Skip to The Exchange.
A month ago I was invited to the press launch of Live Theatre’s season. Now it’s the turn of The Laurels in Whitley Bay.
Out of all the venues in the north-east, there can be little doubt that The Laurels was the big winner of 2022. This is thanks in a large part to the success of Gerry and Sewell. Plays that have references to local football teams have a track record of selling well, and Jonathan Tulloch’s book The Season Ticket is an excellent story in its own right, but I don’t think even Jamie and Steve predicted just how successful this was going to be. I’ve spoken very highly of this play before (indeed it won 2022’s Best North-East Fringe Production and Best Individual Performance from me), but at the end of the day, it’s not what I or any other reviewer thinks that counts, but mass appeal to an audience. A sold out run and a hastily-programme encore run is as good as you get.
And, of course, they’ve now secured a run at Live Theatre. Before we get carried away, we should remember that no theatre succeeds in the long-run as a one-hit wonder. The worst mistake the Laurels could make right now would be – fittingly enough – to rest on their laurels. What it does mean in that they’re going into 2023 on a position of strength.
There were quite a lot of things covered in the launch. As usual, I’m not going to do a comprehensive write-up here – I’ll leave it to other publications to do that – and instead concentrate on things that got my attention.
As with most launches, it was a mixture of overall strategy, upcoming shows and related initiatives, but the thing that struck me the most was the thing not mentioned in the launch: the number of people invited to the launch with no connection to the Laurels – or even the arts in general – other than living locally and having turned up to a few shows. The thing I’ve not mentioned much is The Laurels’ hyper-local focus on North Tyneside, whilst the majority of north-east venues still treat “local” to mean Newcastle whether or not they are based there. I love the idea of hyper-local venues in principle (Sweet and Junkyard Dogs are now doing similar things with Hove and Hanover in Brighton), but the jury’s still out on whether this works in practice. The early signs here, however, look promising.
There was also a fair amount on plans to support new/emerging artists. I may report some of these individually as and when they’re launched; what I would say, though, is that it’s the statement of intent that matters here more than what they’re actually doing. I have long since learned from experience that most new venues end up making up the rules as they go along, as ideas get tested out in reality and they learn from trial and error. But it’s certainly something I will be monitoring.
Now, on to the upcoming programme. I have already mentioned my highlight of the upcoming season, which is Juggling, which made it into my Watch Worth Watching list on the strength of Becky Clayburn, who is swiftly establishing herself as The Laurels’ #1 superstar. Having already carried solo play Antichristmas (a good versus evil battle over the birth of the Antichrist set in Blyth) and pulled off the bold and defining concept of clown / narrator / supporting characters in Gerry and Sewell. I don’t normally recommend a play based on who’s in it, but if anyone’s earned this, it’s her. This new play involves Neve juggling three jobs, at least one of which involves a useless boss permanently on the golf course. Runs 11th – 29th April.
Launches are a good way to showcase bits for upcoming work; this time, however, only one upcoming act chose to do this. Tip from a reviewer: please take up these opportunities when you have them. We have a lot of shows to choose from and when most of the stuff we are considering is professionally-chosen blurbs and images, they can end up blending in with each other. A good teaser, on the other hand, can make something stand out that might otherwise be overlooked. This was is the case with You Need To Say Sorry exploring a psychologically abusive relationship. Two scenes were shown: the wonderful first meeting contrasted with the abuser in full-blown true colours. The latter scene shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, but listen closely to the first meeting. It looks like they’re getting along like a house on fire – but in actually fact, he’s always holding back until he knows what she wants to hear, then going along with that. A promising opening to a play running 22nd June – 1st July.
However, some things do grab my attention on publicity alone, and here’s something I never thought I’d write. I started reading about It’s All In Your Head, and this appeared to be another play about a toxic relationship, this time a man facing relentless belittling, humiliation and control from his domineering wife – until I realised this is talking about Mr. and Mrs. tweedy from Chicken Run. This is going to be a tricky concept to pull off, but the idea is inspired. Runs 16th – 27th May.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for The Laurels in its second year is the one set by the first: when your first proper production is such an unexpected success, how do you live up to it? But as far second-year challenges go, it’s the most enviable one to have. Once again, it’s a reminder of how much London’s loss is North Tyneside’s gain.
Meanwhile, at The Exchange
It’s only a coincidence that the two big North Tyneside theatre stories have happened at the same time, but it would impossible to cover one without ignoring the other. Indeed, The Laurels has thrown their support behind the current management of The Exchange, as well as offer an alternative home to displaced acts. But the news is out: over in North Shields, The Exchange in its current form is closing on April 17th. Their lease is up and North Tyneside Council has given the building to a higher bidder.
At first glance, this looks like another case of Landlords Are Cocks™. This has been an absolute menace throughout the arts world, especially the smaller venues, but for some reason this has been getting a lot worse in the last year, with the most high-profile casualty so far being the Vault Festival. Indeed, the reason The Laurels is in the north-east in the first place is because of similar problems in London – but many venues aren’t so lucky and never come back. I stand by what I said previously: I firmly believe we need some sort of cultural venue retention scheme, and at some point I plan to write how I think this could be done.
However, on closer examination, there seems to be more than meets the eye here. The Landlord here is North Tyneside Council. In response to the public outcry, they made a response. According to them, The Exchange is not closing down and this change of operator is part of their “cultural quarter” plans. Stonebanks Investments, the successful bidder, is prepared to “invest significantly” and “grow the cultural offer”.
I should state at this point that I’m not wedded to the same organisation automatically running a venue forever. I’m interested in what the offering is to the people using it. There are certain things The Exchange could do better if there was enough money to support it, and if another operator with bigger cash reserves can achieve this, I’ve no objection. However, there’s a number of things about this story that seem fishy to me.
Firstly, I took the liberty of looking up North Tyneside Council’s “cultural quarter” scene, and, I have to say, it doesn’t seem to have that much to do with culture. The work done so far has been to do do with aesthetic improvements to streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly. All of which I support – but none of that has anything to do with management of buildings, cultural or otherwise – and neither does their publicity from a few months back make any mention of this. I might be reading too much into this, but it comes across as retrofitting past uncontroversial events to justify current controversial ones.
The other thing that seems a bit strange is who won the bid. Every company I can think of who runs a cultural organisation, without exception, are clearly identified from their name, such as “xxx yyyy Theatre Trust” or “xxx yyyy Arts Group”. It is not normal for an organisation running a building to be called “Stonebanks Investments”. Yes, I know, it’s only a name, but in their own words their business is buying and selling properties. Plenty of laudible aims stated by the company, but previously nothing that remotely relates to culture. Is there really a cultural aspiration, or is this just another retrofit?
The only point I have in defence of North Tyneside + Stonebanks is that it does seem unlikely you could change the narrative at the last minute and get away with it. Let’s imagine that North Tyneside Council cared about nothing but who made them the most money (and, to be fair, councils are strapped for cash) – only to repackage this as a cultural investment when faced with more opposition than expected. Would Stonebanks simply not respond with “Hey, wait a second, we never agreed to that”? Whatever the motives, both the council and the new owner are strongly taking the line that The Exchange will be coming back bigger and better.
At best, North Tyneside Council has handled this badly. You absolutely should not be leaving lease renewal to the last moment, and certainly not for a building whose function the council says to be vital. This should have been done at least a year ago, with the whole process done out in the open with a stated goal of making the most of the building as a cultural venue.
At worst, however, it could a ploy to set up the cultural activities to fail. I have heard more than enough horror stories in my time of venue operators who care little for the artists and cultural workers they are hosting and care lots about the bar takings. If this sudden endorsement of The Exchange’s arts activities is just a PR exercise, it wouldn’t be too hard to manage the cultural activities badly on purpose, say “well, we tried, it just wasn’t viable”, and go back to running the place the way you wanted all along.
I hope my cynicism is unfounded. It would be great if someone such as Paul Stonebanks who’s never previously expressed interest in a building’s cultural offerings dives in wholeheartedly and brings us something bigger and better. At the moment, the statement being made are high in aspiration but low on detail. Either way, I do think that with eternal vigilance we can make sure these promises are kept.
Otherwise, it looks like The Laurels will be taking on an additional role of taking over culture in north Tyneside which their council abandoned.