Odds and sods: November 2018

And it’s another slow news month. In theatre, that is. Not such a slow news month elsewhere. But we don’t talk about that.

Here’s what’s been happening back and forth in theatre land.

Stuff that happened in November

Goodbye Empty Shop HQ

So it’s confirmed. Empty Shop really are letting Empty Shop HQ go, for a number of reasons given in their own blog post. It’s not clear how much the redevelopment of the Milburngate Centre has to do with the decision, but Empty Shop’s scope is now a lot wider than one venue: the recent addition of TESTT space above the bus station and their work bringing in Miners’ Hall in as a venue are things that were unimaginable when HQ first opened. This doesn’t come as too much of a surprise – I’d heard nothing about plans for what to do about HQ, and no news suggested no plans. Empty Shop is now being run from TESTT Space – which, somewhat paradoxically, means that TESTT Space is now Empty Shop HQ instead of Empty HQ.

This announcement does rule out on theory I had – I’d idly speculated that The Assembly Rooms would temporarily take over the space to help with the current overspill of student productions necessitated by the year-long closure of their theatre. (As far as I can tell, the student productions are managing by using the remaining performance-friendly spaces in the university more intensively.) However, this does leave a question mark hanging over the future of inclusive performance spaces in Durham. TESTT, at the moment, is heavily focusing on visual arts rather than performance arts. I can’t begin to say how valuable Empty Shop HQ was to me when I was starting off, and I don’t believe I’m the only one here. Continue reading

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Two by Two Pints

When you have a set of plays to review, it is often tempting to look for common themes between plays. In early autumn, as it happens, two plays came along with not only shared the theme of pubs, but were also very heavily themed around the number two. More by accident than by design, the two plays have a lot more in common besides. So let’s get right to it.

SKIP TO: Two, Two Pints, Talking Heads

Two

8736534The Gala Theatre are continuing their in-house productions with another classic, Jim Cartwright’s famous story of a night in a working-class pub. This is a safe bet for any theatre to choose (more on this in a moment), but Two is a safe bet for a good reason. It’s lots of little stories of snippets of people’s lives, all played by the same two actors. Some are funny, some are tragic, and one or two where the bar staff really ought to intervene. But it’s a busy Saturday night, and besides, the husband and wife who run the bar have their own problems to keep them busy, and it’s not their constant bickering and put-downs throughout the evening. That is just their way of distracting themselves from something in their past they can’t ignore, however much they might want to.

All you really need for Two to be a success are two capable actors who can play all fourteen characters convincingly (although I did once see a student production who played it with fourteen different actors, somewhat missing the point of the title). Luckily, the Gala can call upon Christopher Price and Jessica Johnson, who were both naturals for this. But this isn’t quite a paint-by-numbers production. Two was originally intended as a small studio piece and it’s not a straightforward play to scale up to a bigger stage. In a fringe-scale venue it’s treated as normal that there’s no set and virtually all interaction with props are mimed, but in bigger theatres expectations are different – but a fully naturalistic production with two actors is impossible. Continue reading

Queens of the Coal Age: the last battle

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This true story could have benefited from filling a few gaps, but the excellent staging makes the play an interesting insight into a lesser-known flank of the miners’ campaign.

1993, eight years after the defeat in the miners’ strike. Pit closures are continuing, and Parkside Colliery is next on the list. What hasn’t been tried to stop the closures? Anne Scargill, then husband of the famous/infamous Arthur, brings three women along for an occupation. A futile stunt perhaps, in hindsight – after all, if one of the most widespread industrial disputes couldn’t stop pit closures, what chance would this have? – but a gesture that has still been remembered twenty-five years on. It is this piece of mining history that Maxine Peake chose to write about, originally written for radio, now adapted for the stage at the New Vic.

Four female teachers* turn up for an educational tour of a coal mine. Two notable things about the tour guide: firstly, he’s mildly annoying; and secondly – a perhaps more gallingly – he’s apparently indifferent to the pit’s imminent closure, a far cry from a decade earlier. Luckily for them, his disinterest in pit politics means he doesn’t recognise one of the women as Anne Scargill. If he had, he would probably have twigged that they weren’t really teachers and that they were up to something. Another miner does and keeps schtum, but comes to light later. Continue reading

Odds and sods: October 2018

It’s finally happened. Many times I’ve thought not a lot happened but ended up with loads to report, but this time, I’ve scoured far and wide for interesting news and discovered it really is a slow month news for once. So let’s get this over and done with:

Stuff that happened in October:

Not much, but amongst the not much going on is:

Junkyard Dogs expands in Brighton

https://i2.wp.com/www.junkyard-dogs.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/jdfringeexteriorfront.jpgSo starting in Brighton this time, the bit of news that caught my eye is Junkyard Dogs. If you come to Brighton Fringe for the theatre, Junkyard Dogs may pass you by completely, because this is a venue that is dominated by comedy. But this venue has still managed to build a stellar reputation. having been voted Best Venue in the last two years. (Public votes should normally be treated with caution as they are open to vote-packing, but everybody I know who’s expressed an opinion on Junkyard Dogs has spoken very highly of them.) However, as a single-space 35-seater venue, so far this venue has kept a low profile compared to The Warren, Sweet and Spiegeltent. But that might be about to change. According to Brighton Fringe, next year they will have two black box spaces. This takes them up to three, just one behind the number of spaces used by Sweet and The Warren last year (albeit bigger spaces). Continue reading

Guest post: Sarah Saeed on Lava Elastic and neurodiversity

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Introducing a brand new feature for this blog: guest posts. Regular readers here will know by now I have a number of subjects that grab my interests. One thing I’ve been speaking out on lately is diversity, especially for people with disabilities. I’ve done this with some reluctance – ever since my diagnosis with Asperger’s seven years ago, I’ve wanted to work to the principle of wanted to be treated like everyone else. Lately, however I’ve felt compelled to voice my concerns over some of the schemes meant to help; not because nobody needs help – of course some people do – but the simplistic approach taken. At best, they assume that anyone with any kind of disability needs a leg-up without attempting to understand what the barriers are in the first place; and at worst, they assume that anyone with any kind of a disability is a victim and only promote artists who give this message.

But I’ve come across one venture that is doing something right. Lava Elastic – who came to my attention through their association with Sweet Venues Brighton – is an event that calls itself “One of the UK’s first openly neurodiverse comedy/performance nights”, run by Sarah Saeed. What do she offer that other ventures don’t? She gets it. She shows an understanding of the barriers faced and how they can be overcome that I find sorely missing from other initiatives. So I am delighted to have as a my guest poster Sarah Saeed, founder of Lava Elastic, for her take on the issue:

I have to admit to having been incredibly cross very often (understatement) about the lack of respect given to gifted, inventive, often highly trained, performers and very, very smart people by promoters and similar… just because those people are different, or don’t do things quite like everyone else. It’s one of the main reasons – subconsciously, in retrospect – I started putting my own nights on, sporadically (when I lived in Leeds before moving to Brighton) To give platforms to unusual acts that didn’t get as many bookings as more ‘run-of-the-mill’ less creative (but much better at networking) individuals…it is a side of the performance world that has always driven me bonkers! Continue reading

The other problem with political theatre

COMMENT: It’s good to support political theatre. This should not turn into political vetting of theatre.

Last year, I went on record over the issue I have with most political theatre. Not the concept of political theatre – when done right, political theatre can be a huge vehicle for change – but my frustrations with how often it’s done badly. If your idea of political theatre is a play on a safe subject matter, where you know you can get a like-minded people to turn up and approve of what you say, it’s a relatively easy job. But if you are actually seeking to influence anyone – and entrenching views your audience already hold isn’t enough here – it’s a harder task. And most frustrating is that so many artists keep making the most basic mistakes: crap arguments, incomprehensibly abstract, or talking down to anyone you hope to get on your side.

However, you can ignore that here. For purposes of this article, I am talking about political theatre that gets the basics rights, with arguments that are not shit, incomprehensible, or condescending. I am now turning my attention to the next level up, and that’s the groups and theatres who support political theatre. The thing that got me thinking about this is Live Theatre’s new artistic director, Joe Douglas, seeking to bring in a lot more political theatre. Welcome though this is on the surface, it does raise some questions about vetting of work and artistic freedom. In the worst-case scenario, it could even be an issue of censorship.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear this is not meant to be a grilling of anyone in particular, and definitely not a grilling of Joe Douglas. I’ve met him and I like him, both as a person and someone who’s made an effort to open up Live Theatre to everyone and not just rely on inheriting an existing in-crowd. I haven’t seen his Live directorial debut yet, but Clear White Light sold out by press night so he must be doing something right. And I will stress that the questions I’m raising are genuinely meant as questions – I honestly don’t know what the answer to this is. But these are difficult questions that require difficult answers from someone. Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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credit: byronv2, flickr

Okay, here we go. Let’s round up the big one. After a busy spring and summer with Brighton and Buxton Fringes, Edinburgh does become a bit of an endurance test, but I can think of few better ways of pushing your stamina to the limit. This year, I managed 27 shows over six days, with thoughts on most of them dotted over my live coverage with what I thought at the time. Now it’s time to get this into some sort of order.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Build a Rocket, The Fetch Wilson, Bite-Size, Maz and Bricks, House of Edgar, Eight, Neverwant, Hunch, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor

Edinburgh Fringe as a whole was dominated with talk of “peak fringe”. The flatline in 2016 turned out to be a blip, and now the 2018 fringe is bigger than ever – and not everybody’s happy about that. Top of the list of complaints was the over-subscribed demand on venues and especially the accommodation rendering the fringe unaffordable for many, and indeed there was a event to discuss this very issue. A secondary issue was the way that fringe workers were treated, with some serious allegations made about the behaviour of some venues that – so far, apparently – the venues in question have not denied.

At some point, I will write my thoughts on what I think should be done about employment rights at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve already said the reform I would make to bring down costs: stop obsessing over Edinburgh to the exclusion of all the other fringes. That is unlikely to be the solution favoured by the Festival Fringe Society – but they have to say something, having already backed the cause. At the moment, the ball is in their court. It will be very interesting when they finally say what they propose to do.

But enough of that. We’ve got a lot of reviews to get through, so let’s get started.

Pick of the Fringe:

As always, in recent Edinburgh Fringes – as I’ve got better at finding the good stuff – I’ve had to get pickier over what goes in this top tier. Things that might have made it into pick of the fringe in other festivals or previous years might not make it now. At some point, it looked like I might raise the bar even higher, after an exceptional start over my first 24 hours. But in the end, there were eight that I could pick out as a cut above the rest. Continue reading