What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2023

Skip to: Nell Gwyn, The Red Lion, Sherlock Holmes, Quality Street, It’s all in your head, Ghosts of Metroland, A Room of One’s Own, The bit where I call out a major theatre for fawning over a Holocaust revisionist

Aarrghh. We’re into this season already and there’s a lots of things on my list about to start. Sorry, Brighton Fringe has kept me busy and there’s still north-east theatre going on. Better get to it.

Safe choice:

So the big surprise is that there’s nothing amongst the professional theatres in the north-east that I’m putting down as a safe choice. (There are plenty of touring productions going to the biggest theatres that are safe bets for their target audience who know what to expect, but I’m on the lookout for plays that appeal beyond a standard target audience.) There are, however, a couple of plays from amateur theatres that I’m confident will be done well.

Nell Gwyn

I’m bending the rules to allow this in my list, but the People’s Theatre’s production of Nell Gwyn looks like it’s going to be good. I only know snippets of the play, but what I’ve heard sounds really promising.

image-ng-web-lst569349First, a catch-up on this bit of theatre history. The mind-17th century wasn’t a great time to be a theatre. Firstly they were all shut down by Oliver Cromwell because the Puritans decided this was a bit too much like fun; they they had to be shut down because of a plague. Before the plague, however, Charles II liked fun and insisted the theatre re-opened, and also insisted women should be allowed on stage. Huzzah, a great advancement for equality. Well, sort of. If you were a woman, the only real way of securing a career in theatre was to get you tits out on stage, or sleep with the theatre owner and/or major donor. In spite of this, Nell Gwyn played that game well and made herself a celebrity, with her and King Charles famously exchange flirting from stage to royal box, making the audience think “are they or aren’t they?” (Spoiler: they are).

The bits of the script I’ve seen are funny, historically interesting, and very believable of a time when sleaze and predators mixed with the the devotion of people who love their craft. Andeven though I haven’t seen the full play, I’m rating this as safe choice on the success of the original London run and my experience of which plays to their strengths. And, infuriatingly, I’m away the full week. In at the People’s Theatre on 16th – 20th May.

The Red Lion

8-red-lion-facebook-1200x630-1Whilst I haven’t seen Nell Gwyn, I have seen Live Theatre’s run of The Red Lion. The Premier League’s reputation is sullied by cheating, greed, and clubs struggling financially, but in Patrick Marber’s play all of this applies to a non-league club too. The play works as a microcosm of the big time: there’s a lot people who love the club, are devoted to it, and give everything to see it succeed, but there’s also a former star player now manager with his fingers in too many pies. Will this bung be one bung too many?

This is on at the Royalty Theatre on the 16th – 20th May. The Royalty gets a safe choice with this because The Red Lion is a play where you can’t go wrong as long as you have a competent cast, which I’m confident the Royalty will. And besides, for all faults of non-league clubs, Patrick Marber was a big supporter of the little clubs – so it’s fitting that the little theatre get to pay homage.

Sherlock Holmes: the Valley of Fear

I already listed this in last season’s safe choices, but if you couldn’t make it to Middlesbrough, there’s one other change to get to it, sort of. Blackeyed Theatre’s productions have been to an excellent overall standard, being one of the few to get my top rating in a review twice. A Sherlock Holmes mystery is always a complicated thing to get into a two-hour play, but their last production, The Sign of Four, did this well – keeping up as well as it could with every twist and turn whilst remembering the real focus is Sherlock as the person rather than the crime he’s solving. You can see this 18th – 20th May at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. If you can’t make it to that either, there’s also an online edition. Either way, I have confidence in this.

Bold choice:

For the bold choices – mostly works I haven’t seen but I have high hopes for, I may have to get picky for a reason that’s not happened before. I will explain this in due course, but let’s start with what’s coming up shortly …

Quality Street

It’s been a long time waiting, but finally we get a chance to see Laurie Samson’s debut as the new artistic director of Northern Broadsides. This started touring in 2020 but we know what happened there. And when Northern Broadsides started going again, they put this on hold and instead did a Shakespeare play (which was indeed Northern Broadsides’ original strand before they branched out). But finally – it’s back.

2051Now, for those who you who are asking the obvious question, the answer is yes. It is related to the chocolates you eat by the bucketload at Christmas. In fact, it is the chocolates that are names after this story from J. M. Barrie: a regency rom-com, including love triangles and mistaken identities. Will all these impersonations and threats of scandal somehow be ironed out in time for the finale where everybody lives happily ever after. I certainly hope so, otherwise it’s not going to be fitting of the chocolates. Northern Broadsides have actually made the choccies part of the production, framing this as the modern workers of today’s chocolates telling the story of yesterday.

The tour’s been going on since the winter, but it’s only been in reach of the north-east this year. Sadly, there is no replacement for the cancelled Northern Stage dates, so the closest you can get is York Theatre Royal on the 16th – 20th May. Alternatively, if you’d like to see this in The Round (as originally staged at the New Vic), your other local stop is the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 6th – 10th June.

It’s all in your head

Credit where it is due: there more I look at the 2023 season of The Laurels, the more I like the sound of it. I don’t know if anyone else gets this impression, but it seems that the other north-east theatre at studio production level – great through some individual productions are – are very similar to each other. Which is fine, it’s your venue, you can programme what you like, but the price of having the same artistic tastes is homogeny. There is nothing like the variety on offer as the fringes.

b3cae1c0905042f58e7d1fc6217af676My impression might be wrong, but whatever the reason, it the programme of The Laurels that keeps getting my attention. For this reason, I’m going to have to be picky, otherwise this articles is going to be swamped.

The clear stand-out in the programme, however, has to be this take on abusive relationships – more specifically Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy in Chicken Run. The idea is inspired – I can see numerous people kicking themselves for not thinking of this first. Set in the aftermath of Chicken Run, Mr. Tweedy is forever haunted by the memory of his controlling wife and what she made him do.

What really has me interested, however, is just how bold this bold choice chooses to be. If Miles Kingsley is feeling really brave, it might address the thorny subject of when abusive relationships are condemned and when they are shrugged off as funny. (A good principle is to portray the abusing party as a loser – Chicken Run largely stuck to this, but not everybody does.) This could be fun entertainment or it could raise some very uncomfortable questions. Find out at The Laurels on 16th – 27th May.

Ghosts of Metroland

I won’t tell a lie: the more I look at The Laurels’ season, the more I like the look of it. So I’m raising the bar a bit otherwise the article is going to be overrun by them. This next one isn’t located at The Laurels. but it’s very much associated.

Now, who remembers Metroland? There was a time when it was decided, for some reason, that the think you absolutely must put in an out-of-town shopping centre is a theme park. I never understood the point of this, and neither, it seems, did anybody else, because it has long since closed down. Although I do remember the Spitting Image attraction, where deposed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has a new job saying “Roll up, roll up, come to Metroland”.

This is part of Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival, which means it’s a work in progress. Earns a place on this list as it’s written by Reece Connelly, the pen behind Antichristmas, so this looks to be a surreal as the show where the Devil will stop and nothing to secure the birth of his child in Blyth. You can see it at Live Theatre on the 6th – 8th July.


The last category is for plays I know little about, and they may or may not be worth seeing. However, they did grab my interest as something to check out.

A Room of One’s Own

I didn’t manage to catch this last time, but having seen Heather Alexander’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s essay – yes, that’s an essay not a story – I’m intrigued by how a completely different performer take to it. Rebecca Vaughan’s adaptation is clearly a much more free-form than than faithful word-for-word presentation I saw at Brighton Fringe, which could go either way. It is described as a “twenty-first century take” and there’s certainly room to see how Virginia Woolf’s thoughts from almost a century ago.

What worries me about adaptations of this essay, however, is that I have seen some reviewers mark faithful adaptations down for not expressing sufficiently correct opinions, as if the correct handling of the essay is to erase what Virgina Woolf actually said and try to pass off your own opinions as hers. That, I think, would be a mistake. I hope to find out one way or the other on June 8th at 7.30 p.m. at Washington Arts Centre.

But not …

And now, something I haven’t put in a preview before. There have been many plays I’ve had no intention of seeing, but I don’t normally make a big deal of it. If you enjoy something I hate, or even something I find objectionable, you do you. On this occasion, however, I cannot in all conscience keep quiet about it. And I cannot in all conscience go to Northern Stage as long as they’re promoting I Daniel Blake.

I’ve nothing against anybody involved in this production, but the fact remains this film is promoting Ken Loach. Now, I personally have been refusing to watch anything with Ken Loach involved since he used his position as an artist to censor other artists – as far as I’m concerned, if you prevent other artists being heard, I’m not interesting in hearing what you have to say. But that’s my personal bugbear and I’m not going to demand other people join my boycott. Holocaust revisionism, however, is another matter. Yes, you heard me. Literal fucking holocaust revisionism. I’ve already spelt out why at the end of this article, but the short version is that he directed Perdition, a vile piece regurgitating Soviet propaganda that the Jews colluded with the Nazis to orchestrate their own Holocaust. Look it up. Loach is on record supporting this as late as 2010.

I have to be careful here. Last year I produced a stage adaptation of an H P Lovecraft story – and, as we all know, H P Lovecraft wasn’t exactly renowned for savoury views himself. (And for anybody who’s compared my adaptation to the source text, you’ll notice the wide berth I steered around the objectionable bits.) There is one difference though: if you tell some H P Lovecraft fans their favourite author is a horrible racist, they’ll say “Yes, we know”. I haven’t seen a single Lovecraft fan who endorses his views on scientific racism – and I categorically assure you that if I had any reason to believe a Lovecraft adaptation would be a gateway drug to those batshit views, I wouldn’t do it. Ken Loach, on the other hand, has one of the most poisonous fanbases in the arts. Challenge his fans of Loach’s views, stated on the record, and they’ll at best ignore it, probably angrily deny it, and at worst double down on exactly the type of racism they deny he holds. Can Northern Stage really be sure they’re not an unwitting recruiting tool for future racists?

To be honest, though, that’s not really the red line for me. If you value freedom of speech, that means allowing a platform to people you hate who hold views you loathe. The first thing racists do when called out is to accuse their accusers of racism, and it isn’t always straightforward to judge who’s right. I believe it is better to allow a platform to a bigot than deny a platform to someone with trumped-up charges of bigotry. That is why I think it is right, wherever possible, to separate the art from the artist. But, the thing is, I’m not sure Northern Stage thinks the same. Since 2020, they’ve been banging on more than anyone about how important it is for everybody to educate themselves on racism and stand up to it wherever they see it. Would Northern Stage associate with a film director who’s on the record as opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement? And not even consider this worth acknowledging? I’m not convinced they would. And if not, why the double standard here?

It gives me no pleasure to write this. Under Natalie Ibu’s leadership, Northern Stage has worked harder than anybody to be more racially inclusive. I support what they’re trying to achieve and I want it to succeed. But you can’t claim the moral high ground one moment, only to shrug your shoulders the next moment, when it gets inconvenient to practice what you preach. Unless I’m wrong about Northern Stage’s attitude to free speech. If they believe in separating the art from the artist, then they would presumably also defend the right of Terry Gilliam to direct Into the Woods at the Old Vic (and there’s no fucking way that what Terry Gilliam said is worse than what Ken Loach said). Does Northern Stage think the Old Vic was wrong to cancel it? If so, fair enough. Otherwise, they’ve got some explaining to do.

I should stress that there is no suggestion anything within I Daniel Blake itself is racist (either the stage or the screen version), and I have no reason to believe anyone involved in the stage production subscribes to Holocaust Revisionism. In my experience, when I’ve challenged fans of Loach’s work over his views, they typically respond with “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as the media makes out” – and when I point them to the evidence, they flip to “Hmm, that’s a difficult one, don’t really want to go there.” That, I suspect, is the attitude within Northern Stage. It’s not racist, but it is cowardly – and especially cowardly from people who’ve been expecting the opposite from us. I do not want the production cancelled, but I do want Northern Stage to ask themselves some very uncomfortable questions on what their principles really are.

In the meantime, count me out. It is with these words I end this season’s preview on a sour note.

I am bitterly, bitterly, disappointed.


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