Skip to: Sherlock Holmes: the valley of fear; Morgan and West, Gulliver, Run, Rebel, Person Spec, Howerd’s End, Juggling, Tomatoes tried to kill me, Love it when we beat them, Vermin
It’s a late list of recommendations this time, which is partly because I’ve had a busy January but also also that the things that catch my eye and a bit end-loaded. Some of the things coming that I rate won’t be happing until May or later, and will go into the next list. This means that what I have left over is a shorter list than usual.
My top tier is for plays where I think you can’t go wrong. Not everything is to everyone’s tastes, but if what I describe sounds like your sort of thing, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.
With much of the interesting stuff happening late in the year though, and few plays that I recognise, this is going to be a short list.
Sherlock Holmes: the valley of fear
It’s rare for me to put plays I haven’t seen into safe choice, but if you want to be certain of a good night of theatre, this is about as safe a bet as can be. I have seen many Blackeyed Theatre productions with several different writers and directors, and there hasn’t been a single weak link amongst them. They are also one of only three theatre companies (the other two being Sparkle and Dark and Pilot Theatre) to have scooped an Ike Award, my equivalent to five stars, twice.
Whilst I haven’t seen this particular play, Nick Lane has previously adapted another Sherlock Holmes Story, The Sign of Four, which was done to a high standard, Holmes and Watson from that last play are reprised in this performance. The faults and prejudices of Victorian society were covered in the last play but didn’t stray into moralising for the sake of it. And Victoria Spearing, whose set design has been pretty much the defining feature of all Blackeyed productions, is in action once again. The bad news is that Blackeyed Theatre tour nationally and their north-east visits are a bit thin on the ground. In fact, the only stop is Middlesbrough Theatre on 10th & 11th February. There also later dates at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 18th – 20th May. Both of which clash with other commitments from me. Damn. Visit the north east more goddamnit.
Morgan and West: unbelievable science
With safe choice theatre entries in short supply this time round, let’s add in a magic show from frequent north-east visitors Morgan and West. There a lot of productions I like that straddle categories, and this is a fine example. As well as the magic, this double-act adopt persona of a couple of Victorian time-travelling magicians (because of course) who go on adventures. They are also very good at explaining how they are doing their magic tricks through the art of distraction – which is in itself a distraction from the another trick they’re performing. They have both kids’ shows and a general show, this being the latter, but everything that do is family-friendly.
If you’ve always wondered what a duo of Victorian time-travelling magicians do (and yes, you do), you can catch them at Alnwick Playhouse on April 6th, The Witham on April 7th, and Queen’s Hall Hexham on April 11th. All afternoons.
I nearly missed this, because I forgot to check what’s going on at Harrogate Theatre – but as the winner of Best Production last year I could hardly not mention your chance to catch this. Box Tale Soup is a core team of Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, and they’ve made a mark at successive Edinburgh Fringes with plays that make heavy use of puppetry, or staging effect, or in this case, both. Their original hit was a delightfully gentle performance of Northanger Abbey, and later they were heavily influenced by Gothic horror, and finally in Gulliver all their strengths come together for their best performance of a good lot.
Jonathan Swift’s book is often depicted as a story for kids, as our hero meets an island of tiny people followed by an island of giants. However, this misses the point, because the real thrust of the story is a political satire, starting with the savage warmongery of the Liliputians over basically nothing, and moving on to numerous acts of vanity and cruetly in three other lands – with Gulliver’s own shortcomings also in the spotlight. This, combined with Box Tale Soup’s ingenuity they’ve built up using puppets and props to show tiny people, giants and numerous other impossible things on stage, makes this a must-see. Two nights only at Harrogate Theatre on 23rd & 24th March. And, yes, Harrogate isn’t easy to reach from the north east. But it’ll be well worth it.
Bold choices are for plays I’m less certain about – in this case, because there’s all ones that are new to me. But if you like the sound of this in the description, it’s a gamble where I’d put the odds in your favour.
Pilot Theatre are a long-standing feature in my recommendations, thanks to a high standard of everything in their plays but particularly the staging. They also good at producing super-diverse productions whilst maintaining wide audience appeal – and, in my opinion, Pilot Theatre are one of the best examples out there of how to do this. In recent years, they’ve shifted their focus to stage adaptation of young adult novels, with the first of this series, Noughts and Crosses one of most outstanding productions I’ve seen. Again, they do this without sacrificing wide appeal, and the stories engage over all age ranges. (It helps that young adult novels tend to be the right level of complexity to fit in a full-length play.)
And so we come into the fourth of this series. Run Rebel, adapted from a book by Manjeet Mann, is the story of Amber. She is born into a family with very conservative values – particularly her father’s – and is expected to live up to her traditional values. However, Amber would rather be a runner. I’ll be interested to see which way the conflict goes here. Is Amber’s father an irredeemable misogynist, will learn to be proud of her daughter for what she is, or – as was the case in the stage version of East is East – will it be something more complicated. You can see this at York Theate Royal on 7th – 11th March. Alternatively – and this is an unusual one – you can see this at Alnwick Playhouse, but only on the 28th March. The rest of the week is for school booking. Looks like the push to appeal to school audience is paying off.
Alphabetti theatre grabbed the headlines last month when it got The Stage’s award from Fringe Theatre of the year. I don’t know how this is decided, but there’s no denying the phenomenal amount of work put into getting Alphabetti running, nor the impact it’s had on theatre in Newcastle. It is, however, difficult to pick of recommendations. Having run a on a cycle of three-week runs, mostly plays I’ve never heard of by artists I’ve never heard of, it’s largely a matter of guesswork.
So I’m going for Forest Sounds Theatre with a suitably ominous play about corporate culture. Meet Zantion Recruitment, who promises you the means to become the CEO of your own life, and a load of other buzzwords that look suspiciously like a pretext to treat your staff like disposable machine tools. The shark behind the desk might also be a clue of where this is going. Runs at Alphabetti Theatre on the 28th February – 18th March.
And last in the short list, a quick mention once again for Mark Farrelly, who has four pays on the go and dots around the country. He’s done four biopic plays, and he’s really good at getting under the skin of these people rather than just trot off a list of facts in first person.
You can see Howerd’s End, a two-hander about the life of Frankie Howerd and his secret soul-mate, at Middlesbrough Theatre on the 3rd March. If you can’t make it, don’t worry. I’m sure there’ll be more.
I rarely make recommendations on the strength of the actors; even the best actors in the world can’t only act as well as the script they’ve been given. But if any casting choice counts in the play’s favour, it’s Becky Clayburn, who provided a definitive performance to two excellent performances at the Laurels last year. She delivered a great solo performance in Antichristmas, but the standout moment was as “Tyneside” – sometimes supporting actor, sometimes narrator, sometimes clown – in Gerry and Sewell. It was a very abstract idea, and the whole play would have crashed if the concept had fallen down, but she pulled it off.
So her next appearance is for the Laurels’ next in-house production (I think). A new writer, but similar themes to the last few plays, with Neve juggling three jobs, including one with a useless boss permanently on the golf course – and that’s still preferable to being in the office. And that’s on top of family and possible romance issues to juggle. This is showing at The Laurels on 11th – 29th April (not Sun – Tue after the 11th).
I always like to have something in my list where I’ve no idea whether or not it’s any good, but it have nonetheless got me interested. My whims here are completely arbitrary, but this time, my pick is for even more arbitrary reasons than normal:
Tomatoes tried to kill me but banjos saved my life
It’s a long story as to why I’ve heard of Keith Alessi – and if you’re not up to speed on the conclusion of the shitshow that hit Brighton Fringe last year, it’s probably better to keep it that way. Anyway, for roundabout reasons, I’ve come to hear about a Brighton Fringe show which got a lot of business in 2021. Keith Alessi’s story of himself is about diagnoses of recovery from cancer, from being the CEO of a Canadian company to taking to banjo playing as a solace.
What’s particularly notable, though, is that whilst I frequently despair over many of my favourite fringe hits seemingly touring everywhere except the north-east, Keith Alessi is spending 5th April – 28th April touring the region (plus Cumbria). Some of the bigger and more reachable venue are the Customs House on the 19th, the Gala on the 20th and the Exchange on the 23rd, but wherever you are in north-east, there’ll be something nearby.
Also of note …
And wrapping up north-east coverage, I do aim to cover all Live Theatre and Northern Stage productions on their main stages. I’ve not covered Northern Stage lately because, for some reason, there’s not really been anything I’ve been able to count as an in-house production on their main stage. But there is one from Live Theatre:
Love it when we beat them
This is a theatre blog and not a politics blog, but I am an opinion poll nerd and all of the signs are pointing to the next election being a re-run of 1997. So I’m not sure when it was decided to do a play set in 1996 (even 6 months ago the next election was far from a foregone conclusion), but the timing has turned out to be quite fitting. In Newcastle, 1996 coincided with a great season for Newcastle United, and this play covers both these areas.
But will this be an entirely rose-tinted depiction? There are hints that this will not be entirely so, and raise questions over the what the price of victory is. A bigger question, however, is how this play will be about handling recent history that is still contentious to many. One thing I’ve seen many artists does completely unapologetically is use their platform to rewrite recent history to how they wish it to be seen. I think that would be a mistake – the best plays I’ve seen cover history for the messy and complicated affair it is. Runs on 2nd – 25th March at Live Theatre.
And one from London …
And finally, I get a fair number of press releases for London plays – mostly, I suspect, from people who assume all theatre bloggers are based in London. I’m not complaining, because very occasionally I happen to be in London at the right time, but usually there’s not much I can do.
However, this one has thoroughly earned a mention:
I saw this at last year’s Brighton Fringe and it went on to be a success at Edinburgh too. Triptych theatre’s play about a messed up couple is scarily believable: on one hand in love as much as any couple can be; on the other hand a very unhealthy interest in the macabre. And this play doesn’t shy away from the macabre – so I need to give my usual warning about the graphic d4escriptions of animal cruelty in this play that Billy and Rachel think is a laugh. Until a rat infestation drives them apart ina way you might not expect.
But to say any more would be giving too much away. If you didn’t catch this at Edinburgh or Brighton Fringe you can see it in London at the Arcola Theatre on the 14th March – 1st April.
There you go. Spring/summer picks in three months.