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.

Anyway, Theatre N16 took the worst of this. The new home in Balham suffered the same fate as the old home. Then they found a third home, which got redeveloped and knocked down. And then, at the worst possible moment, a tragedy struck with the death of Executive Producer Richard Jenkinson. At that point, artistic director Jamie Eastlake finally conceded defeat on the London front, and instead went of a completely different plan. With the help of a chef friend, he set up at in the north-east: not quite Laurels just yet, but a Tapas Bar in Blyth called Laurence’s. This was mostly a food & drink business, but it did have the odd comedy night and a rehearsal space for artists. Launching this in late 2020 was, shall I say, brave, but the gamble paid off and it succeeded and is still running.

But Theatre N16 ltd has not forgotten what it was set up to do, and now it is back as a theatre. It’s in Whitley Bay, taking over what appears to be an old working men’s club. This launch has not been quite as smooth at Laurence’s – they, like most theatres, were counting on a lucrative Christmas 2021, but that suffered the same fate as most Tyneside theatres. Which means that the big launch is now Jamie Eastlake’s own play. And I was there to check out both the venue and the play.

The venue

So, as you may have already guessed, The Laurels is essentially two businesses in one. On one floor is a refurbished bar with a similar decor as Laurence’s over in Blyth. (Yes, I got confused with the two similarly-named venues too, but there you go.) Upstairs is the theatre itself. To some extent, it’s similar to the pub theatre setup used by N16 and many other theatres in London and elsewhere, with one crucial difference: rather than being a pub that serves food with an arts space upstairs, it’s an arts venue with a bar that serves food. As we have seen countless times, a pub that hosts a theatre can turn on it without warning, but a theatre that hosts a pub is a different matter.

This model isn’t an entirely new thing. Lots of small venues treat a bar and/or food outlet as an intrinsic part of the business. At one point Alphabetti theatre gave all its ticket revenue (as pay what you decide) to the artists and made money on the bar alone. Most of the big pop-up venues at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes would never be viable without this ancillary income. Not everybody is happy with this: there is a concern that the aforementioned big pop-up venues are interested in bar takings first and art second, and there’s a suspicion they favour comedy over theatre because that brings in the most bar revenue. The counter-argument is that you can’t function as an arts venue if you don’t have a reliable source of income. The success in Blyth suggests a reliable source of income of The Laurels, and for any venue that’s struggled to find a secure footing I’m not going to argue with the one thing that seems to be working.

That’s the theory, how is it working in practice? On the Wednesday I was there, both rooms of the bar were busy. If that’s going to be a typical night’s takings, they’re home and dry. However, it’s a fair bet that a lot of audience were there for the play. For obvious reasons, a Newcastle United-themed play was bound to sell well both upstairs and downstairs. What we don’t yet know is how much business there is on either a non-play night, or a play that attracts a smaller audience. So far, so good, but a promising business model on paper isn’t proven just yet.

How about what’s on? At the moment, apart from their flagship production, their programme is mostly small-scale touring professional theatre. To some extent, The Laurels is moving in on the territory freshly-vacated by Alphabetti Theatre, who now do in-house productions for all but two weeks of the year. One small but important thing is that, at this first glance, it looks like they’re offering something different. The small scale productions on offer at Live Theatre, Northern Stage and Alphabetti Theatre – great though some individual productions are – feel like they’re getting a bit sameish. It is only my subjective opinion, but it seems to me that they’re covering an increasingly narrow set of topics, and certainly nothing like the range on offer at Edinburgh or Brighton or Buxton Fringes. I realise a theatre programme can only have as much variety as the artists who want to be involved, but I hope The Laurels looks on being different to its Newcastle counterparts as a positive and doesn’t try imitate their programmes.

This, however, is just one strand. The thing that most grabs my interest in artist development. The early news about the Laurels was interesting: they were interested in a hyper-local focus. North-East is too generic: the focus is more like North Shields to Blyth. In a way, I am envious. There are far too many places that think the north-east and Newcastle are interchangeable; that is forgivable for the Newcastle-based venues themselves, but there’s nothing more frustrating as a Durham artist as watching the big local venues putting on endless plays set in Newcastle with Newcastle-based actors and writers and directors and being told I’ve been done a favour. The details of how this is going to work still seem in development, but what they’re mooting looks promising. It would be nice, however, if we could have something somewhere on Tyneside that allows artists to just try out something in front of an audience like Alphabetti used to do at the Dog and Parrot. Not sure if this is in The Laurels’ plans, but it would good if it was.

Most ambitiously, they’re aspiring to be putting stuff on at the West End in ten years. This one, I think, is a long shot. All of Northern Stage, Live and Alphabetti dream of nuturing a hand-pick artist to national prominence, but so far there’s only limited success, so for a new theatre on a fraction of the budget this looks like a tall order. There again, Jamie Eastlake knows London theatre better than most people. Maybe, just maybe, he can pull off the ultimate surprise.

So far so good. But how does the play do?

Gerry and Sewell

Sewell, Tyneside (as mam) and Gerry.

Oh boy, the stakes don’t get much higher than this. A new venue can stand or fall on its debut. Had The Frights bombed, I’m not sure Alphabetti Theatre would have survived the challenges of the following two years. With the Christmas production a Covid casualty leaving The Laurels out of pocket, they really really needed this to be good.

Well, the early advantage in The Laurels’ favour was getting rights to Jonathan Tulloch’s cult hit novel The Season Ticket (with the film version called Purely Belter). Following the adventures of Gerry and Sewell as they they beg, borrow and steal (mostly the latter) in their quest for the cherished season ticket to Newcastle United. Attract just a small fraction of the Newcastle United-worshipping crown and you’ve got an audience – and that’s exactly what they got. However, anyone can write a script of lazy Geordie references before waxing lyrical about The Magpies – this play offers more. The book was written at the time when people were starting to notice how the Premier League was pricing ordinary fans out of the stadium. Much of the time it’s a choice between bums or seats or artistic value. This is a rare story that offers both.

*: Fun fact: Apparently the local dialect is “Pure Belter”, but apparently Film Four changed it to Purely Belter to “make it grammatically more conventional to a mainstream audience”. I don’t understand that, I thought the first one made more grammatical sense myself, but it stuck and now Geordies have happily adopted Purely Belter as their own phrase. Okay Film Four, I still think what you did makes no sense, but you win.

The background to this adaptation is either bad luck or good luck, depending on how you look at it. Jamie Eastlake had previously spoken to Tulloch about adapting the book, but rights had already been agreed with another production company. I’m guessing that was the co-production between Northern Stage and Pilot Theatre in 2016, which I thought was excellent. Bad luck for not being able to do the play when first intended, or good luck for a forced delay meaning it takes place in the best location for an audience? You decide. However, this is one other side-effect for this delay. Whatever your misgivings about the Premier League in the late 1990s when the book was written, nothing’s more notorious than the Mike Ashley era. No matter how outrageous or morally repugnant an action was, Mike Ashley would do it: shitty treatment of staff at Sport Direct, renaming St. James’s Park to Sports Direct Arena, changing the name back as a tool to suck fans into payday loan sharks Wonga – and as his parting shot, selling the club to a consortium of Saudis, possibly the only people worse them himself the club could have passed to. By delaying the premiere to 2022, a whole new opportunity comes into play.

I don’t know if Eastlake saw the Northern Stage and Pilot Theatre version, but there was a challenge of where you go from there. They went for largely naturalistic production with a large cast and lavish set. In a theatre the size of The Laurels, this was out of the question. What do you do? A similar script working on a smaller scale? That would have been a valid but safe option. Jamie Eastlake went for the gamble and take a completely different approach with a high-energy semi-surrealistic performance with a cast of three.

Two of the characters are, of course, Gerry and Sewell, two down and out teenagers. To give you an idea of just how far down and out they are, in the first scene they’re eating someone else’s McDonald’s meal they pinched. In their minds, the fact that the meal includes chicken nuggets as an extra means the real owner must be absolutely loaded – it may as well have been a theft from a Michelin-starred restaurant. This goes a long way to explaining why they’d want to spend and risk so much on a Newcastle United season ticket: the prim and proper might look down football supporters as lower-class yobs, but to them it’s a better community they desperately want to be part of. With this pair comprising two thirds of the cast, so much of the play depends on interactions between the two. Gerry (Dean Logan) has one mad-cap scheme after another and most of the time maintains optimism that good times are just around the corner, albeit with pitifully low expectations of what they need. Sewell (Jack Bart), meanwhile, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but is loyal to Gerry right to the end. The friendship of the two forms one of the most strongest themes of the play.

But it’s the final third that’s the best bit. If you’re doing The Season Ticket as a three-hander, the obvious solution is to use the third character to play everybody else, entering and leaving the stage as all the other characters. But that would be too easy. Instead, we have “Tyneside”, a bouffon clown. She sometimes plays other characters, sometimes take the role of narrator, and sometimes just sitting there watching and grinning is a bouffon-esque way. Eastlake both wrote and directed this play, and when you’re going for a concept this wild that makes sense, because I can’t imagine how you would explain this concept to a director if you just handed over the script. You do need this to be understood by whoever’s playing the part though, and Rebecca Clayburn is fantastic in the role. There’s an old saying that as long as you’re on stage, you’re always acting whether or not you’re speaking or being spoken to, and nothing can be truer here. Every transformation to and from a character is perfectly choreographed. The more conventional art of multi-part acting is also done superbly, from Gerry’s scumbag father who’s largely responsible for Gerry’s problems, to Bridget, his terrified sister who’s too scared to return home in case her father ever returns. Combined with the junk that comprises the set, this version of the story has a much bigger sense of the unreal that separates it from its predecessor.

I came close to giving this an Ike Award (that’s my equivalent to five stars). For the same book to get two Ike Award from two different adaptations would have been a phenomenal and unprecedented achievement. In the end, the only thing that stood in the way were a few stumbling points in the plot of the second half. In particular: the new time-frame that finishes with the end of Mike Ashley’s reign of terror doesn’t make sense when you remember what else was going on at the time – are we really supposed to believe that the only mention of Covid over a play set in 2020 and 2021 was a cancelled talk from Kevin Keegan? There was also the identical memories of Gerry and Sewell’s first time at St. James’s, which probably had an explanation but I missed it, and I could never work out whether the scrapyard worker’s missing dog was the same as the dog Gerry and Sewell adopts or a different one. These are all minor quibbles, but little things such as these can add up. Maybe the play sometimes overdid the surrealism at the wrong moment.

Fortunately, those quibbles don’t dent the experience and there’s no doubt this his been a success. The Laurels could have gone with a safe bet of a conventional adaptation and that would doubtless have been a success, but to take such a wild out-there approach and still be a success is the kind of gamble that gets my respect. They needed to a good opener and they’ve got it. Now let’s see how they build on it.

Whilst we’re on the subject …

Since we’re on the subject of The Laurels, now might be a good moment to catch up on where we are with the cancellation of the Vault Festival. The most important question was, and still is, whether the Vault Festival can withstand the worst possible financial hit and still be in a position to do Vault Festival 2023 – at the moment, we are no closer to learning the answer to that. In the second half of the year, when applications are due to re-open, we should find out one way or the other. In the meantime, however, there is the question of what happens to the hundreds of acts due to perform – for many, this would have been their big break. The Laurels made the news days after cancellation with an offer to host some of the acts and put up accommodation.

That news has faded into the background somewhat, because The Laurels was the first of many coming to the rescue. Most of the theatres were in London, which, let’s be honest, was the most practical alternative for the majority of homeless acts. I haven’t been keeping track of how many acts have been re-homed, but it’s a significant portion. As a result, the Vault Festival has managed to sort-of stay active by publicising these acts going elsewhere as “Vault Transfer”, with upcoming acts more or less announced on a daily basis. Previously I’d wondered if the Vault Festival might want to do a repeat of “Fringe Futures” to keep the Vault brand going, but I don’t think this is necessary now. The Vault Festival brand is safe – for the moment.

The Laurel went quiet about this and I was starting to wonder if they’d dropped the idea quietly with London doing the job for them. But wait, they haven’t forgotten. In the back of their programme I’ve spotted six Vault Transfer shows. It’s also on their website, although annoyingly the site doesn’t tell us (at the time of writing) which are Vault Transfers and which are elsewhere. Roughly speaking, however, most of the shows between mid-April and mid-June came by this route. I don’t know any of these acts (that was always a long shot) so I can’t single out any particular, but please come at some point over the next three months as they’ve had a tough time and could do with some support.

All in all, it’s so far so good for the Laurels. Still a lot to play for, but it’s clear that London’s loss is Tyneside’s gain.

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