Skip to: Noughts and Crosses, Brassed Off, Constellations, Watson: the Final Problem, Shakers, Terrifying Tales from Tyneside, Sugar Baby, Around the World in 80 Days, Howerd’s End, One Off, Wishes in the Wind, A Room of One’s Own, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby
I finally get round to writing up this overdue list of what’s coming up in the north-east that I recommend, and what happens? That thing. However, I have thought long and hard about this, and I have decided to continue writing this article. It is what the Queen would have wanted. However, I am writing this with my Union Jack flying at half mast and wearing a black armband. I hope you approve.
Fringe season is over, it’s time to look back at what’s happening locally.
You should all be refreshed on the rules by now, but to recap: safe choice is for plays where I think you can’t go wrong AND where the play has a wide audience appeal. Nothing appeals to everyone all the time, but if you like the sound of how I describe this, I’m confident you’ll like it for real.
Noughts and Crosses
The top of the must see list by far is from Pilot Theatre. There are two things notable about York-based Pilot Theatre. Firstly, they are one of the best theatre companies I’ve seen for staging, and it doesn’t necessarily means high-budget or flashy staging but staging that is creative and innovative, with every play being visually striking in a different way. Secondly, they are a super-diverse theatre company. That’s not the easiest of things to do; one pitfall is casting that looks contrived, and the other is endless plays about racism – in my opinion, neither of these do anybody any favours in the long run. Pilot Theatre, I think, gets it; and for any theatre company looking to diversify its programme but unsure how to go about doing it, I’d recommend Pilot Theatre for inspiration.
Noughts and Crosses is my favourite out of all the ones I’ve seen. It is also the only play I’ve seen that’s explicitly about structural racism and nothing else – but there is a twist. And if you don’t know the twist, I won’t give it away here because it’s best for the penny to drop at the beginning if you can. What I can say is that’s it’s an alternate history where Britain is a segregated society comparable to the Jim Crow era of America. However, Malorie Blackman’s story doesn’t do a binary of goodies and baddies, or even haves and have nots. There is a lot a nuance, and – with the exception of one powerful opportunist who is beyond redemption – no-one is unambiguously good or unambiguously bad. This has got started at York Theatre Royal on the 16th – 24th September and later comes to Northern Stage on the 18th – 22nd October.
I don’t normally put stage to screen adaptations in my listings. Brassed Off may be one of the greatest films set in a coal mining community of all time, but my ongoing concern is that it’s too easy to sell tickets based on the popularity of the film, not the play. However, the reason this goes into Safe Choice is because of Conrad Nelson who the Gala brought on as director. He might not be a familiar name in the north east, but he is certainly a familiar name for those who followed Northern Broadsides through the Barrie Rutter era. He was Rutter’s right-hand man for years, acting Artistic Director in the year before Laurie Sampson took over, and it was the big surprise that he chose to leave Northern Broadsides rather than stay on. His most popular work by far, however, were the funny and innovative adaptations written by his wife and number one collaborator, Deborah McAndrew.
You’ll have to go to Stoke if you want to see any Nelson-McAndrew collaborations for the foreseeable future, but this is the north-east’s chance to see him in action. Apart from that, the Gala Theatre promises a logical transplant of the story from the Yorkshire coalfield to the Durham Coalfield, and just like the film, music for a real live local colliery band. This run has already started at The Gala Theatre and continues until 24th September.
This one’s a bit more abstract that the others, and I’m wary about putting a play in Safe Choice where you need to concentrate, but there’s no question of the popularity over Nick Payne’s two-hander. It needs no introduction, but since it premiered at the Royal Court a decade ago it’s been endlessly seen a revised. The follow play Roland, a beekeeper, and Marianne, a physicist, who may or may not have a romantic relationship depending on the timeline, because each scene is set in an alternate timeline. Roland and Marianne will live happily ever after, go their separate ways, and end in tragedy. And everything else. Despite the apparently complexity of this concept, the script is actually reasonably easy to follow once you’re tuned into the concept.
You need to know your stuff when you’re directing this though – when most scenes scene/alternate reality aren’t any longer than 30 seconds, it’s fatal to have a full break between every scene. Paul Robinson has done more than enough to show he knows what he’s doing though. There will be surely be plenty of other chance to see this play in various productions, but this one is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 28th October – 12th November.
Watson: The Final Problem
The first three safe choices are all mainstream productions of major theatre companies, but let’s close this section with something at the other end. I’ve already recommended this for two consecutive Edinburgh Fringes, but now’s a rare chance to see it locally. It’s a very simple concept, but what it does, it does very well. The Final Problem was supposed to be the end of Sir Arthur Donan’s Sherlock Holmes stories, where Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty plunge to their deaths in Switzerland, before- … well, Sherlock fans, you wouldn’t want me to give the spoiler now, would you. The premise here is that a grief-stricken Dr. Watson (Tim Marriott) is completing his memoirs. He goes on to tell not only the story of Sherlock’s final* case as seen through his eyes, but else a potted history of the rest of the saga, nicely capturing the relationship of the two men.
This is co-written by Ben Coules who dramatised the entirety of Sherlock’s adventures on Radio 4. As a result, this is more of a storytelling format than visual piece. But this does round of some of the rough ends left by Conan Doyle. In the books, Watson’s wife is frequently written in as an afterthought; in this play, Mary Morstan plays the important role in Watson’s story he would approve of. You can see this on the 18th October at Alnwick Playhouse.
Shakers – under new management
And finally, one from the John Godber company. Most of John Godber’s own productions tend to tour around Yorkshire, but this time round, three of the stops are in the north east. Written as a female equivalent of Bouncers with his wife Jane Thornton in 1985, it’s been endlessly revived both by Godber and other companies in a variety of rewrites. The most notable difference this time round is that this Shakers is a three-hander as opposed to the usual four-hander.
The most notable stop on the tour this time round is the Fire Station Sunderland on the 20th September, which I think may the be first visit by a major touring company, so if you haven’t already checked out this new venue, now is a good opportunity. You can also catch them at Alnwick Playhouse on the 21st & 22nd September and Queen’s Hall Hexham on the 23rd & 24th September. Or if you’re more around the Yorkshire areas of my coverage, there’s also the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 3rd – 7th August.
Like safe choice, bold choice is dependent on whether you like the sound of what you see, but there’s less certainty. Some are new plays, some are more specialist tastes, and in this case there’s one play that’s a great script but a huge challenge to do well. But the rewards for a gamble that pay off are great, and these are the gambles where the odds are in your favour.
Terrifying Tales from Tyneside
We start with the high stakes play. The Laurels got off to a flying start with the excellent Gerry and Sewell, and the only snag to a great opener is setting yourself a hard act to follow. Does your smash hit go down in memory as a one-off, or is the standard we come to expect for all mainstream plays? Well, that challenge falls upon Terrifying Tales of Tyneside. This is not a conventional stage play but instead – possibly taking inspiration from The Rooms at old Alphabetti Theatre – offers an immersive experience throughout the old building. It’s running at The Laurels on the 25th – 31st October, with a twist: there’s two performances per day (various times), split between family-friendly performances and adults-only performances. As far as I can tell, they’re the same performance, with the family-friendly one simply going easy on scariness and rude words.
And staying on seasonal themes, there’s also Anti-Christmas coming up on the 19th-23rd December, if you want a change from pantomimes.
Alphabetti is sticking with its programming format of three-week runs, and out of all the ones in their autumn programme, this one grabs my interest the most. A Welsh play first performed five years ago, it follows Marc, who’s a small-time dealer of soft drugs, who would be staying out of trouble were it not for his dad who owes thousands to the local loan shark / psychopath. Unfortunately for Marc, he has also ended up in a love triangle with aforementioned loan shark / psychopath which it seems he didn’t particularly want to be in, but one suspects the loan shark / psychopath won’t see it that way.
Incidentally, this premiered at the Roundabout at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is one of two new writing venues where I’ve been asked why I’ve not reviewed there. Well, the last Paines Plough play I saw was Sorry You’re Not a Winner, which was outstanding. Although that wasn’t in their Roundabout. So Alphabetti’s own production is flying the Roundabout Flag for the north-east – will this live up to the promised expectations? Showing at Alphabetti Theatre on the 20th September – 8th October.
Around the World in 80 Days
Now for a play I have seen before. There are a lot of terrible adaptations of the Jules Verne story floating around at the moment, written by people who seem to have looked up the route on Wikipedia and decided that was an acceptable substitute for 1) reading the book, and 2) having the slightest clue what the story is really about. What really make me despair is that you have a cartoon where Phileas Fogg is played by a talking lion, and add a sneaky wolf who’s a master of disguise who endlessly tries to sabotage the journey – and it’s still a better and more accurate adaptation than most. However, I have some good news for you: Laura Eason’s adaptation is excellent. It condenses the story into two hours, but gets both the character Fogg and his principle conflict with Inspector Fix down to a tee – without either of those, the story falls flat. And before you ask: yes, the script does challenge the ideals of colonialism, but not in a ham-fisted way.
But, boy, this is going to be a challenge to stage. The best known production was the New Vic’s, which was fantastic, but they did that with a super-talented super-energetic ensemble of eight, including a full circus performance from Passpartout. But then, the People’s Theatre have shown that when they get it right, they can achieve great things with their own ensembles. If any amateur company can pull this off, they can. Find out how they do at the People’s Theatre on the 25th – 29th October.
And finally, a rare chance to catch Mark Farrelly coming to the north-east. He’s had a lot of successful solo biopics under his belt. His best known one is Naked Hope about Quentin Crisp, but out of the two I’ve seen The Silence of Snow – about the disintegration of Patrick Hamilton’s sanity – is my favourite. (Fun fact: Hamilton’s ill-tempered outburst at the end was a heavy source of inspiration for the play I took to Buxton and Durham this year.) This one is a two-hander for a change, and Farrelly plays Dennis Heymer, the soulmate that Frankie Howerd kept secret his whole life. Farrelly does an excellent of portraying not on what real people did but also what made them tick. One chance to see this at the Georgian Theatre Royal on the 30th September.
And the last three local picks are in my wildcard category. These are plays that I know hardly anything about, and they may or may not be worth seeing, but they have grabbed my interest for one reason or another. On my radar are:
Live Theatre’s main production this season is a performance from Ric Renton about his time in Durham Prison. It got me interested for two related reasons. Firstly, this was the prison that Raoul Moat was released fro – and yet also, apparently, a prison where a lot of relatively petty offenders were housed. The raised the inevitable question of whether you’re not just operating a university of crime. Secondly, for a long time Durham Prison was notorious for its high suicide rates – and that is the focus of the story. “One off”, it seems, refers to an brush-off for suicides happening that clearly aren’t one offs. On the other hand, it is also where Ric Renton got a chance for a proper education (which is, strangely enough, apparently the one positive that inspectors had to say at the height of the suicides), and that looks like something he was thankful for. it remains to be seen whether this translates into a good play, but it looks like it’s going to be a nuanced portrayal of life at a controversial prison. Showing on the 10th – 26th November at Live Theatre.
Wishes on the Wind
And Live’s other major production also grabs my interest. I first heard of Squiggle Productions and Wishes on the Wind last year in the inaugural Durham Fringe. Billed as “a celebration of Northumbrian identity, folk music, and family tradition,” and heavily featuring music, I wanted to catch this – and the only reason I didn’t was a straight clash with what I was doing in another venue. One detail that interests me is that the venue they used in Durham is normally used for stand-up comedy – although I can see it working for theatre is it’s mostly music and storytelling. Regardless, it’s got me curious how this is going to translate from one of the smallest stages in the north east to one of the biggest. See it at Live Theatre on the 8th – 18th December.
A Room of One’s Own
And finally, those of you who followed my fringe coverage may remember I took a lot of interest to a play of the same name, because I’ve never seen anything like this before. There are plenty stage adaptations of stories, but this was an adaptation of an essay. Virginia Woolf’s text was, for its time, quite a perceptive piece observing the lot of women writers through history, with a particular emphasis on the period when most women wrote under pseudonyms to avoid repercussions in real life. However, the was Heather Alexander’s version. This is a completely different adaptation, and whilst Heather Alexander was deliberately faithful to the text, Rebecca Vaughan’s version is clearly taking liberties somewhere as it involves time travel to 2028.
What I do hope is that this doesn’t do what some people think you should do to treat these texts. One rather unfair review I saw of Heather Alexander’s performances was not including things which Virginia Woolf never said – but nonetheless should be said because those views are worthy, apparently. There is nothing that frustrates me more than theatre makers shoehorning their own views into somebody else’s text and try to pass it off as what the historical figure believes. Honestly, I’ve even seen someone try to pass off her own views on Brexit and Trump as what Mary Shelly would have believed. But I digress. Hoping this resists the temptation I’ve just mentioned, you can see this at York Theatre Royal on the 6th & 7th October.
And two plays out of the north east …
And finally, a couple of things that aren’t on in the north-east, and there’s no plans to take either of these to the north-east. But they are both highly notable.
Alice in Wonderland
Most theatres have some kind of family-friendly show over Christmas, but few have a more lucrative season than the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme. I have seen several of these now, and their standard has already been great, but you don’t have to take my word for it. These plays can run through most of November, December and even January, taking in all the schools in the area and pretty much everybody else too. All are penned by the New Vic’s artistic director, Theresa Heskins. Alice in Wonderland, however, is regarded as her all-time greatest smash hit. In fact, Northern Stage once picked it up as their headliner for one winter season. This version, I am told, has quite a lot of differences from the original, but the enduring popularity of this script suggests it’s a gamble that paid off. Showing at The New Vic over 18th November – 28th January.
The Great Gatsby
And finally, I thought his day would never come, but it finally has. In 2017 Vault Festival, all the buzz was about an immersive version of The Great Gatsby, with men in dinner suits and women dressed as flappers walking to and from the space. By popular demand it came for one more month in June to catch up with the few who couldn’t get tickets. But the few turned out to be a lot, the run was extended and extended again, and by Vault 2018 it was still going. I turned up to see what all the fuss was about, and it blew me away. I was impressed with how they managed it as an immersive production, but what I hadn’t realised was that the audience splits up and joins back together, but whichever route you take, whichever characters you see, the story comes together. Sadly, the play also attracted a few shitty people to the audience and the Guild of Misrule quickly had to learn how to deal with people coming from a grope, but apart from that it went up and up and up. It moved from Gatsby’s Drugstore in Lambeth to Gatsby’s Mansion in the West End. I was convinced this was the play that struck gold and would never end.
But … the end is finally coming. The Great Gatsby closes in January next year. It looks like I may never get to London in time to see how party girl Lucielle and security manager Rosy Robinson added to the cast. The only good news is that this is being billed as the last performance In London. Many closing West End shows follow up with a regional tour, and if so, I will be urging everyone in the north-east to see what all the fuss is about when the time comes. Or it might not. Whatever happens, well done to the Guild of Misrule for a truly phenomenal achievement. It’s rare for me to say a group revolutionised theatre, but this one of those times. Thank you and goodbye for now.