What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2022

Skip to: Chicago, Opolis, Brief Encounter, A Bunch of Amateurs, Gamble, We Are The Best, All Lies, Durham Fringe

Well, a long time since I’ve done a line-up of summer picks. There was a fair amount of theatre last year (and even some the year before), but the north-east only really got going in autumn last year, so there wasn’t much to write about. But we are back. Let’s go.

Safe choice:

This is for plays where, if you like the description of something, I’m confident you will enjoy it if you see it. It also needs wide audience appeal and convincingly falls into the category of theatre. Just one this time, but it’s as safe a bet as you can get.

Chicago

This was supposed to be a safe choice for the start of 2022, but we all know what happened at the start of 2022, don’t we. But we’re now approaching the postponed dates, so let’s repost and update this.

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.

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The Ike Awards Hall of Fame: 2018

Skip to: Breaking the Code, The Great Gatsby, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

So, with Christmas becoming the moment for my regular end-of-year awards, I thought Easter would be a good spot for my now annual review of Ike Awards from years gone by.

For the recap: during lockdown, I embarked on a project to backdate Ike Awards (my equivalent to five stars) for plays prior to spring 2017 when I started doing this. I went through years 2012 and 2016, and had intended to catch up all the way to the present, but by this point I decided I liked doing this as a retrospective, often having the chance to see where they play and/or group is now. So from 2017 onwards, I’ve been going forward one year at a time.

However, at least one Ike winner from 2018 knows she’s in the queue and is getting impatient, so let’s take a look at the greatest plays I saw from that year. And this was a good year.

Breaking the Code

I rarely review traditional amateur dramatics on this blog. That’s not because traditional amateur dramatics should be written off before you’ve seen in – indeed, some performances are damned good – but, if you’re going to confine yourselves to published scripts that already knows, it’s near-impossible to produce something that isn’t a worse version of a prior professional production. I, on the other hand, look for work that is different, or better, or both. The People’s Theatre have managed this by doing something that most professional theatres can’t: adding an ensemble to the cast. It’s quite common for musicals to have an ensemble but rare for conventional theatre – nevertheless, the People’s Theatre made it look like Hugh Whitmore’s play was written for a cast of twenty all along.

However, the clincher was the performance of David Jack as Alan Turing. I know I said that it’s near-impossible for an amateur group to be as good as the professional productions, but honestly, that was up there with the best performances of the fully professional actors. A common mistake I see amateur theatre make (the People’s is not immune from this themselves) is to think good acting mean remembering all the lines and charging through them word-perfect. Hugh Whitmore’s play is the classic it is because it define Alan Turing as a character so well, and David Jack understood every nuance written into the scripts and brought it to the fore.

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Odds and sods: March 2022

For the first time in three years, odds and sods makes it to March without a catastrophic event rendering it redundant. To recap how this works, March is normally my last monthly update until June. In April and May, I turn my focus to Brighton Fringe, and any notable events that take place over this time tend to get mentioned in the coverage. That established, let’s get going.

Stuff that happened in March:

It’s been a slow news month. The biggest news was the first major production of The Laurels, which effectively amounted to its launch. You can follow that link for my account of how this got here and what this means for the future, but their debut production was impressive. Other than that, developments have been thin on the ground and I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel. But here’s what’s been going on.

Edinburgh Fringe and employment

With the Edinburgh Fringe set this year to return to something comparable to pre-Covid times, concerns have been raising about the return of bad practices. A few weeks ago, I was worried this was turning into a pretext to campaign for the removal of open access – that would be a huge step backwards. (Fortunately, the festival Fringe Society shows no sign of budging there.) However, the battle lines seem to have been drawn around employment practices, in particular the use of volunteers. It’s difficult to piece together reliable conclusions based on the info we have, but one of the bigger worries is that the volunteer adverts posted by C Venues – who were pilloried three years ago for allegedly treating staff the worst – suggested more of the same. In response, Shona McCarthy has made this statement about employment conditions.

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Introducing The Laurels (feat. Gerry and Sewell)

Interior of The Laurels

Skip to review of Gerry and Sewell.

North-east theatre news (and indeed news everywhere) in 2020 and 2021 has been dominated by theatres closing and reopening again, but whilst all this has been going on, something quite significant has been happening in the background. For the first time since the emergence of Alphabetti Theatre last decade, Tyneside has a new theatre. They’ve got going with the odd performance at the start of the year, but now we have their first major in-house production: Gerry and Sewell, a new adaptation of The Season Ticket aka Purely Belter. And with me invited to the press launch, it’s time to check out this latest offering.

The story so far …

First of all, a catch-up. The Laurels is part of Theatre N16. Canny sleuths amongst you might realise that N16 is a London postcode district, and might speculate that the origin of this theatre was round about Stamford Hill, and you’d be right. I even checked out Theatre N16 once myself with the surprisingly good and delightfully surrealistic Three Unrelated Short Plays. That, however, was not in N16 but SW12, because they had to move. As Alphabetti Theatre had also learned the hard way with The Dog and Parrot: landlords are cocks. Small theatres, that depend so heavily on the goodwill of landlords allowing them to use spaces for mutual benefit, are vulnerable to new owners booting them out on a whim. But whilst cockish landlords are a nuisance in the north-east, in London the problem is endemic. Even the most highly respected fringe theatres can get turfed out when the lease runs out and the owner think they can make a little more money with another business instead.

I’ve said this before, but I really do think we need a proper discussion on this. Small theatres like Alphabetti and The Laurels and The Bunker can try different things and give opportunities to new artists that larger theatres who own their buildings simply don’t have the versatility to do. But all this good work is being hampered by endless worries over holding on to premises if you’re lucky, managing moves if you’re not. But what can you do to stop it? If you simply prohibit landlords from taking away a space used by an active theatre company, nobody’s going to agree to let out the spaces to them in the first place. I’m starting to think we need a more radical solution: perhaps a lease retention scheme, where landlords get a bonus payment for continuing to let premises to performances spaces. If we’re not sure where the money should come from, maybe the big theatres can chip in – after all, they benefit from the talent nurtured and risks explored by the small venues. A lot of details to work out, but something needs to be done. And we can start by acknowledging what a big problem this is.

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