There were three small-scale plays on my schedule for this month. One of them I will cover separately because it’s a part of a wider bit of news, but I shall crack on with the other two. In terms of profile, they are at opposite ends of the scale. One is a new play launched with all the fireworks the north-east cultural scene can muster; the other was an obscure event you might not even have realised was one. But it’s the latter one that’s made the bigger splash with me.
Yes! Yes! UCS
Tyneside Irish Centre is not your usual choice of venue for theatre. I don’t routinely check it for listings, and indeed I would have no knowledge of Townsend Theatre’s one-night visit had it not been for a very determined and persistent publicist finally finding me a play to invite me to that was in reach of where I live. But I firmly believe that more of us should watch plays we’ve never seen by groups we’ve never heard of in venues we’ve never been to, so that the unknowns stand a fair chance against the artists championed by the big theatres. I don’t routinely expect anything special from watching the unknowns, but very occasionally you stumble across something exceptional. It’s these rare moments when an unexpected gem comes out of nowhere that makes this mission of mine worthwhile. And that, folks, is precisely what’s happened here:
Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation, with a subject suddenly thrown in to national attention, is strong all rounder carried in particular by their ever-innovative staging and one of the best individual performances I’ve seen.
One thing virtually every theatre company aspires to be is “current”, “urgent”, or one of the many other synonyms for topical. But, for all the lofty aspirations, this is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Most main stage productions are at least a year in planning. The issue that prompted you to commission a play is probably going to be long-since forgotten by the time it makes it to an audience. And in the event it is still being talked about, you are probably going to find yourself jostling for attention with another ten groups all saying the same thing as you. Nine times out of ten, you’re better off forgetting about trying to tap into trends and just do something that stands up in its own right. Unless, of course, you end up topical by accident, as happened here. When Pilot Theatre announced The Bone Sparrow (another back adaptation, this time with the original from Zena Fraillon and adapted by S.Shakthidharan), the topic of refugees was an ongoing issue but there was no particular thing bringing the matter to the fore. Now, however … well, I don’t need to tell you what changed.
The setting of The Bone Sparrow is quite far from home though. Priti Patel hasn’t exactly endeared herself to a suddenly refugee-sympathetic public, but few things are more notorious than the immigrant detention camps in Australia. Supporters of these camps will probably argue that Australia cannot be expected to single-handedly house half the world’s refugees, but a less charitable interpretation, as explored in this play, is that it’s a game of buck-passing. By trying to make your conditions for immigrants more infamous than the rest of Asia and Oceania, refugees will opt to go somewhere else instead, were it not for the fact that all other would-be safe countries are doing the same, and you get a race to the bottom. But this is not a comment piece on the merits of immigration policies, this is the place for a theatre review.
Originally commissioned for Live Theatre twelve years ago, Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey adapts well to the People’s Theatre in the way no-one else could do it.
I confess, I missed Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey the first time round. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, this was before I’d got familiar with works such as The Memory of Water and Five Kinds of Silence and realised how good a writer she was – and secondly, this was at a time when I was being deluged with identi-kit “local” plays with the laziest of north-east references. However, this one went down very well and I wished I had caught it. So I was keen to take the opportunity to catch up on this, but also see what the People’s Theatre can do with this.
Unlike the aforementioned plays, where Stephenson had full creative license to do what she liked, this is about a real character, Winslow Homer, considered by many one of the greatest American painters. (Not to be confused with his Ancient Greek namesake to wrote a book called The Odyssey – thanks Shelagh for making that so simple.) We know he spent two years in Cullercoats, back when it was a fishing town in its own right rather than an area of a conurbation in North Tyneside; something that many art historians considered a step change in his work. Although most of the characters in this story are fictitious, we do know it happened at a time when seeing the world – or even a different part of your own country – was consider a niche pursuit and many people lived their whole lives in the same town down what they always do.
Where Stephenson can put her imagination to work is Homer’s personal life. Not that much is known, but he never married. One possible reason was that Homer was gay. That scenario is explored in the play, although it never firmly comes down on one side of the fence. What is without doubt, however, is that the 19th century is not a good time to be openly gay, or even secretly gay, and it was common for gay men to marry women and have children to fit in with society’s expectations. And the consequences of this were often tragic.
So far the first time since 2019, we have preparations underway for all the main fringes. Last year was cause for celebration when, against all odds and so much stacked against them, the two biggest fringes put on great comeback festivals. Now, however, it seems we’re into the hangover. Oh dear, here’s what’s been going on.
Brighton Fringe loses The Warren
How could this possibly go so wrong? Brighton Fringe 2021 was, by all accounts, a roaring success, with custom for both ticket sales and ancillary income (i.e. drinking) vastly outperforming every expectation. But then, last October, signs emerged that perhaps all was not well after all, specifically with The Warren. Complaints started emerging online from performers and staff about not being paid that year, both from the Fringe and the subsequent Warren on the Beach (although some are going further and claiming the problem goes back years). It did seem strange that such difficulties were happening after such a lucrative summer, but apparently it’s perfectly possible for this to happen simply because of inadequate financial management. The absence of anyone from The Warren at registration launch also seemed strange. Then the news died down and the registration for Brighton Fringe approached and I assumed that The Warren must have got a grip on events and settled it quietly.
And then, days before announcement of the full programme, the bombshell was announced by Brighton Fringe: The Warren will not take part in 2022 whilst it sorts out its finances. The announcement came from Brighton fringe rather than the venue, but it sounds like they’ve admitted they screwed up. The problem with the timing is a lot of artists were already programmed to perform there. There is currently a scramble to find alternatives, but off-hand it doesn’t look like there’s enough spare capacity at the other venues to absorb this. At the time of writing, Brighton Fringe doesn’t seem to be budging on its 7th March deadline to get in the printed daily guide. It also dashes the (previously quite high) hopes that Brighton Fringe would be back to full strength for 2022.