We’ve already had the tentative relaunches of the big two in the north east back in September-October, but now it’s really back to business. It’s not the first time since 2020 we’ve had a play on a main stage – Live has done several by now – but it is the first time we’ve have something on a multi-week run and full budget.
Both theatres went for something that seemed like a safe bet. Northern Stage took a classic play that catapulted a household name playwright to stardom that promised to resonate with the north east; whilst Live Theatre partnered with another theatre to adapt a recent book that took the publishing world by storm. Surely nothing can go wrong?
Well, let’s see how safe these safe bets really were.
Although The Offing is a co-production between Live Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, artistically this very much the product of the latter (with the former sharing the run largely due to the association of Paul Robinson and Graeme Thomson dating back to Theatre 503 days). The early reaction from the SJT half of the run suggested we were in for a good one, and it does not disappoint.
The book was already a big success so there could have been several theatres fighting over adaptation rights, but Paul Robinson was at a considerable advantage here: his personal reputation, the reputation of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and the proximity of the theatre to Robin Hood’s Bay, where the story is set. Whatever his secret, he managed to get approval from Benjamin Myers to create a stage version on the day he asked. As someone whose own experience of getting the attention of a writer’s agent is like trying to wake a sleeping grizzly bear with a short pointy stick, I am green with envy, but congratulations anyway.
Robert is reminiscing about his youth. It is the late 1940s, and Durham coalfield-dweller Robert has a career laid out for him as a miner. As one of the earlier gap year-goers, he chooses to spend his last summer of freedom going from place to place doing odd jobs. It is on a detour to the village on the Yorkshire coast where he meets Dulcie, an eccentric woman (age unclear – as a 16-year-old, anyone over 30 is just “old”). An early sign of eccentricity is alternating between engaging Robert in conversation and shouting at the dog like no-one’s there. Either she’s not used to people people around or she doesn’t care what they think.
Actually, Dulcie has plenty of reasons to not care what people think. Inside Dulcie’s house is an Aladdin’s cave of art and memories, but an early indication of where things are going is when Dulcie’s about to play a record from Kurt Weill. Like almost everyone in the 1940s, Robert has a poor opinion of the Jerries, but Dulcie makes an impassioned case for #notallgermans. Is Dulcie an exceptionally patient person, or is this simply a product of not caring for society’s views? Good guess, but no to both – the real reason is something more personal. It’s a slow job to get Dulcie to open up, but when she does, we hear of Romy, an exile of Nazi Germany – possibly because of her sexuality, definitely because of her opinion of Hitler. That does not, however, exempt her from the anti-German sentiment (something that would necessitate internment when the war came), and just because she hates the Nazis and everything they stand for doesn’t stop people treating her as one of them. One suspects her love for Dulcie also formed a convenient escape to a place where no-one cared who she was.
In the book, Romy never appears – her character only comes together as memories and possessions are uncovered. Janice Okoh, however, opts to bring her on-stage as the third character of a three-hander. Apparently, not everyone was happy with this decision, and it appears that some purists would have preferred to keep her in the past. Off-stage characters who are only ever talked about is a well-established theatrical conventions – and I would be intrigued to see if that approach could work – but it would be hard work to fill in the back story this way. This adaptation brings to live some of the pivotal moments in Dulcie and Romy’s relationship, as Dulcie fights a losing battle with Romy’s depression and absence of hope for a world going ablaze again. But rather than keep Romy on stage for just a few flashback scene, she is integrated into the whole script, frequently appears in past, present and future.
This is a strong adaptation and play across the board. The carefree life in Robin Hood’s Bay is evoked perfectly, and contrasts well against Robert’s sense of duty to earn a decent wage when summer ends. One thing that is particularly effective is the parallel between Romy and Robert. Robert can never replace Romy as a lover, but he can replace her as a protege, and one gets the impression that Dulcie is seeking redemption by doing for Robert what she couldn’t do for Romy. And for anyone’s who’s been anywhere near the place where you believe things will never get better, it’s not hard to understand Romy’s state of mind.
However, it is the how Dulcie is acted that is the lynchpin of the play. Cate Hamer’s performance is terrific, and she establishes her character the moment she speak her first line. The definitive moment is when Dulcie is finally ready to tell Robert what happened, with a beautiful moment of trying to stay composed as she calmly explains the darkest moment of her life.
There’s just a couple issues relating to uncertainty. The set perfectly captured the run down but loved home of an eccentric creative, but the setting seems to arbitrarily switch between two different buildings and various outdoor locations, even with furniture in use for what I think are outdoor scenes. So much so that half the time I couldn’t work out where we were supposed to be (car mock-up excepted). There also seemed to be a bit of indecision over what Romy was supposed to be representing on stage – sometimes it was inferred she was a just a memory in Dulcie’s mind; at other times, however, she seems to be more a physical manifestation also felt by Robert. Either approach was find, but I wish the play would have settled on one or the other.
But neither of these things matter that much. Even if you’re confused over where you are or what kind of manifestation Romy is, the strength of the story carries it no matter what. Authors vary hugely with the attitude towards adaptations: some happy to let anyone have a go; other are very protective and need a lot of persuasion their work won’t be ruined. I don’t know whether it was Paul Robinson’s good salesmanship or Benjamin Myers being easy to please, but he can be happy with the result. No stage adaptation of a novel can capture everything, but this captured everything the book is about.
The Offing runs until the 27th November at Live Theatre
Now for this one. The first full-scale play of any new artistic director is always an interesting one, because it’s a sign of the direction the new incumbent is taking the theatre in. Natalie Ibu’s choice for Northern Stage looked like a pretty safe bet: Road, the first major success of Jim Cartwright who went on to write favourite such as Two and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Originally set in an unspecified street of an unspecified town in Lancashire, it has been transplanted to an unspecified town in the north-east. However, there was something else notable about this: it is a very rare occasion that I’ve detected a real split of opinion of a mainstream Newcastle play. It takes a lot to override polite approval based on local loyalty – what is going on here?
The location might have changed, but the backdrop of the 1980s remains sensibly remains unchanged: it is the period in history that defines this play, rather than location, and this when decline of the old industry but the hardest. Natalie Ibu’s signature concept, however, is a row of houses on stage. You can perform Road on a simple stage with a small cast covering the dozen of characters, and I get some purists were unhappy with this. I loved it though – the visually striking set was the definitive part of the production. Some purists disliked it for restricted the space the actor have to move in, but when much of the action takes place in cramped rooms, I don’t see a problem with what. And although I wasn’t sure what the growing cracks in the walls were supposed to mean, the execution of it was flawless.
Here’s the difficulty though. When I said this play was a safe bet, I was assuming this would be like an early forerunner of Two, with numerous characters given mini-stories throughout the play. To some extent, that is the case, with some highlights for me being the husband who contradicts his wife on everything even when he’s obviously wrong (“I’m not asleep!” “Yes you are!”), and a women dreading her drunken husband’s return from the pub. The most poignant scene, however, was a woman bringing back a paralytic soldier for sex. That is not okay; by rights, she should be an unsympathetic character here, but the sorry sight of a woman terrified of being left on the shelf shines a very different light on the situation.
However, for every accessible scene, there’s another one that heavily intellectualises the topic at hand. Individuals characters frequently go off on lengthy monologues analysing the situation way beyond what any person would say in real life. To some extent, theatrical artistic license permits it, but I was still working hard trying to follow what they were on about – and I have to say, the ends of the first act and second act both fail the “What’s going on?” test. I get the impression that this is very much a “literary” play, which is best enjoyed by people who already know the story well. Natalie Ibu clearly knows the play inside out – it’s a project she’s wanted to do for years – but danger of that is assuming the audience will understand it the same as you do.
And this leads us at an unfortunate Catch 22 situation. The unique way this play has been staged is something that could only have been done on Stage 1 of Northern Stage, both in terms of stage size and the audience capacity needed to sustain this. Road is sadly not the sort of play that can fill out stage 1 easily – I just don’t see how you can make this accessible enough to get the wide appeal you need. Now, to be fair, the same could be said of Shakespeare – few people new to the Bard pick up a play the first time round – but you can get away with that because plenty of people already know the stories. But the same cannot be said of Road, however important a breakthrough it may have been for the author.
Nor does it help that the most popular plays at this moment in time are cheery uplifting ones. My spies tell that that the audience figures haven’t been great. To be fair, it’s not clear what sort of turnout for Northern Stage in 2021 is a good one – also, I’ve seen worse audience numbers (Cyrano de Bergerac, Dr. Frankenstein), and those plays didn’t have excuse on ongoing Coronavirus worries. Still, for a play that was heavily hedging its bets on being relatable to a north-east audience, the mood does seem to be that they didn’t get the numbers they were hoping for.
I’ve heard both praise and scorn for this play – and I should add that where I have heard praise, it’s been from people I trust to make judgements on merit rather than local enthusiasm – but we’re looking at the bottom line is a gamble that didn’t quite pay off. However, I still respect gambles, whichever way things turn out. Even if this vision didn’t quite work out, the one thing this scores ahead of The Offing is that it was a much bolder vision. So if you liked this, great, but if you didn’t, be patient. There’s always the next visionary project.