March 2022 Fringe roundup

Skip to: Yes! Yes! UCS, The Twenty Seven Club

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:

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Yes! Yes! UCS

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in is regarded as one of the most successful industrial disputes in the history of the labour movement. It is also one of the most counter-intuitive. Most of the time, industrial disputes are seen as synonymous with striking, but the problem with strikes is that you run the risk of the public and the government realising they can manage without you, and from there the they go on to decide they can manage without you permanently – especially if closure is the threat you were striking over in the first place. This dispute in 1971 did the opposite: when the liquidators started telling workers not to come in, the unions took over the yard and worked on, and persuaded the public and (under pressure) the government that their work was needed after all. It arguably became a playbook for how to do everything right and win people over.

Heather Gourdie as Eddy andJanie Thomson as Aggy in Yes! Yes! UCS! Townsend Theatre Productions (2)But there are no points to be won on this blog for commemorating something worthy. To get the equivalent to a five-star rating here, you have to earn it on artistic merit. And the first challenge: how do you depict an event involving thousands of people on stage? A cast of forty, playing workers, supporters and politicians, with rousing and show-stopping musical numbers? Maybe, if you have a hotline to the National Theatre. Townsend Theatre, however, goes for a musical with a cast of two: Aggie (Janie Thomson), a recent school leaver who’s been drifting from job to job, suddenly finding her feet in the Shipbuilding trade; and Geraldine aka Eddy (Heather Gourdie), a jaded more seasoned worker who apparently spends her whole time chain-smoking or going off on political rants, or usually both at the same time.

The choice of two women to tell the story was not, as I initially speculated, taken based on who Townsend Theatre had available – this was an artistic decision made very early on in the writing process when interviewing people at the time. Certainly the labour movement of the 1970s and 1980s was a pivotal time for women in the workplace. With female-dominated factories in a world war rolling back for a second time, women played an important campaigning role in the UCS work-in and later disputes – and before then, Aggie has a charming account of being the first woman in a male-dominated office and learning to keep with with all the swear words (with on particular word being a noun and a verb and an adjective). Artistic choices aside, however, this suits a two-hander well, with the two women ideally placed to talk about and observe the men in the yard continuing to build the ships. In fact, writer Neil Gore makes a lot a good calls with the writing. One thing he works in is the context of the wider political climate – he might be on the side of the work-in himself, but Eddy still reveals exactly what the yards are up against: it’s not simply a vindictive government of Edward Heath, they’re also up against globalisation and cheaper foreign shipyards, nor does it help that shipbuilding is in decline thanks to the rise in aviation.

Janie Thomson as Aggy in Yes! Yes! UCS! Townsend Theatre Productions (2)Most of my Ike Awards are clinched by a simple but brilliant concept executed well. Here, however, it’s lots of little things that add up to the experience. The most striking thing has to be the set, together with the animations (from Scarlett Rickard and Johnny Halifax) projected on the ship-yard with imagery in the style of the 1970s and the labour union banners. Admittedly, this does sometimes look a bit Month Python-esque, but it seems they’ve ahead of me on that one and gone in the whole hog, with Edward Heath and other politicians animated in exactly the way the Pythons would approve of. It is hard to explain how versatile the set is in a review, but the set and animation integrate really well and are stronger than the sum of their parts. In fact, it’s that the attention to detail across the board that does so much for this play. There is a lot on references to life in 1971, from prices to imagery to attitudes, but it is always kept relevant to the story and resists the temptation to run down a nostalgia checklist that proves the bane of so many plays.

It would be tempting to close this review with a local theatre politics rant questioning why such an excellent production was not programmed into any of the bigger north-east theatres, but the answer to the question is quite undramatic: Tyneside Irish Centre was where Townsend Theatre wanted to perform all along. They have a long association, and small social venues such as this are in fact their preferred choice, with them setting up all their own equipment at each stop. The only down-side to this choice of venue is that the audience, whilst comfortably filling out the seating, were quite small compare to what a bigger venue could have offered – it’s a pity that a lot of people who would doubtless have loved this play probably didn’t even know it was on. But it punches far above its weight and outclasses countless productions backed by bigger players. I’m sorry I can’t give you any more north-east dates, but I can give this group a much-deserved highest accolade.

The Twenty Seven Club

Whilst Yes, Yes, UCS may have been a low-key event in a low-key venue, there’s no escaping the fanfare from over the play on at the same time. Much of Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival goes to newer names who Live Theatre wants to help on the way up, but Chris Connell is already one of the biggest names in the north-east, having acted in many of Live’s greatest hits. This is his debut into writing and directing, and it’s an adaptation of his wife’s book, The Twenty Seven Club. The title is, of course, based on the observation that a lot of famous musicians seem to die at this age. I am not a statistician and don’t know how this compares to untimely deaths at other ages, but, bloody hell, there’s a lot of them. This story begins in the aftermath of Emma in hysterics on the news that Kurt Cobain is dead. Her lifelong friend Dave is a little irritated she’s making such a big deal out of someone she doesn’t know, but it may be that Dave has bigger problems of his own he’s yet to share. Like many other people observed around the time, Cobain is the latest of many musicians to die at 27. But Emma is approaching 27 herself. And she is constantly in therapy about her own depression. As she aptly observes, everyone else is happy necking Cheesy Wotsits and Pot Noodles and she thinks she’s about to die.

27club_livetheatre-920copyThere are several challenges that come with taking a book to the stage. The first challenge is to refrain from buggering about with the plot – that one passes easily enough, but you’ll be surprised how often the opposite happens (especially where the final plot twist is changed so that the rest of the story building up to this ceases to make sense). The bigger challenge is to decide what to put in the stage version and what to leave out. Lucy Nichol’s book is only a modest 232 pages, but I’ve seen three-hour films made out of books that length. It’s not just cutting enough material to meet an acceptable running length; something a great moment from the book has to be left out or it will break the flow of the story. The final challenge, however, is particular to a story of mental health. I have not read the book, but on the page you can write down a characters innermost darkest thoughts like you’re writing a diary entry. In a stage play, you have fewer options.

Chris Connell addresses this with numerous scenes of Emma talking to an unseen therapist. That, however, I think sells the story short. Although there are some memorable points made during this – such as Emma’s consciousness that feel crap about things that other people enjoy makes her feel even more crap – I find the principle of “show, don’t tell” is a lot more effective on this topic. There are different ways of doing this that works, but to pick a recent example, I really liked the way 10 Things to do in a Small Cumbrian Town did it. We didn’t get an insight into Jodie’s mind with lengthy monologues of how she was feeling – on the contrary, we got the message by her keeping it all bottled and telling herself it was all fine and all a laugh, until she hit breaking point. Here, I’m a bit confused. By scene 3, Emma seems to have forgotten about her devastation over Cobain’s death already, and is back to drinking on the Toon. She also never seems to talk to her closest friend about how she’s feeling. It might be because she’s keeping everything bottled up like Jodie did, and that could make for a good story. But if that’s the reason, we never get to see it.

In addition, I feel that this is an example of over-reliance of nostalgia. There’s a lot of name-dropping of 1990s bands and clubs, a whole sequence about an embarrassing video Emma’s father was watching (for you millennials, this is what was used before Pornhub was invented), and another lengthy digression about politics in the age of John Major versus John Smith. However, much of this has little to do with the key topic, and I fear came at the expense of more important material that could have come from the book. Like I said, nostalgia is an easy crowd-pleaser that’s easily overdone.

The redeeming moment, however, comes in the penultimate scene of the play. It had occurred to me that Emma and Dave’s relationship seemed somewhat ambiguous. It turns out their friendship goes to back to childhood, when the same moment of tragedy changed both their lives forever. And Steve Byron delivers the key word beautifully. With Emma and Dave wondering when their respective mother and father are going to pick them up, Emma’s father tells them to get into the car and delivers two words with devastating accuracy: “Something’s happened.” That is “Show, don’t tell” at its finest, and it’s a shame this touch wasn’t applied to more of the play.

I realise reviews like this are the most likely reason I don’t get press tickets to most mainstream north-east theatre, so i should repeat I never review plays to rubbish them – I can review this because I like what The Twenty Seven Club is trying to do on stage and want it to have the best possible effect. If I was to make a guess at a root problem, it’s that I think the play keeps its cards close to its chest for two long. Whilst we don’t need to know the specifics of Emma’s mother’s death, I do think we need to know it’s something that’s affected her ever since. Then maybe we can explore how Nirvana became an escape for her and thousands of others like her, and with that we can truly understand why death of a man she never met could have been so devastating for her and countless others like her. Mental Health is tough to write because it’s such an abstract concept, but the more you can make it relatable to what people understand the more effective it is. Don’t waste this chance.

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