Odds and sods: November 2021

It’s December, and we’ve had a November which almost looks like business as usual. So let’s do a business as usual roundup of things that have been happening other than plays to review and other things that didn’t warrant entire articles. For those of you who need a refresher, November is my last Odds and Sods of the year, because December is basically pantos and not much else. Let’s dive straight in.

Stuff that happened in November

So the big thing that got me talking was the Royal Court’s ill-judged character on Elon Musk named Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from everyone who thought the Jewish-sounding name was an insinuation that Jews secretly control the world. The Royal Court admitted they got it wrong; some people think that’s the end of the matter, others aren’t so forgiving and think there’s a deeper problem with the Royal Court. I’ve gone further: I suspect this is a problem endemic to the whole of the theatre industry, with the Royal Court merely being the most obvious offender. So what was originally meant to b a couple of paragraphs here became a long-read article in its own right. You are probably not going to like what I have to say. But read it anyway.

Apart from that, this all happened:

Vault Festival returns

festivalpasssmallSo we start the round-up with the news that the Vault Festival is returning in 2022. For festival fringe fans who are new to this, the Vault Festival takes a lot of acts of the length and scale you’d expect to the Edinburgh Fringe – indeed many of the acts go to or form there – but unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s curated. I believe one in six of the applicants get programmed, and realistically there’s no way Vault could run as an open festival. However, until Brighton Fringe gets going in May, this is the closest thing you’re going to get to a fringe.

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Odds and sods: October 2021

So, it’s back to business, and for old time’s, sake, I’m going back to my monthly odds and sods updates being late. I would have got it out on time, but a certain shitstorm blew up that I had to write about first. But now that this is out of the way (for a moment), let’s catch up with what else has been happening.

Stuff that happened in October:

So the big thing that happened – not quite theatre news but still very relevant to north-east culture – was SSD Concerts. Previously making a name for themselves back in April by allegedly going round groping everybody, after the MD implicated in this resigned, we thought we’d heard the last of the MD, or SSD Concerts, or groping, or all three. Nope. It now looks like they thought they could lie low a few months and then just carry on like nothing had happened. The good news is they thought wrongly, and didn’t get away with it.

However, the less prominent news stories, involving people who – as far as I’m aware – don’t behave like sex cases, are:

Durham 2025

cropped-d2025-bid-logoThe excitement at the start of this month was the news that Durham has made it through to the longlist of City of Culture 2025. One important point is that it is Durham County that is bidding for this rather than just the city. This makes use of a rule change that this time round, regions can bid for the title – it need not be a specific urban area. This suits the bid, because ever since Durham County Council became a unitary authority, they’ve been promoting the culture of the county as a unit. Events such as Kynren and attractions such as Beamish are routinely alongside events and attractions in Durham city itself.

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Odds and sods: most of 2020 and 2021

So, who remembers the “before” times? Well, one thing I used to write on most months was “odds and sods”, rounding up the little things that have been happening in theatre that weren’t reviews or recommendations or something that required a full article. Then along came a certain event that put paid to little events happening in theatres, or indeed any kind of event.

Contrary to what it feels like for a lot of people, things haven’t ground to a complete halt for 18 months. In spite of the high-profile cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe 2020 there’s still been a lot going on with the fringe circuit to keep me busy. However, in the north-east, theatre has only really got going in the last month. But things haven’t been entirely still on regional theatre, and we’ve got some pretty significant events to catch up on. So, let’s do a catch-up.

What’s been happening between March 2020 and September 2021. Apart from Coronavirus.

There’s a been a lot to talk about relating to Coronavirus, both directly and indirectly. Most of this I’ve talked about indirectly in my live fringe coverage. I might round this up later, but here I am concentrating on what else happened. Here are some events that could just have easily taken place another time.

New artistic directors

When we left off, Lorne Campbell had just departed Northern Stage for a new challenge at the National Theatre of Wales, and the search for his successor was underway. But part-way through 2020 came the shock news that his Live Theatre counterpart Joe Douglas was also leaving. The reason I say shock is because he was doing so well. Sometimes, when an artistic director leaves unexpectedly, I later find out that some of the trustees weren’t happy with the way he or she was taking the theatre, but that looks far form the case here. His first Live Theatre play sold out and came back for another run, and the second also sold out and looked set to come back too. I will say that I did hear a few grumbles over Lorne Campbell (not that I have any reason to believe that was why he moved), but Joe Douglas was getting universal praise. Ah well. Looks like sometimes life’s demands outside of the theatre are more important.

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Odds and sods: January 2020

Those of you with good memories will recall that my monthly odds and sods articles are supposed to come shortly after month has ended, not when we’re nearly at the end of the next one. My excuse is that there’s no let-up in my day job and 50-hor weeks are still the norm. As such, I was tempted to gave January a miss and catch up with everything in a February edition. However, there have been a couple of pretty major things that have happened over the winter that need attention, but I’ve decided it’s better late than nuver.

Stuff that happened in December and January

So what’s been happening in December and January to grab my attention. Let’s start with two pretty major news stories that could have a lot of repercussions, and then follow it up with two more things of interest.

Goodbye Great Yorkshire Fringe

https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GreatYorkshireFringeLogo.jpgSo there was one big bit of news that almost passed me by, but after five years of the Great Yorkshire, founder Fringe Martin Witt has pulled the plug on this festival – and is blaming York City Council for this. As my regular readers will know, I’ve been quite critical of this fringe in recent years for its practice of curating who can take part, in contrast to all the major fringe that are open to all. However, in the end, the mood is it’s a dispute over city centre management that has brought about the end. There does seem to be a consensus that it came down lack of space to set up its pop-up venues, meaning it would have spread over more of the city instead of the cluster of venues in one place. That, I appreciate, must have been demoralising for the fringe organisers. 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

Odds and sods: October 2019

Another month, another delay to a Mad Max-style apocalypse. So I can take a break from stockpiling tines and loading a the shotgun to ward off the mutants and get back to what’s been happening in theatre.

Stuff that happened in October

Lorne Campbell moves on

So we bLorne Campbellegin news from October with the biggie, and quite unexpected. Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage, is stepping down. He’s not been at Northern Stage that long either. When someone leaves a post like this abruptly, it’s always tempting to speculate if he jumped before he was pushed – here, however, it’s not very likely. He is moving on to be artistic director of the National Theatre of Wales, which can be looked on as a promotion. However, it still means that, once more, chrisontheatre gets to play it’s favourite game of waiting for the announcement of the artistic director, and – more importantly – considering what this means for Northern Stage’s future. Continue reading

Odds and sods: September 2019

That’s it. Another fringe season out of the way. So now it’s time to turn attention back to what else has been going on outside of the fringe scene. I know we’ve all been distracted by that petulant toddler since my last odds and sods in June, but there’s more to life than that.

Besides, this odds and sods is going to be more contentious than usual. Not everyone is going to like everything I say about three particularly thorny issues.

Stuff that happened since June

A lot of the big news over the summer is, of course, related to the Edinburgh Fringe. Most of that you will find in my live Edinburgh Fringe coverage. However, I want this to concentrate on what else has been going. So here’s some interesting developments that got my attention:

Seyi Omooba sues Leicester Curve

So let’s begin with the story that went into a new (and perhaps inevitable) chapter at the end of the month. Back in March there was the story of an actress in The Colour Purple who lost her part after some old anti-gay posts on Facebook were dug up. I took an interest at the time because this was potentially a freedom of speech issue. At the time, I accepted that Leicester Curve probably had no choice but to let her go – if you are producing a play that preaches a very pro-tolerance and anti-discrimination message, it would have been political and commercial suicide to have a key performer on record as advocating the opposite (at least on the subject of homosexuality). However, getting dropped by her agency was dubious. I hardly need point out why it’s not a good thing if agencies having the power to terminate the career of anyone caught holding an unpopular opinion.

Another cause championed by Christian Concern, probably, yesterday.

But this latest move to sue the theatre and her former agents has lost her the small amount of sympathy I had. If she had sued over the practice of getting people fired for old social media messages, I would have considered supporting it – I am not comfortable with setting a precedent that it’s okay to destroy someone’s career by making public a view that they were keeping to themselves and not acting upon, however reprehensible those views were. She is not. She is suing because she claims it’s discrimination against Christians. That stands to set the precedent that it’s okay to express and act on any views you hold, however reprehensible those views are. All you have to do is justify your prejudices as something God told you to believe. What’s more, according to Omooba, Leicester Curve were prepared to keep her if she apologised and moved on. That to me looks like Leicester Curve went as far as they could to protect her from the outrage – but she instead doubled down as if this was proof she was hard done by. For the first time I can understand what might have made her agency drop her, instead of waiting until the hashtag hordes moved on: she was becoming a liability to everyone associated with her, and showed no intention to stopping being one.

Even so, I still feel some pity for her. The motives behind the original act of looking through someone’s social media posts in the hope of finding something career-ending remains extremely questionable, and this new development does not answer that question. But my main reason to feel pity is that it’s clear she’s been put up to this by Christian Concern, the organisation backing her case. This is a group that claims to stand up for the freedom to practice Christianity and for Christians to be treated with tolerance from others, but you don’t need to look far to notice that what they’re really after is taking away other people’s freedoms and treating them with intolerance. Religious discrimination isn’t the only way of frivolous claiming victimhood, but – and this applies to all religions, not just Christianity – this is the only one that actively uses this claim as an argument for their own preferred brands of discrimination and victimisation to be protected in law. The theatre world must close ranks and fight this, but we shouldn’t be mad at Seyi Omooba – we should be mad at the people who made her this way.

Goodbye to TESTT Space

Back to Durham now. One bit of interesting news is a new event called Durham Soup. The first event is in October, but I’ll wait for the first event to happen and I have a better idea what this is about before I report on it.

However, the big news from Durham since the last Odds and Sods is with the Empty Shop. There have been a lot of changes over the last three years. In 2017, they took on a new space, known as TESTT Space (where TESTT = The Empty Shop Think Tank), formely a large office space over the bus station. Then, last year, the announcement came that they were moving out of Empty Shop HQ, a space in the Milburngate Centre (now The Riverwalk) above a cafe – a surprise announcement, seeing as this had been around for so long it was almost viewed as synonymous with Empty Shop itself. Now the news has come that TESTT Space is going too.

This time, it’s not the Empty Shop’s choice to go but the landlord’s. The bus station and everything built above it was due to be demolished – that was how they were able to get hold of this disused office space in the first place. However, it was generally assumed that you’d need to build the new bus station first before you could think about knocking down the old one. Now the council have changed their mind and they’re going build a new bus station on the same site. I don’t understand how it’s possible to do that and keep the buses running myself, but it seems one inconvenient side-effect is that the lease is ending sooner rather than later.

However, although the timing of this news isn’t great, I’m quite relaxed about what this means for The Empty Shop. Losing the lease on your main venue can be perilous – something similar happened with Alphabetti Theatre three years ago, and had this happened six months earlier when they weren’t so financially secure, they may not have survived the transiation it to the successful venue they have today. However, the Empty Shop does this all the time – as Nick and Carlo point out, this is their 42nd of 55 spaces they’ve used so far. So whilst we don’t know what space 56 looks like or how this will effect the future of Empty Shop or the community build around it, I’m confident there will be one. We will just have to wait and see.

On the Milka advert

This is something I talked about during my Edinburgh Fringe coverage, but since it was buried in all things fringe, here’s a reprint so this can get the attention this deserves. In August there was uproar over the casting spec for a child in an ad for Milka. But whilst I see where the outrage is coming from, I feel this one of the cases where the underlying cause was ignored.

This ad on Spotlight was noticed by an eagle-eyed user who alerted the entire internet to it. It’s quite an achievement, but the casting spec was offensive in just about every way possible. Can’t have a fat girl because you’re advertising chocolate, no redheads because reasons, and must not be pre-pubescent. Errrm, okay. Unsurprisingly, when this came to light, the ad was swiftly taken down. Cue celebrations – but the underlying problem did not change, and that is is casting culture, or more specifically, casting culture in adverts.

Another advert that Milka likes, probably. Yesterday.

Now, I could write at length about where I think the problems are in casting, and one day I probably will. There’s no end of stupid judgements made on appearance in the arts industry. But, for all their faults, nothing is anywhere near as bad as the advertising industry. The days when TV adverts gave actual reason to buy products are long gone. Instead, modern adverts work on a subliminal level. Why should I buy a new smartphone? More battery and disk space? Nope. According to basically every advert, people who buy the latest phone are cool and sassy and if you buy it you too will be cool and sassy and get to mix with the cool and sassy people. And in order to make this point, the advert requires cool and sassy people in the advert. And not just any old cool and sassy people, but exactly the right kind of cool and sassy, because this, along with everything else, is micromanaged by marketing executives in order to sell as much stuff as possible.

I strongly suspect that is the real reason why adverts pay so well. I don’t begrudge any actors for doing this – everyone’s got earn a living somehow – but it seems to me the real reason is not an act of charity on the part of advertisers, but so they get huge numbers of people to choose from and pick exactly who they want. And my other suspicion is that the spec seen in this advert is normal – it’s just that every else knows not to do it too obviously. Simply send out a vague spec, audition far and wide, and then pick based on what you’re really after, that need not bear any resemblance to what you said you wanted. Hair colour, age, weight, skin colour, perceived sexuality, whatever you like – how can anyone prove that’s what you based your casting on?

This is why I think getting Spotlight to withdraw one advert is a red herring. One would like to think that this would be a lesson to advertisers that you can’t have those casting requirements nowadays. It’s more likely that advertisers will take this as a lesson to not put this out on a Spotlight advert. I think we can safely bet that Christmas Milka ad featuring non-overweight non-redhead pre-pubescent girl is off, but it they’d kept that under the radar I have no doubt this would have gone ahead. In which case, how much else is going on under the radar? I’ve no idea what the answer is though. It’s very difficult to make people change their ways if they think it’ll cost them money. You might if you could somehow persuade them that stupid appearance-based casting doesn’t sell more, but that looks like a long shot. The first step, however, is to recognise this casting call as a symptom of a much wider problem and not just an individual problem that’s solved. Fail to realise this, and the chance of anything changing is zero.

Clear White Light sells out again

Moving one stop north, and the most interesting development from Newcastle theatre scene is the continuing success of Clear White Light. As I’ve previously reported, Joe Douglas’s first two performances for the main stage sold out virtually their entire runs. The first one, Clear White Light, has now come back for a second run. There is already one thing out of the ordinary here – whilst it is not uncommon for Live Theatre plays to sell out and come back for re-runs, it is rare for someone to score two in a row. Now an even rarer thing has happened – the second run of Clear White Light has sold out too. That’s unprecedented. Someone who has better stats can correct me if I’m wrong here, this may well be Live’s most successful production since The Pitman Painters. I’m going to stop short of tipping Clear White Light to be the next Pitman Painters – I suspect the key attraction of the music of Lindisfarne might not have so much draw outside the north-east. There again, it would have been easy to dismiss the prospects of a group of Ashington miners as only appealing to local interest, and we know what happened there.

Amongst all of the champagne corks popping, however, I will float a counter-argument. Much as returning a successful play looks good for Live, in general a returning play forms the centrepiece of the whole season, where there would otherwise be a new main production. The means, roughly speaking, every encore comes at the expense of an opportunity for another new play. Which wasn’t a big deal when only the occasional play made a return, but what if this becomes the norm? Will the long-standing model of one main production per season  need to be rethought? Still a long way to go before we establish this is the new normal – two smash hits in a row doesn’t guarantee a third, let alone a fourth or fifth – but it might, and interesting times lying ahead whatever the outcome.

The future of Northern Broadsides – old and new

The other big change of leadership I’ve been following is that of Northern Broadsides. Founder and long-time artistic director Barrie Rutter stood down last year, and his unofficial deputy Conrad Nelson took over for a 12-month interim period. When applications opened for the permanent replacement, everyone assumed he had it in the bag, but instead the shock news broke that not only was he not continuing in the post as Artistic Director, but also that he was leaving the company completely. I should repeat at this point I have no reason to believe he was pushed – it genuinely does look like like he and his wife and long-standing collaborator Deborah McAndrew decided it was time for a change. More on that in a moment.

But first: what does this mean for Northern Broadsides? Laurie Samson got the job of Artistic Director, and as a former Artistic Director of both the National Theatre of Scotland and Royal and Derngate, which was a huge vote of confidence for the Broadsiders. I’ve only seen one play of his myself, which was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Fringe, which was excellent, and now, his first Northern Broadsides play has been announced: Quality Street. If you haven’t heard of this – and this hasn’t been performed much since the second world war – this is a Napoleonic comedy romance from J M Barrie written before his most famous book, Peter Pan. In case you’re wondering – yes, this the where the famous chocolates got their name. In fact, there is a collaboration going on between Northern Broadsides and the workers in the Halifax factory that makes the stuff. Although I know little about this play, my hunch is that the style he brought to Jean Brodie would go well here.

One small but notable detail is that, for the first time since God knows when, Northern Broadsides are coming to the North East (or as we round here like to call it, the proper north). I don’t know why it’s taken so long for a north-east theatre to take them on given their huge success in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but better late than never.

d20road20a320title20onlyBut the more interesting new project is from Nelson and McAndrew. They’ve been running a parallel Stoke-based theatre company called Claybody Theatre, which is now getting their undivided attention, and when they left there was an early announcement of a new Deborah McAndrew play that Conrad Nelson would direct. But instead of another reimagining of a classic story that made them into the respected figures they are today, instead it’s a play of very local interest: The D Road, about the dual carriageway that was built through the middle of Stoke and the effect this had on the Six Towns. (I only know so much about the road myself as my sister live there.) It seems that when Nelson and McAndrew said time for a change, it wasn’t just a change of theatre company, it’s a change of everything. This is of very local interest, but they’ve got Hugo Michael in thier cast who’s been in just about every Northern Broadside production of theirs. So expect Nelson and McAndrew to be off the national radar in the short term, but probably not for that long.

My verdict on Treegate

Finally, I’ve promised that I would have a look at this controversy over Tree, a headlining play at Manchester International Festival that grabbed everybody’s attention for the wrong reason. If you’ve somehow managed to let this one pass you by, the row here is that two writers allege in a blog post that they developed an idea with Idris Elba for a play, and the Young Vic got involved, only for artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah to announce that he and Elba were now creating a different play that was stealing their idea. The Young Vic’s side of the story is that they weren’t stealing anyone’s work, and instead they were developing a completely new concept based on Elba’s original idea.

Compared to some of the very very worst practices I’ve covered on this blog, the Young Vic’s response is a little better. A lot of the points of disagreement are one person’s word against another’s. Tori and Sarah claim the Young Vic threatened them with legal action, the Young Vic claims the opposite, but with neither side showing supporting evidence I’ll have to draw a blank. Some of their arguments are weaker – their claim that an agreement with the Duchess Theatre doesn’t apply to the Young Vic might be legally right, but it’s hardly a argument for being morally right. But the main problem with the Young Vic’s side of the story is that it requires believing some not-so-plausible sequences of events. If we are to take their word for it, this requires accepting that Idris had an idea for a story, then he and Tori and Sarah developed it for years, called Tree, and the suddenly Idris came up with a completely different way of expressing his original idea, also called Tree but otherwise not in any way shaped by his two former collaborators. Really? It also requires us believing that when Kwame Kwei-Armah said he was writing a first draft, which he accepts he wrote but apparently had no intention of writing: its sole purpose apparently a “catalyst for debate” to “help shape the future of the narrative”, whatever that means. I have to say, for me the most plausible chain of events was that Kwame Kwei-Armah wanted to turn their play into his play – and when the writers wouldn’t play ball, Idris Elba claim of coming up with a new story based on his original idea gave him the excuse he needed.

I will concede that I would have to sit down and read the two scripts side-by-side before accusing the Young Vic of stealing other people’s ideas. However, even if I ended up deciding there wasn’t enough evidence, it’s still not good enough. Why? Because the Kwame Kwei-Armah and the Young Vic are in a position of power, as is Manchester International Festival. And I firmly believe that when you are in a position of power, the onus is on you to show you are using your power responsibly. I expect better than vague counter-claims amounting to little more than “you can’t prove anything”. If you are going to take one third of a collaborative partnership and claim that a new play based on an original concept is completely different from another play based on the same concept, you need a damned good argument to back up your claims. And on this occasion Kwame Kwei-Armah forfeited that chance when he started off working with Tori and Sarah and later dropped them without any real explanation.

The only thing I can say in the Young Vic’s defence at the moment is I can’t see anything in Tori and Sarah’s story that backs up the theory that there were treated the way they were specifically because they were women. They might have been, but you’d need a pattern of behaviour to support that claim, and even with one it’s a difficult claim to prove. It’s also difficult claim to disprove – but even if the Young Vic somehow exonerated themselves of that allegation, it’s a poor consolation. All that would demonstrate is that 100% of aspiring writers need to watch their back at the Young Vic instead of only 50%. Unless the Young Vic can come up with a far better explanation than the one they’re currently giving us, the take-home message here is surely to never let the Young Vic or Kwame Kwei-Armah near anything of yours that you wouldn’t them to rip off. And maybe think twice before collaborating with an agreement made on a handshake.

Stuff I wrote since June

Since my last odds and sods, here’s what’s kept me in/out of mischief (delete as applicable):

Odds and sods: June 2019: If this article pissed you off, my last one was less contentious.

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2019: Keeping up with my fringe coverage, before my organisation went all pear-shaped with the upcoming house move.

A Thousands Splendid Suns: the long road to darkness: My review of Northern Stage’s season headliner, a cautionary tale of what really makes the Taleban thrive.

There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman: My first article to cover the Edinburgh Fringe. It escalated quickly.

Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens: My  month-long coverage, featuring reviews of all the Edinburgh Fringe shows I saw. Sorry I’m slow indexing this, let alone writing it up – in the meantime, Ctrl-F is your friend.

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2019: My usual long list of things worth catching at the big fringe. This year, I’ve had to make the rules more stringent in order to keep the list manageable.

Guest post: Flavia D’Avila on Edinburgh Fringe – a Love/Hate Relationship: In line with other guest posts, perspectives from people who know about issues I don’t – in this case, how to Edinburgh locals see the fringe?

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition: As I was saying, that escalated quickly. My response to an article apparently sanctioned by the Scotmans decrying all reviewers that aren’t them. (I’d like to think that was specifically in response to me, but it’s probably not.)

What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2019: My recommendations back home for the coming season. (Sorry I’ve not been able to catch half of this – house move plus other commitments are a bummer.)

Green is not a creative colour (or: the problem with mass participation arts): In Manchester there was a lot of displeasure over the International Festival’s piss-taking “bells for peace” – but this more about my issues with mass participation arts.

My Lumiere 2019 wish list: With the announcement of the 10th anniversary Lumiere a month away, what I want to see in their “Best of Lumiere” festival.

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2019: I starting catching up on my embarrassingly long backlog.

See you next month, if the petulant toddler hasn’t obliterated the country in a hilarious slapstick accident.


Odds and sods: June 2019

In the lull between Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe, it’s time for my usual catchup on various things happening in theatre that got my attention. We have for you:

Stuff that happened in June:

Battery acidgate

Battery Motorcycle Battery Battery Acid
Some battery acid not being thrown, yesterday.

I’m going to start with this one. I don’t like diving into every row going on in the comedy and theatre world, but this one is becoming an issue of artistic freedom, so that prompts me to stick my oar in. Everyone by now should have heard about Jo Brand’s quip on Heresy about throwing battery acid instead of milkshakes, and subsequent outrage: some justified, some opportunistic and hypocritical. You may have noticed that when I’ve made similar quips on Twitter, such as suggesting that an Edinburgh Fringe play about murdering Katie Hopkins would be cheaper if they just hired a hitman, I’ve said straight after that it’s a joke. This would once have gone without saying, but in the last few years politics has got a lot nastier, too many people on all sides are casually advocating violence against enemies, and we are now at a point where – even it’s obvious to 99.9% of people it’s a joke – we do not want to give any encouragement to the other 0.1%. For that reason, I firmly believe that joke was not at all appropriate. Even in a comedy game show that is all about saying outrageous things.

However, the thing that is being forgotten in all of this is intent. Incitement to violence dresses up as a joke is still incitement to violence – that is my one limit to my firm belief of freedom of expression. If there was any evidence that Jo Brand made this joke in the hope that someone would actually go ahead and do this, I would be one of the people calling for her head. But it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s heard this that the intent was an edgy joke and nothing more. Perhaps if there was a pattern of behaviour there might be reasons to doubt her motives, but honestly, if there was a pattern, someone would have highlighted it by now. True, it’s possible that someone might go ahead and act on this crass comment anyway, but I’m sure we’re all aware that punishing comedians for hypothetical reactions to their material is a very bad idea.

Where I think we do need to ask questions is the format of comedy shows like this one that lead to these sort of comments. Victoria Coren-Mitchell says Heresy was set up to “test the boundaries of what it’s OK to say and not say”. If you’re going to egg on comedians in that direction, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Even so, I think I prefer this to the reaction to the “Defend the Indefensible” round Fighting Talk six years ago, when Colin Murray was under similar circumstances egged into make the joke about turning Clare Baldwin, and the BBC threw him under a bus. That is not good enough – the BBC should either take the risk and take responsibility, or play it safe and leave it to other broadcasters. Either way, the current climate of joke policing is not healthy. Jo Brand was not the first comedian to go too far and she won’t be the last. But I would much rather have a situation where comedians sometimes overstep the line, apologise and move on, than the climate where everyone’s terrified of putting a foot wrong and no-one takes any risks ever. I fear we are still headed towards the latter.

Another sell-out for Joe Douglas

One review you won’t be seeing on this blog any time soon is The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil. Like its predecessor, Clear White Light the entire run sold out early on, and this time I was too distracted by other things to keep an eye on returns. I think we can safely assume this will make a return just like Clear White Light is, so I’ll give my verdict then. But the reviews don’t really matter now. The news is that the first two plays under Joe Douglas have been runaway sell-outs. It’s happened before, but never two in a row under the same person’s artistic direction. This in unprecedented, and leads to two questions.

The first question: is this the new normal at Live? I would be very cautious about making an long-term predictions just yet. Joe Douglas’s arrival at Live is still new and exciting (and, by all accounts, has quickly earned a lot of good will across Newcastle’s theatre scene). He may stay exciting, but he won’t stay new, so it may be a challenge to keep up these figures when the debut factor wears off. Or it might be that these first two plays will build his reputation and push up demand even further. We may have a better idea when we see how a third or fourth Joe Douglas production performs.

If the sell-outs persist, this brings us to the next question: what will Live Theatre do? Will they programme longer main-season runs in the future? It must be tempting – but every extra week given to a headline play is one less week the main stage can be used for something different. On the other hand, in this dream scenario where Live Theatre can produce new theatre with guaranteed sell-outs, that’ll be a windfall that they can used on new projects – but whose new projects? A long way to go before any of this becomes a reality – but it’s something that we could start contemplating.

Introducing the Spare Room

Now some news from Durham. I’ve known about for some time on my grapevines, but it’s only now that this has been officially announced and my off-the-record info is now on the record. The short version is that The Assembly Rooms at Durham is bringing up a new venue called “The Spare Room”. But it’s not the venue we had last month run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This is a different venue run by the Assembly Rooms called The Spare Room. This may take a bit of explaining.

So, the background here is that there was a pop-up venue in Manchester going spare, and Theatre Elysium have been working with Durham Student Theatre to find a new space in Durham. During the Summer in the City festival, a venue appeared called “The Spare Room”, but it wasn’t the pop-up one might have expected. Rather, it was a room made up like the pop-venue would be – a kind of Spare Room simulation, as it were. It wasn’t a big programme as I was expecting – only nine performances over three days in the end, with (I think) only two of those coming from outside Durham Student Theatre – but now that it’s confirmed the proper venue is coming, that will have a lot more. My understanding is that this programme will be mostly – but not entirely – student productions during term time. Outside of term time, there should be a lot more slots going free.

Summer in the City wasn’t that dramatic a change from the predecessor Durham Festival of the Arts. Although this was open to anyone in Durham City to register, the programme remained mostly a student festival. But embracing an open festival, along with the imminent arrival of a possible venue, and two important milestones. The north-east is one of the few regions left without a fringe and badly needs one. With Summer in the City and the Spare Room coming along, Durham is slowly edging in this direction.

Venues North at Edinburgh Fringe

Most of the developments relating to the Edinbrugh Fringe I’m holding off until my Edinburgh Fringe coverage starts, but there’s a couple of things I want to get out of the way early. The first one related to a scheme from Venues North. Halfway through the fringe, a lucky recipient of the inaugural Venues North Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award will be announced. I don’t want to rain on the parade of whoever wins this, which is why I’m going to say now I think this award will do more harm than good.

You might find it odd that I’m not enthused with an award in a festival that anyone from the north can win. After all, one of the criticisms that grates the most with venues is that of gatekeeping. I’ve long supported the idea that artists should be able to just go ahead and present their work to an audience – surely this is a chance for you to prove your worth, so what’s the problem? For a start, there’s the process to get through: you have to apply and get down to a shortlist before anyone from Venues North will see your work. I accept practicalities may prevent them doing this any other way, but having to meet someone else’s approval before they’ll see your work veers back towards the gatekeeping the Edinburgh Fringe is supposed to overcoming. But the other problem is the more serious one: it’s a massive financial gamble to take part at the Edinburgh Fringe. Yes, there’s plenty of reasons to do Edinburgh other than the chance of getting an award, but that’s a massive thing to ask of hopefuls.

I can’t understand why the theatre industry is so wedded to the culture of “Edinburgh or bust”. There are two big talking points that venues have supported wholeheartedly: that the cost of the Edinburgh Fringe is a barrier to taking part, and the costs of a career in theatre in general is a barrier to working class participation. And yet here are Venues North promoting a scheme that entrenches both of these problems. It has been suggested cynically by some that this is simply a programming exercise dressed up as an award. I hope that is wrong, but in the absence of any explanation over what this award is meant to achieve, I don’t know what’s right.

A Venues North Brighton Festival Fringe Award alongside the Edinburgh one will shut me up. Brighton is far more financially accessible than Edinburgh, and northern representation in Brighton is sorely lacking. In the meantime, however, it’s things like this that make me wonder why we bother talking about access to the arts.

A warning about The Mumble

The other thing I want to talk about sooner rather than later is The Mumble. Unlike Venues North, I expect I will get universal support for this, and normally I don’t like to waste time repeating what everyone else is already saying. But on this occasion, it’s important for as many people to say this loud and clear: do not accept review requests from The Mumble. And definitely do not pay them for a review.

So The Mumble is yet another website that is charging people for reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. A few years ago, edfringereviews.com (not to be confused with edfringereview.com) tried to pull that stunt, but a massive outcry forced them to back down with their tail between their legs. However, The Mumble have not been deterred and are pressing on, and have even written their own defence. If that article does not set every alarm bell ringing in your head, it should do. For a start, there’s their description as “Professional Cultural Surveyors” which is just about the most pretentious wankery you can imagine, but that’s the least of the problem. The two biggest red flags are their insinuations that the Big Evil Theatre Establishment (i.e. The Stage writing a critical article) is ganging up on them, and that you have to play money to publicists in order to get reviews (which is bollocks), so paying them is okay.

Quite apart from the moral arguments, there is one overriding reason why paying for a review is a terrible idea: it’s worthless. The moment your business model is dependent on artists for your income, the credibility of the reviews are irreparably compromised. People don’t simply pay for publicity, they pay for good publicity, and it would be bad for business if The Mumble to wrote bad or lukewarm reviews of their customers (and, let’s face it, their clientele are going to be mostly people who don’t have a good enough reputation to get normal reviews). Everybody who’s anybody knows this, and knows which publications are doing pay-for-reviews. If anything, your review from The Mumble will count against you, because this suggests you would rather buy praise than earn it. But The Mumble already know this. They are targetting performers naive enough to believe this is yet another Edinburgh Fringe expense, and with the early uptake dominated by performers at The Space (no direspect to The Space but with the programme dominated by people with no Fringe experience this is the ripest ground for suckers), this suggests the strategy is working.

For the record, I am aware of even worse allegations about people who run The Mumble, but as those are in the legally actionable category I will leave it to other people to talk about those. Regardless, have nothing to do with anyone who wants cash for reviews. Yes, it sucks if you can’t get anyone to review you, but if you are not ready to get the attention of the conventional arts media, you are not ready for the Edinburgh Fringe. At best, a paid review be a waste of money – at worst, it will be career suicide.

From Edinburgh to TedX

(This actually happened in May, but I wanted to give this my full attention rather than mention this in passing during Brighton Fringe coverage.)

Finally, a blast from the past. Who remembers Yve Blake? I’d periodically been keeping an eye on what she’s up to since she did Lie Collector back in 2015, but with her moving back to Australia and few chances to catch what she’s up to in this hemisphere I’ve not given many updates. But, boy, is there a success story here. Her big breakthrough was winning a scholarship for Australian Young People’s Theatre to embark on a musical about Fangirls the following year, and that is finally coming in October. But on the back of this, she has now landed a TEDx talk. Big big deal in Australia.

The bad news for fans on this side of the world is that there’s no sign of Fangirls coming over to Blighty just yet, although I would urge Australians to be the lookout for any of her fans from Edinburgh offerings gifts of wooden horses. I’ll have a better look at what’s on offer if and when this comes our way. In the meantime, there are some clues about what to expect. I would urge anyone waiting for this not to expect something identical to what you saw last time – I get the impression she has moved on a lot since her last fringe appearance – but what we do know is that she’s in it (hooray) and it’s still branded as a “bloodthirsty” musical. Might be a personal preference, but one of her strengths for me was having just the right amount of twistedness in it.

When you’ve previously said someone had the potential to rise to greatness and they do, it’s very tempting to congratulate yourself for making such a good prediction. Reality, of course, is far less impressive – I’ve predicted great things from others who inexplicably vanished without trace. Nevertheless, it is moments like this that make my blog worth it. I remember one word of encouragement I gave after Lie Collector was an observation of how far she’d come in the three years, to think how much further she could go in the next three years. I’ve never been so happy to be right.

Stuff I wrote since March:

It’s been three months between the last odds and sods, so it’s a longer list than usual. We have:

Noughts and Crosses: the other Jim Crow: Review of another impressive play from Pilot Theatre, both story and staging.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2019: My previews in the run-up to the number 2 fringe.

Sherlock Holmes: Nick Lane is afoot: Nick Lane’s second play for Blackeyed Theatre – sometimes hard going to follow, but captures the characters of Holmes and Watson well.

Brighton Fringe 2019 – as it happens: My month-long coverage of this fringe, with surprisingly few shenanagins this year.

Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics: Ooh, this was good. I asked the editor of Fringeguru some tough questions on how the fringes should work – very interesting answers.

What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2019: The look ahead to north-east summer productions away from the festival fringes.

Interview with Hetty Hodgson on Beats and directing: As a director at Durham Student Theatre I have huge respect for prepared for her last production, I took the chance to ask some questions.

Screen to stage: Rain Man, Trainspotting and Frankenstein: Reviews of three play: two that pleased me, and one surprise disappointment.

Between the fringes: Be More Martyn and Down to Zero: Two more reviews, including one that I’d heard all-round praise for that did not disappoint.

The next odds and sods will be for September – anything that happens before then will probably appear in Edinburgh Fringe coverage. If you’re gearing yourself up for the big one, good luck. If you’re staying how, how disappointingly sensible of you.

Odds and sods: March 2019

After all the build-up there was to an event at the end of this month that was promised to be Mad Max and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse all rolled into one, March has been a bit of an anticlimax. But here’s what’s been going on in the meantime.

Stuff that happened in March

C Venues loses another building

And the roundup of March begins with the latest chapter to something I’ve already written about in length. In February, the news broke that Edinburgh University had taken away C Venues’ base on Chambers Street. Whilst many people were celebrating C Venues getting their just desserts for their allegedly shitty treatment of venue staff – and I wasn’t particularly sympathetic myself – I thought this raised a number of serious questions. One of them was about Edinburgh University’s motives for handing the building to higher-budget Gilded Balloon. Another was about Fair Fringe, the campaign group who originally raised the issue of C Venues, seemingly take on a role of judge, jury and executioner. Continue reading

Odds and sods: February 2019

So it’s back to business. February was the opposite of a slow news month, with two pretty major stories breaking. Well, one major story and one story that everyone probably made out to be more important than it really was but where nonetheless everyone had an opinion. I’ve given my thoughts at length on both C Venues losing its main building after allegations of poor employment conditions and the row over using a puppet to depict an autistic child, but apart from that there’s been a few interesting developments elsewhere.

Stuff that happened in February

Excluding the two big stories, we have:

Brighton fringe back to growth


Whilst all eyes have been on Edinburgh this month with the surprise news of C Venues losing its main home, there is a small but notable development at Brighton. As always, the programme was announced in February, so all eyes were on the registration numbers. Brighton Fringe don’t make it easy to follow this because their coverage of growth keeps switching between number of registrations and number of performances, but the registration numbers are up at 998. This compares to last year’s figures of 968 and 2017’s previous record of 970. So it’s a 3% growth. Continue reading