose to go with an established adaptation – it’s been successfully done before, so that’s a safer bet. In hindsight, who knows, maybe it would have been better to have started from scratch with a new script. But everything else about the production was done well, and the numbers and the Gala and the reaction suggest that this project has proven worthwhile. Is it enough to persuade these companies to do something like this again next year? I hope so. The best that DST has to offer is too good to be segregated into a student/local divide, and let’s hope this is a the first of many opportunities to show what they can do.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
And now, on to Northern Stage. Last year, Northern Stage’s unexpected smash hit was War of the Worlds, only intended as a low-key showcase of their NORTH training scheme, instead selling out and coming back for a north-east tour. So it was all but guaranteed they’d do something similar this year. There was one challenge though – a lot of success was down to Laura Lindow’s script and Elayce Ismail’s directing. This time, it’s a new director and writer, and Jake Smith and Douglas Maxwell. The two are set a hard act to follow, but they’ve pulled it off, maybe even edging ahead.
The one thing I’ve learnt about adapting Sherlock Holmes this year is that it’s a mistake to treat it as a whodunnit – at least, not of the format popularised by Agatha Christie. The colourful characters of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot were just a supporting theme to a Christie mystery, but for Arthur Conan Doyle it’s the other way round – the mysteries are more like the supporting theme to the relationship between Holmes and Watson. And that is brought out the the start here. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are still reeling from a case that went badly wrong, especially Holmes who’s taken it really badly, not just for the consequences of the gamble they took, but his own failure in thinking everything through. That means he’s back on the opium. Luckily for Holmes’s well-being and Watson’s sanity, along comes a case for Holmes to get his teeth into: the new heir to Baskerville Manor reporting sighting of a strange red hound on the moors.
As with last year’s production, this is done with a cast of four. Making that work for War of the Worlds was relatively easy, but here, with the original story involving complex interactions between numerous suspects, it was a real challenge. Nick Lane managed The Sign of Four with an ensemble of six reasonably comfortably, but an ensemble of four pushes doubling to the limits. Luckily, there is one thing unique to this Holmes mystery that makes it possible, which is that he’s not in half the story – as all Conan Doyle fans know, Sherlock is away under the pretence of being called back on urgent business, observing thing incognito. Or perhaps his miserable stay in a nearby cave is atonement for his mistake in the last case. That is another thing play play does well when Holmes and Watson have their unexpected reunion.
But I digress. As far as doubling goes Holmes’s convenient period of absence allows Watson to be the lead character, whilst Holmes and the other two actors take on the rest of the characters. There are a few unavoidable oddities – the romance between Sir Henry and Beryl is limited by both lovers being played by the same woman, and it’s a difficult to make the most of the final showdown between Sherlock and Jack when they too are played by the same person. Impressive though it was to make this work with such a small cast, I wonder if a fifth actor would have eased things a bit.
Now for the challenge. As we found out in The Sign of Four earlier this year, Sherlock mysteries can be an absolute bugger to make work on the stage. Mr. Holmes’s intricate deductive reasoning is fine in a book, because you can go back and read it again if you need to, but in a play, miss it once and you’re too late. However, that didn’t feel like a problem here. I’m not sure whether it’s because Hound is easier to follow (Sherlock not being in half of it should help), Smith and Maxwell make it easier to follow, or because I know this story better, but whatever the reason, good job done there. You can watch this without your brain hurting.
And finally, this play achieves the one thing I felt was missing from War of the Worlds. Last year, I felt an opportunity was missed by not doing anything on the back wall – I could imagine the shadow of one of those robots being very effective. Here, however, the back wall is used very innovatively, with the appearance of the fabled house an excellent bit of staging. One small snag was that if you were sitting in the front rows at the Gala, it was difficult to see that was happening on the table, but since this was part of a tour with a different venue each night, I’ll let them off that.
The closest I’d come to picking fault with this – and it’s not so much finding fault as lack of enthusiasm – was trying to “northernise” Sherlock Holmes. I heard a lot of excitement over hearing Holmes and Watson with northern accents, but whilst I don’t think it spoils the play, neither did it come off as a northern feel for me. The setting of Baskerville Hall is very much rooted in Dartmoor, about as far from the north-east as can be. There’s no reason why an adatation can’t have Holmes and Watson hailing from Geordieland, but when 221B Baker Street London is inextricably linked with the story, it’s too hard to imagine they’re northerners now. I’ve never really got into this current practice of trying to give a north-east slant to everything, but if that’s your priority, there’s better stories you can do that too.
So a good all-rounder here, and even – dare I say it – something that gives Nick Lane and Blackeyed Theatre a run for their money. Good news for Northern Stage too, as it means last year’s War of the Worlds was not a one-off hit but a formula that can be used again. Of course, everything is up in the air now with an imminent change of artistic director, but this could not have come at a better moment. If the North play becomes a permanent annual event, it may be this play that made it so.