Hard times and hard adaptations

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Hard Times is a much harder story to adapt than the other works taken on by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson, but they did the best job they could have made of it.

Who called it first? Ten years ago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a side-show against Northern Broadsides’ main attraction of Shakespeare and other classic stories, starring or directed by Barrie Rutter, or both. And yet the husband-and-wife team of Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew has grown to become an attraction in their own right, with hits from A Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture, plus a collaboration with Barrie Rutter for An August Bank Holiday Lark,with not a weak link amongst them. Now with Conrad Nelson stepping in as interim artistic director, possibly a permanent arrangement, this pair are now set to dominate the programme. So it is no surprise that after a deservedly successful run of Cyrano de Bergerac that was co-produced with the New Vic, the people of Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme would be queuing up for their next show.

Their latest adaptation, however, is of a book rather than a play. And as choices of books go, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is, somewhat befitting its name, hard. The only Dickens novel that is set in the north (albeit in fictitious Coketown), the story is, in some respects, a longer version of A Christmas Carol. The central arc of the story is the journey of Thomas Gradgrind, a self-made man who attributes his success to learning facts. That, he strongly believes, is what his two children must be taught – and anything that cannot be explained with facts, such as art and love, must be suppressed.* Like Ebenezer Scrooge, his dogmaticism, well-intentioned though it may have started, comes at a heavy price for those he loves, until finally he sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. In the book, the three parts are titles “sowing”, “reaping” and “garnering”, and that summarises the story rather well. Continue reading

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What I’ve learned from six years of theatre blogging

Holy shit, six years. Don’t I have anything better to do? But as WordPress has been keen to remind me, that’s how long I’ve been running this blog. Three years ago, I wrote What I’ve learned from three years of theatre blogging. It’s interesting for me to read my old articles, but looking at this now, there’s nothing where I’ve really changed my mind.

But now I’ve made it to six years (and I vigorously deny all those vicious rumours that I planned to do this for five years but I never got round to it), it’s a good time to add some new things. Some of them things I was close to learning anyway – on or two, however, are eye-openers, and not in a good way.

Let’s go.

1: You have responsibilities

When I started doing this on a whim back in 2012, the last thing I imagined is that this would actually matter. Most plays, I just assumed, got plenty of “proper” reviews, and mine would be added to the pile. The most difference I thought this would make is that it would provide some constructive feedback that performers would be free to heed or ignore as they pleased.

What I hadn’t realised was how rare a commodity a review is. Outside of productions programmed by major theatres, it’s difficult to get any kind of coverage. Your review in a self-published blog may be the only one. It could be the only source of constructive feedback a group gets. You could be the only evidence a group has when making an arts council grant. It could spell the difference with whether or not other review publications give them a chance in the future. Continue reading

Odds and sods: March 2018

One thing I’ve made a conscious decision on this month to stop covering for the time being is the ongoing row of Times Square Panto. There is now little argument over who was in the right and who was in the wrong, and now it’s descending into legal wrangles over whether anyone should be held personally liable. I don’t kick artists when they’re down, and that includes speculating over legal liability. When this is all over, one way or the other, I may come back to this, but that’s all for now.

Without that, I expected this to be a short article, with not much of interest (apart from one thing I need to write a full article on), but when I checked back, more things got added to the list. So it’s an eventful month after all.

Stuff that happened in March:

All change at Durham

Starting on home turf this time, there are two big announcements from Durham venues. I have links with both these venues and frequently hear stuff in advance of official announcements, but before anyone tries reading between the lines here, I must make it clear that: 1) everything I’m telling you has already been stated on the record, and 2) at this moment, there is nothing I’ve heard off the record that I’m not telling you. Continue reading

Hedda Gabler: without the gloss

Gun pointing in Hedda Gabler

Patrick Marber and Ivo Van Hove’s take on Isben’s iconic character is a great adaptation, but also an uncomfortable one. Here’s why it has to be uncomfortable to watch.

This is a new thing in my blog: for the very first time, I’ve got to put a content warning on a review. I have a policy that this blog does not use content warnings when common sense would do the job. Content warnings serve one purpose and one purpose only, which is that if something is coming that one could reasonably expect some people to find distressing, you give an advance warning. Said people can then choose whether to stop reading, or brace themselves and carry on. Most of the time, the title and opening paragraph make it obvious enough. If I review Romeo and Juliet, it’s going to have references to suicide. If I review To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s going to have references to racism. There’s no point warning people you’re going to mention something sensitive if it involves mentioning the very thing you’re trying to warn people about.

But there is an important difference here. So far, whenever I’ve talked about a play with upsetting themes, I’ve only ever had to touch on them in the review – the full harrowing details can stay in the play itself. This review, however, is different. The National Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler was on of its most successful productions, ending a run of disappointments. But it was also one of its most controversial productions because of its depiction of sexual coercion. This needs talking about, and in order to that, we also have to talk about some horrible things that happen in real life. This will come later in the review, but it will come. Consider this your content warning. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2018

Main hall of the Vault Festival, before the crowds come in

REVIEWS: skip to Bump!, Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, You, The MMORPG show, Storytelling: London, Doktor James’s Bad Skemes, Elsa, The Great Gatsby

Apologies for putting this off – there were a couple of exceptional Ike-winning plays that jumped the queue, but let’s round up what I saw in the Vault festival. Unlike previous festivals, I won’t do any lengthy preamble, because there’s not much change from 2017. The Network Theatre and Waterloo East continue to be satellite venues, and the box office has still sorted out the organisational issues from 2016 (in fact, the venue as a whole runs pretty smoothly). Not quite the same number of Trump jokes this time (I guess last year exhausted the plentiful supply out there), and nothing dominating the buzz the way that immersive Gatsby did last year, but the one change I am so pleased to see is that finally the Vault Festival has installed wi-fi that actually works. Lord be praised.

Seriously, however, one notable change is that Vault 2018 ran for eight weeks, up from six. The good news from this is that they must be confident with the financial state of the Vault to expand like this (and my anecdotal observation is that numbers seemed to hold up fine over the longer period). It does mean, however, that we could reach the point where the Vault could become too powerful and turn into the gatekeepers of who can make it on the London fringe circuit. I don’t think we are at this point yet, and I have no reason to believe the managers of the Vault want to misuse their power, but keep asking questions. With great power comes great responsibility. Continue reading

The untold case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Production shot of Jekyll and Eleanor

With two excellent faithful gothic adaptations under their belt, Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde looks like a third. But this time, there’s a big change, and it’s superbly done.

There’s been so much banging about Blackeyed Theatre lately, myself included, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is synonymous with the partnership of John Ginman and Eliot Giuralarocca, responsible for an excellent adaptation of Dracula and a superb adaptation of Frankenstein. In reality, that’s only a recent addition to Blackeyed’s catalogue. But in spite of a successful ongoing run of Teechers, it’s gothic horror where they’ve made a name for themselves. So, by accident or by design, they’ve embarked on a third tale, and after the two big classics, Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde seems like an obvious choice. However – good job though I’m sure they could have done –  it’s not Ginman and Giuralarocca in charge this time. Instead, it’s written and directed by Nick Lane.

Starting with the obvious difference: you don’t have the technique of dispensing with speakers and doing all sound on stage that made Dracula and Frankenstein so distinctive. Here, it’s back to the conventional sound system. Other than that, the staging is stylistically similar to before. But there is one big big big change which I suspect most of the audience were not aware of, and that is writing a completely new major character into the story. And not just a clumsily shoehorned love interest. The thing that makes this adaptation outstanding is that he makes it look like this is how the story was meant to be told all along.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Blackeyed Theatre

Continue reading

War of the Worlds: way up North

Production shot from War of the Worlds

I’m going to review this play a little differently to most of my reviews. Northern Stage’s War of the Worlds already has enough glowing reviews on the pile, and besides, the two-week sold out run says more than any review ever will. What interests me is that this was part of Northern Stage’s NORTH scheme. If you’ve not heard of this, you can safely ignore most of this review and enjoy the play for what it is, but if you want ot read on, this needs a bit of explaining. NORTH has been running since 2013, and each year they take on a group on aspiring actors and give them, amongst other things, a public production. They generally go to form their own groups afterwards, the most successful one being the inaugural year which is now the hugely-respected Letter Room.

The scheme has varied from year to year though, not least in what kind of production they do. Usually the NORTH members devise their own play, but in 2015 the intake instead played the ensemble roles in mainstream production Cyrano de Bergerac – and not everyone was happy about that. A complaint I’ve heard off the record (not from anyone in NORTH 2015, I should add) is that by getting this instead of a devised production, they never get a chance to show their own creativity. A secondary complaint was that they got caught up in a concept that didn’t work, but lack of their own production was the main thing. So now, fast forward to 2018, and once again, a NORTH ensemble take the stage in someone else’s production. This time they play the leads in a Stage 3 production rather than ensemble on the main stage, but once again, the success of a production is in someone else’s hands.

Luckily for them, that someone is Laura Lindow, who has penned a series of successful productions, the most recent one being the November Club’s Beyond the End of the Road. Together with director Elayce Ismail, it turns out, they couldn’t have wished for safer hands to be in. Continue reading