What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2020

And here it is. 2020. And a disappointing lack of flying cars and three-course meal pills that we were promised. So instead let’s look at what’s coming up locally.

Safe Choice:

Usual rules, you can find them here. Beginning with safe choices, these are plays that I’ve either seen before or have heard enough about to be sure that if you like the sound of this play, you’ll like this one – and all of these also have wide appeal. This time, we have three high-profile productions in the same month, and one very different thing.

Jane Eyre

https://i1.wp.com/www.blackeyedtheatre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/BE_JaneEyre-7351-1024x683.jpgBlackeyed Theatre have been touring the country for years with consistently high standards, and their current tour is no exception. Jane Eyre is the third play written by Nick Lane, Blackeyed’s latest creative collaborator, and it continues their high standard: well-written adaptations that use small ensemble casts that – with one exception – stay faithful to the original books, and yet maintain a consistent style throughout their work that is unmistakeably theirs. Jane Eyre is halfway through its tour and I’ve already seen it, and, as expected it lived up to expectations, with the added bonus of a nice throwback to the acoustic sound plots that Blackeyed Theatre does so well.

The most exciting Blackeyed Theatre event this year is yet to come. The one story where Nick Lane made a major change – the addition of Elenor Laynon in The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde – was superb. That is returning later this year. But in the meantime, the return of Jane Eyre is well worth catching if you missed it last time round. The tour takes in Middlesbrough Theatre on the 6th – 7th May.

The Kite Runner

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I rarely send adaptations straight to safe choice solely on the strength of the source material, especially when I don’t know anyone involved in the adaptation, but having seen how effective A Thousand Splendid Suns was on the stage last year I’m sending this straight to the top of the list.There’s a few differences between the two stories though. Loosely mirroring Hosseini‘s own life, Amir’s family succeeded where Laila’s failed: getting out of the country before it was too late. As a result, Amir is spared the horrors of Soviet rule then Taleban rule, but the people he leaves behind aren’t so fortunate. As a result, survivor’s guilt plays a large part of the story.

One curiosity is that The Kite Runner was the target of a minor censorship campaign, from people outraged that over the book giving such an unfairly negative portrayal of, er, the Taleban. On the whole, however, if you liked A Thousand Splendid Suns you will like this one too. The two stories complement each other well to give rounded and nuanced perspective of a dark period of Afghan history that looks beyond the simplistic divisions of goodies and baddies. It calls at the north east with Darlington Hippodrome on the 12th-16th May.

Educating Rita

https://www.educatingrita.co.uk/static/ER-1692380ae26eabff851f2f51bb6e6c50.pngWho’d have predicted this? Less than three years ago, the Gala Theatre ran Willy Russel’s masterpiece for one week, solely for the sake of getting in-house productions back up and running. Jessica Johnson’s superb performance as Rita then inspired Theatre by the Lake to cast her in their own production, along with north-east heavyweights Max Roberts as director and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank. Now that tour has been a success and they are back with a bigger and better tour. I’d originally assumed if this ever came to Newcastle, Live Theatre would be the obvious choice and that’s the favourite haunt of both director and actors. Not now – this calls for a bigger theatre.

And so, what began with a low-key beginning comes to Newcastle Theatre Royal on the 18th-23rd May. The play itself of course needs no introduction, but Jessica Johnson perfectly captures the character of Rita, torn between an ambition to make more of her life than a lowly hairdresser and low self-esteem brought on by friends and family expecting her to know her place. This play has so far only been a footnote in the theatre news of Newcastle, but you have no excuse to miss it this time. It’s about time this performance got the audience it deserves on home terf, so do not miss this.

Green Knight

img_3932e-343x343The first three safe choices are major tours, but this final safe choice is quite the opposite: a solo performance the requires next to nothing in the way of staging. A low-key performance at the last two Buxton Fringe, this swiftly earned a reputation as one of the best performances going. Green Knight is a retelling of Sir Gawain’s legend as told by the temptress Lady Bertilak, but it’s a clever retelling. Nothing is changed from the original story, but a lot is added – and, in a way, this is the only way it could have been if you think about the story. By popular demand, I will point out that Lord Bertilak is a bit of cock and the game he plays was really a cock thing to do. But as well as being a pawn in his game, she is also in love with the noble and gallant Sir Gawain.

The other thing that stands out of the play is its simplicity. Whilst the other three plays all make use of the big stages in their own ways, this performance works best in the small intimate spaces it tours to. No need for lavish lighting and sound plots here – just Debbie Cannon and the props Lady Bertilak brings on stage is all that’s needed to tell that tale. You can see this at York Theatre Royal‘s studio theatre on the 5th February.

Bold choice:

Coming next …

 

Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school

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Nick Lane’s third script for Blackeyed Theatre has a lot more in common than his predecessor than the first two, but this old style still suits Blackeyed Theatre well.

Nick Lane is currently all the rage with Blackeyed Theatre. His adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not written for Blackeyed but they did the biggest tour) was a great success and is returning later this year. Since then, he’s stayed with the company and written two more adaptations: Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four and now this adaptation of one of the most famous Bronte novels. It’s a step away from Blackeyed Theatre’s strongest area of gothic horror, but only a small one. Out goes the setting befitting of those Draculas and Frankensteins, and in comes the bleak windswept moors that characterise the stories of all three Bronte sisters – something that evidently suits Blackeyed’s style well.

The usual challenge with adaptations of classic books is how to keep the cast size manageable. Unless you are setting your sights on a West End-scale production with the number of actors in double-figures, you have to delicately arrange the characters over a small cast, doubling up parts when you can, cutting characters when you can’t. Fortunately, Blackeyed Theatre have plenty of practice on this matter, and this is no exception. Kelsey Short plays Jane Eyre, seeking her own way in the world after a childhood raised by begrudging relatives. Staying faithful to the book, she also narrates in first person – after all, “reader, she married him” just isn’t the same. Ben Warwick plays Mr. Rochester, who takes her first a governess, and later seeks her as his wife. They form a good double act, with our heroine’s good heart and naivety contrasting with a principled but damaged man trying to reconnect with his human side. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2019 awards

Here we are at the end of the year, with what is probably my most interesting post of the year. There will other review of the year posts coming from other people, but even from the most enthusiastic reviewers who praise everything, this is where it comes to a crunch: you can say everything’s great, but you can’t say everything’s the greatest. You’ve got to pick one over the others. Even in this blog, pickier than most for who gets the best reviews, I have to get choosy here. There’s a long list of plays in my pick of the fringe over three fringes, and a good number of equally good plays from elsewhere, but even with a long list of categories, there aren’t enough to go round. So it’s been a tough choice of what to include – but some of the most important choices were easy.

At some point, I really ought to write up these rules. New rules have been introduced over the years in order to keep things fair, give small acts a fair chance against the big ones, and avoid the same acts coming up year after year, but all of this needs to go into one play, Maybe next year. In the meantime, however, one important clarification of an existing rule: The restrictions on conflict of interest are relaxed a bit compared to reviews. People who I’m friends with or who I previously worked with (who I wouldn’t be comfortable reviewing) can win these awards. However, people who I’m currently getting money or opportunities from are still off-limits, including productions of theirs that I wasn’t involved in.

One other caveat before I start: this has not been a typical year for me outside of theatre. I’ve written about this enough times, but you can find the details at the bottom of this post. I was in a better state some times of the year than others – as far as I can tell, this doesn’t affect my choices, but who knows? What this does mean, however, is that I didn’t get round to seeing some plays that would normally have been on my “must see” list. For anyone who’s out of the running for this reason, my apologies. Maybe next year.

So let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to get through between now and New Year’s Day when I announce the winner of best production. The envelope, please …

Best new writing:

As always, awards open with Best New Writing. The best plays are usually the combination of both script and production, but this one considers script alone. In general, another competent theatre company should be able to pick up the script and do just as good a job. In second place, this goes to The Red. Marcus Brigstocke’s play inspired by his own battle with alcohol was very well written, gave food for thought on many matters directly and indirectly related to the theme of the play, and closes with a very clever “blink and you’ll miss it” ending. There are been a fair number of disappointments in recent Edinburgh Fringes from big names turning their hand to theatre – this one will restore your faith.

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The script in first place, however, wins from an unexpected angle. Live Theatre has made a big thing of a diverse programme, and their co-production with Tamasha Theatre, Approaching Empty was a headliner. Tamasha are, of course, most famous for East is East, but the thing that struck me here was that whilst East is East was about an British Asian family where things are different, in Approaching Empty things are very much the same. That’s not what clinches the top spot though – instead, it’s Ishy Din’s excellent script of the tale of fall of innocence, where good intentions lead to a terrible outcome. It’s a struggling taxi firm run by two men and their families, one seeking to buy the business from the other – but camaraderie mixes with white lies, and white lies mix with self interest. And the way it’s done is very believable. Ishy Din has also earned my respect this year with some of the best playwriting advice I’ve heard, dispelling the myth of the life-changing moment and telling some truths of the unseen hard work that lies behind the so-called breakthrough scripts. The universality of this play is a bonus, but a welcome bonus: in a tale where people who trust each other are left with no choice but to betray each other, that truly is a story that could be anybody’s.

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: The Red, Testament of Yootha, Great Grimm Tales, The Red Hourglass, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Will, or Eight lost years in Shakespeare’s Life, The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, Rich Bitch, Moby Dick, Princess Party, Myra, Showstopper, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, Stanley

Oh shit, it’s nearly 2020. I really ought to start my Edinburgh Fringe coverage in the same year. Seriously though, apologies for everyone waiting to see their name in lights in the roundup – I won’t repeat the circumstances that caused me to fall behind so much, but I’ve touched on it in the last two articles. But that’s hopefully behind me now. So let’s make a start on this.

Last year’s big theme of Edinburgh Fringe was the cost of taking part in this fringe. This year, the debate has moved on to the size. Size and cost have always been linked, but this time round the debate has widened to the effect on the city of Edinburgh as a whole. Does the fringe make the city unusable for the people who live there? Some people say breaking point is being reached. The most notable thing, however, is now what’s being said, but what’s not being said. Only a few year ago, announcements that the fringe was its biggest ever were shouted from the rooftops by the Festival Fringe Society – this year, they barely mentioned this.

One stat that is watched very closely is whether ticket sales growth is keeping up with growth of the fringe. The simplified theory has always been that if the fringe grows by x%, ticket sales must grow by x% to keep it sustainable, but is this too simplistic? This year the growth was very uneven over different venues. But there’s no easy way to control the numbers at an open festival, and we will just have to wait and see next year what becomes of this. Continue reading

Odds and sods: November 2019

Time for 2019’s final odds and sods. Let’s get straight into it. November has been a month of riots and the total destruction of the country, or at least that’s what Mark Francois told me. But in between rebuilding civilisation from the shattered remains of our society, this happened:

Stuff that happened in November

There was one important bit of news, and that was the events at Middlesbrough Town Hall coming to light. The short version is that this venue refused “comedian” (note use of quotation marks) Roy Chubby Brown the use of Middlesbrough Town Hall, the mayor overruled management, and the manager of the venue resigned in protest. The long version is these actions shine a spotlight into the normally murky world of programming and politics. And with both the original actions of the venue and the subsequent intervention of the mayor, you should be concerned. For more details, see We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown.

Apart from that, here’s the rest of the news, and my thoughts on the matter.

Lumiere 2021 is on

ejgvzgzxuaieqqjWe start with the big event of November, which is Lumiere. As usual, I will be doing a roundup, probably so late that by the time it’s done it’ll be time for the next Lumiere. As anyone who was in Durham that week will know, the weather was not kind and there was a lot of rain on three of the four nights. Anecdotally, I overheard a lot of people saying they weren’t going to bother because of the weather, and for anyone who is used to Lumiere crowds and know when and where it’s hard to get around, it was plain to see the numbers were down, although there was a consolation that you had to spend less time queuing in the rain. The turnout estimates are now out and as suspected, it is down quite a lot: 165,000, a drop of nearly a quarter from last year’s peak of 240,000. Had this happened in 2013, when the question over a return was up in the air, that would have been a disaster. Continue reading

Lord of the Flies, Hound of the Baskervilles

Skip to: Lord of the Files, Hound of the Baskervilles

Let me begin with an apology for being slow on the reviewing front in the last six months. I don’t use this blog for a running commentary of things going on in my life, but those of you who know me will be aware that I’ve been getting a lot of hassle, firstly from some circumstances that forced me to move, and then the process of buying somewhere that turned out the be ten times as complicated as it needed to be. But I’ve finally done it. I’m a homeowner, and to celebrate I’ve subscribed to the Daily Mail so I can obsess over house prices. I’m already sick of those idle spongers in their social housing. Nice Mr. Dacre told me so.

Anyway, what this has meant for the blog is that I’ve fallen behind a lot, partly the time needed sorting things out, and partly as I was feeling in a bit of a hole over this time. This has also meant I’ve missed a few plays I was hoping to watch and review – if that was yours, I do apologise. (My tour with Elysium Theatre also produced a couple of casualties.) However, we are now into December and January, which is my down time and my chance to catch up.

So let’s start the catch-up with two productions I saw at the Gala, both adaptations of famous works. One was a stop of a highly-anticipated local tour, and the other was an in-house production – but a different kind of in-house production to anything you’ve seen at the Gala before. And that is where we begin.

Lord of the Flies

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All eyes may be permanently on the theatre news from Newcastle, but one thing that has been slowly but steadily taking place in Durham is the increasing influence of Durham Student Theatre – and, in parallel, the increasing influence of The Assembly Rooms, their main venue. That venue has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, a secondary studio venue will be opening shortly, and both venues are looking to take touring professionals. The Assembly Rooms also partnered with Elysium Theatre, although this has recently been overtaken by the latter’s other partnership with Queen’s Hall Hexham. But along with this, there’s a third strand reaching out beyond the university, and that an unprecedented collaboration with the Gala Theatre and Unfolding Theatre. Taking on students as cast but professional produced and directed, Lord of the Flies was one of the most notable productions in Durham for some time.

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We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown

Roy Chubby Brown and Robert Walpole
FIGHT!!!!!

COMMENT: It won’t be easy to find a right balance when programming controversial acts in publicly-run venues. But neither unofficial blacklists nor political intervention are the way to do it.

Oh dear. This almost passed me by, but there’s been a pretty major controversy over at Middlesbrough. Roy Chubby Brown is coming to Middlesbrough Town Hall in spring next year. Given the, shall I say, “contentious” nature of Roy Chubby Brown’s material, that alone raises a few eyebrows. But the really controversial bit is not the decision itself, but how the decision was made. The management had originally refused the booking – it was the newly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough who overruled them, and the manager of the Town Hall resigned apparently in protest.

In the end, however, something like this was bound to happen. The issue over venues refusing to programme Roy Chubby Brown goes back years, with reasons for refusal rarely being more specific than “it’s offensive”. And with so many venues owned by their respective local authorities, it was only a matter of time before someone higher up took the view that people who are offended don’t have to watch it. I wasn’t expecting things to come to a head so close to home, but in hindsight, it’s not too much of a surprise it happened in Middlesbrough – and not just because this is his home town. I will come on to this reason later.

So here we go again. As this raises questions about censorship and this is an anti-censorship blog, it’s time for me to give my thoughts. I don’t respond to every story that’s a censorship issue, but the main reason for this one – apart from the fact it’s happened on my doorstep – is that this shines a spotlight on two practices that normally have no scrutiny: one is how arts venue managers choose to programme at publicly-owned facilities; the other is how and when people higher up intervene in the running of these venues. And on this one occasion where we get an insight into what happens behind closed doors, it’s worrying for a lot of reasons. Continue reading