What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2021

Emerging from bomb shelter

Skip to: Educating Rita, Jekyll & Hyde, Pod, Chicago, The Offing, Mulan, The Three Bears, Shine, Road

Right. Where were we? Just before the apocalypse happened and we all retreated into our fallout shelters.

Seriously, we have a lot to catch up on. The most relevant news to theatre, of course, has been when they will re-open. A handful of theatres were determined to open their doors whenever is possible, commercial theatre generally went for reopening in May, but regional subsidised theatres (who I guess have less worries about lost ticket revenue) have generally waited until this month. There are then a lot of side-effects of Coronavirus to consider, and there’s also been a lot of other developments that have nothing to do with the main event. I will catch up with those is due course.

However, it’s about time we did some business as usual. I’ve already been covering the festival fringes this way, but this is the first opportunity to look at what’s going on in the north-east again. So, what have we got coming up that I recommend you go and see.

Safe Choices:

Since most of up have been out of the loop for a while, I’ll start with a recap. Safe choice is the highest level of recommendation I give. Everybody has their own tastes, and no play is recommended for everybody, but if you like the sound of anything I have listed here, it is my firm call that you will like this for real. These are also generally productions or artists that have received widespread praise beyond my own verdict, and have wide audience appeal.

If you want to know my rules in more detail, come this way. For what I have actually picked, read on.

Educating Rita

er-1692380ae26eabff851f2f51bb6e6c50This one was interrupted mid-flow, but even in 2020 they didn’t give up that easily, with the production making best possible use of the the window for outdoor theatre, having been just about the key event in the Minack Theatre’s season. I saw this myself in 2019 and can confirm it is as good as everyone says. It’s a trio of north-east talent, with Stephen Tomklinson and Jessica Johnson in the roles and ex-artistic director Max Roberts directing. However, it is Jessica Johnson who’s the biggest star in this, capturing the character of Rita perfectly, and a lot of the glory goes to the Gala Theatre for originally casting her in 2016.

However, the upcoming performance in Newcastle has kept getting postponed, but finally, you get the change to see this. For the first time, this north-east trio perform in the heart of their own region at Newcastle Theatre Royal, on the 13th-18th September.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Production shot of Jekyll and EleanorNick Lane has been Blackeyed Theatre’s star writer/director for the past few years, but his first production for them in 2018 was unbeatable. Although a revival previously performed with other companies, it was a natural fit for a theatre company who had found its home in Gothic horror. The thing that earned this my highest accolade, however, was the addition of a completely new character to the story. Nick Lane wanted to pay tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife Fanny, who was said to be both his greatest supporter and harshest critic. A character inspired by her, Eleanor Laynon, becomes a pivoting role in this adaptation. And – most impressively – Lane makes it look like this is how the story had been written all along.

Blackeyed Theatre tour nationally, rarely more than three days in the same place, so you’ve got to be quick. This much-delayed revival tour won’t come to the north-east proper until it visits Queen’s Hall Hexham, but if you can’t wait, or you are in the Yorkshire side of my local coverage, you can see this at The Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 30th September – 2nd October.

Pod

podI had this down as a Bold Choice, but it earns a last-minute promotion to Safe Choice because I’ve just seen it in its opening week. Coracle are quickly getting my respect as on of my favourite local small-scale groups, having latched on to a particular style and doing it well. So far I’ve seen plays by Arabella Arnott and Lizi Patch, but both writers work to a similar format of a snapshot. The time-frame of the play itself may only be a few days, but the events that feed into it always go back years or decades. Arnott is also good at feeding in red-herrings to throw you off the scent for what truths eventually emerge.

Without wishing to spoil too much, the setting for this play is a glamping “pod” as a mother and two daughters (plus one in-law) gather to celebrate what would have been the birthday of their recently-departed father of the family. The pod setting, however, is only incidental – the real trigger is bringing together two sisters who’ve never seen eye to eye. The play covers a lot of ground intelligently and thoughtfully, and is an excellent choice for Alphabetti’s opener to this vital season. See it at Alphabtti Theatre running until 18th September.

Chicago

This one is actually not until 2022, but with most theatres going into hibernation in January I should probably announce this now. Chicago needs no introduction, but amongst the many reasons this musical is a smash hit is its cynical yet uncannily accurate portrayal of the justice system as a popularity contest. I’m not sure the writers realised how accurate it was. It was originally performed in 1975, twenty years before the infamous trial of OJ Simpson, when seemingly the whole of America made up their minds, not on the basis of whether he did it, but how much they liked him as a celebrity. And in the 25-year run of the musical at the same time, this has increasingly become the norm.

But I don’t need to wax lyrical, you know this already. See this at Sunderland Empire on 4th – 8th January next year.

Bold Choices:

Bold choices are plays that I have less certainty over; usually this is because they are new plays from artists who have previously proven their worth. As with Safe Choice, there is a much better chance of this being the play for you if the description appeals to you, and even then it’s a bit of a gamble – but it’s a gamble where I believe the odds are in your favour. If you hope to be the first to see the next big thing, there is where I recommend you hedge your bets.

The Offing

1133-webimageoffingIf you’re wondering why Paul Robinson, current Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, frequently takes plays to Live Theatre, it’s mainly because he and Live’s current Executive Producer used to work together at Theatre 503. Regardless, the plays Paul Robinson have directed have been done to a consistently high standard, be it revivals of much-loved classics or forays into new writing.

I know little about this story but it sound intriguing. An adaptation of a recent novel, it follows 16-year-old Robert who, in the aftermath of world war 2, heads south to find word, but somehow ends up taking a massive detour to Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets eccentric Dulcie Piper and falls in with the village’s artistic community. But there seems to be some sort of catch and it’s perhaps not entirely as idyllic as first appears. To find out what ghosts in the past need laying to rest, you can go to the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 14th – 30th October or Live Theatre on the 3rd – 27th November.

The Ballad of Mulan

Now for a small-scale play for a change. Michelle Yim is one half of the creative team behind Grist to the Mill, who have brought a string of solo plays to numerous fringes and now run the Rotunda venue that appears at Buxton Fringe as other festivals. Michelle Yim’s solo plays have focused on the lives of notable women of East Asian heritage, with the first two having made names for themselves in both China and America. The stories do not give simplistic messages, but instead aren’r afraid to go into the full complicated depth of these figures.

This one, however, does the opposite. It’s is the story of folklore hero Mulan, the woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Emperor’s army. However, this expressly promises to not be the Disneyfied version and instead offers a visceral Mulan. You can see this at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 11th September or The Witham in Barnard Castle on the 9th October.

You might like …

This category is similar to Safe Choice, in that if you like the sound of this I’m confident you will enjoy this. The only rule that is relaxed is that it does not need wide audience appeal; in this case, it’s a play mainly aimed at young children, although this one does seem to have popularity amongst adults too.

The Three Bears

Kitchen Zoo is duo who’s an offshoot of one of Northern Stage’s old North ensembles, and whilst I am far too old and out of touch with the kids to say whether small children would enjoy this, I know for a fact small children don’t muck about if they want you to know a play aimed at them is boring. For grown-ups, you can get to enjoy some mildly subversive takes on fairy tales without anything that would scare off the kids.

I didn’t see The Three Bears when it first ran a few years back, but I did hear good things from people who wouldn’t normally bother with theatre for young children. Apparently, in this version, Goldilocks is a massive pain in the arse, which makes sense when you think about this. This runs at Northern Stage on the 25th October – 13th November. All performances are during the daytime, so grown-ups who work full-time, you may need to come on a Saturday.

Also of note

This last section is for other plays, usually ones I know little about, who are expected to get a lot of attention regionally: in this case, they are the headliner productions for Live and Northern Stage.

Shine

Most regional theatres have played it safe on their relaunch and gone for revivals of old successful plays, and for Live Theatre the obvious choice was Shine. I must admit I am a little wary of solo autobiographical plays, because I’ve seen too many that consist of someone thinking their life story to date (typically consisting of arguments on social media and their relationship at drama school) is far more riveting than anyone else finds it. However, Kema Kay’s own personal story looks more interesting than most, about building a new life when his family moved to Newcastle from Zambia, and I did hear a good feedback the first time round. Previews have just finished, and this play runs at Live Theatre on the 2nd – 18th September.

Road

One of the big stories that’s been going on since last time is both Live Theatre and Northern Stage changing their artistic directors. Lorne Campbell left to go on to Artistic Director of National Theatre of Wales; Joe Douglas’s departure was a bit more of a shock, especially after his first two plays went so well. But that’s by the by, and the big question when any new artistic director comes in is what artistic direction they actually take the theatre in. There can be a long time between appointment of a new AD and the first play, so you can be waiting a long time for an answer.

I was wondering what Northern Stage’s new boss would pick for her first main-stage play. Stage 1 of Northern Stage has historically fared the best with mainstream productions, and Natalie Ibu’s first play for that space is quite a mainstream one: a Jim Cartwright play called Road. Most people know his smash hits Two and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, but this play was the one that shot him to stardom. Transplanted from Lancashire to the north east by keeping the backdrop of the 1980s, it follow a night out of the residents of a deprived street. This runs on the 8th – 30th October at Northern Stage.

Stay tuned for the other upcoming big news when we discover what Jack McNamara does for his first play at Live Theatre. But that’s a story for the next What’s Worth Watching …

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