What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2023

Skip to: Sherlock Holmes: the valley of fear; Morgan and West, Gulliver, Run, Rebel, Person Spec, Howerd’s End, Juggling, Tomatoes tried to kill me, Love it when we beat them, Vermin

It’s a late list of recommendations this time, which is partly because I’ve had a busy January but also also that the things that catch my eye and a bit end-loaded. Some of the things coming that I rate won’t be happing until May or later, and will go into the next list. This means that what I have left over is a shorter list than usual.

Safe choice:

My top tier is for plays where I think you can’t go wrong. Not everything is to everyone’s tastes, but if what I describe sounds like your sort of thing, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.

With much of the interesting stuff happening late in the year though, and few plays that I recognise, this is going to be a short list.

Sherlock Holmes: the valley of fear

besherlock_vof_productioncredit-alexharvey-brown-09566-1024x683-1It’s rare for me to put plays I haven’t seen into safe choice, but if you want to be certain of a good night of theatre, this is about as safe a bet as can be. I have seen many Blackeyed Theatre productions with several different writers and directors, and there hasn’t been a single weak link amongst them. They are also one of only three theatre companies (the other two being Sparkle and Dark and Pilot Theatre) to have scooped an Ike Award, my equivalent to five stars, twice.

Whilst I haven’t seen this particular play, Nick Lane has previously adapted another Sherlock Holmes Story, The Sign of Four, which was done to a high standard, Holmes and Watson from that last play are reprised in this performance. The faults and prejudices of Victorian society were covered in the last play but didn’t stray into moralising for the sake of it. And Victoria Spearing, whose set design has been pretty much the defining feature of all Blackeyed productions, is in action once again. The bad news is that Blackeyed Theatre tour nationally and their north-east visits are a bit thin on the ground. In fact, the only stop is Middlesbrough Theatre on 10th & 11th February. There also later dates at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 18th – 20th May. Both of which clash with other commitments from me. Damn. Visit the north east more goddamnit.

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What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2023

Continue? Yes/No Yes is selected.

Skip to: All Falls Down, Salamander, Experiment Human, Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name, Finlay and Joe, Isobel Rogers, Lachlan Werner, Hide, Notflix, The Dark Room, Criminally Untrue

One year ago, the Vault Festival suffered what was surely the worst possible disaster: with days to go before opening night, the whole festival was cancelled. It was very very very bad news for two reasons. Firstly, with Vault 2021 also cancelled, there was a clear three years between Vault festivals, with no guarantee that the community built up over the 2010s would still exist by the end of it. Worse, however, was the timing. 2021 was at least a planned cancellation; 2022, however, was supposed to be the big relaunch. Financially speaking, the last thing you want to do is cancel a large-scale event after doing all the up-front expenses.

Very easy to say this in hindsight, but an underground festival in London in the winter of 2022 never struck me as a good idea. Had they played it safe and gone for March-May 2022, I reckon it would have survived – but I don’t see how they could have postponed everything at the last moment. In different circumstances we could have been talking about one error of judgement that brought down one of the best loved festival of fringe theatre in the country … But – we are not. Vault 2023 is going ahead, and from the sound of things, it’s going to be as if nothing’s happened. Either Vault has deeper pockets than we realise, have good cancellation insurance up their sleeve, or they have a generous backer come to rescue we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, it’s back to business.

So this means it’s back to business for me too. I’ll shortly be going into my list of recommendations, but first, a recap on what to expect.

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2022

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses, Brassed Off, Constellations, Watson: the Final Problem, Shakers, Terrifying Tales from Tyneside, Sugar Baby, Around the World in 80 Days, Howerd’s End, One Off, Wishes in the Wind, A Room of One’s Own, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby

I finally get round to writing up this overdue list of what’s coming up in the north-east that I recommend, and what happens? That thing. However, I have thought long and hard about this, and I have decided to continue writing this article. It is what the Queen would have wanted. However, I am writing this with my Union Jack flying at half mast and wearing a black armband. I hope you approve.

Fringe season is over, it’s time to look back at what’s happening locally.

Safe Choice:

You should all be refreshed on the rules by now, but to recap: safe choice is for plays where I think you can’t go wrong AND where the play has a wide audience appeal. Nothing appeals to everyone all the time, but if you like the sound of how I describe this, I’m confident you’ll like it for real.

Noughts and Crosses

Sephy and CallumThe top of the must see list by far is from Pilot Theatre. There are two things notable about York-based Pilot Theatre. Firstly, they are one of the best theatre companies I’ve seen for staging, and it doesn’t necessarily means high-budget or flashy staging but staging that is creative and innovative, with every play being visually striking in a different way. Secondly, they are a super-diverse theatre company. That’s not the easiest of things to do; one pitfall is casting that looks contrived, and the other is endless plays about racism – in my opinion, neither of these do anybody any favours in the long run. Pilot Theatre, I think, gets it; and for any theatre company looking to diversify its programme but unsure how to go about doing it, I’d recommend Pilot Theatre for inspiration.

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What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, Call Mr. Robeson, Green Knight, Gulliver, Mustard, No One, Nyctophilia, Skank, Watson: the Final Problem, The Bush, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, Make-Up, Trainspotting, Vermin, Charlotte Johnson, Faulty Towers, The Glummer Twins, The Grandmothers Grimm, Head Girl, The Importance of Being … Earnest?, Room, Sex, Lies and Improvisation, Shelton on Sinatra, Famous Puppet Death Scenes, 52 Souls, 1972: The Future of Sex, Ghislaine/Gabler, comedy listings, The Little Glass Slipper

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2022. Last year, when all the fringes launched comebacks against the odds, it was the big celebration. Now comes the big hangover.

Edinburgh Fringe is not the only fringe with post-2021 blues. Brighton Fringe has had its own problems – in fact, Brighton Fringe’s woes were a lot more obvious: the disappearance (possibly permanent disappearance) of its biggest venue. To an Edinburgh Fringe visitor, Fringe 2022 is probably going to look very much like a typical fringe of the 2010s. Under the hood however, there’s a lot of trouble brewing.

As this piece is primarily a list of recommendations for punters, I shall hold off giving the full story just now. Most the problems are going to be noticed by performers a lot more than the public, but for now I’ll focus on the big one: the cost of accommodation. There have been a lot of stories of ridiculously-priced digs, and it appears to be down to a lot of landlords who bought up properties specifically to make money from renting in August, who are now trying to chase their losses from two years with next to no income by whacking up prices this year.

This might have a knock-on effect for punters, as performers stay away from rip-off digs and instead take up accommodation normally used by visitors. However, the most prominent effect – I think – is the rise of short runs. I’m going to avoid committing to this one too much because a few years ago everyone was convinced this was happened until someone did the number-crunching at this was debunked. But, I swear, I’ve seen way more shows only running part of the festival than before. On top of that, I’ve anecdotally heard lots of performers say they’re doing short runs because the full fringe isn’t affordable. Lots of consequences of this if it’s true, but what it means for you right now is to not assume that the show you’re thinking of seeing will still be running next week. A lot of them won’t.

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2022

The muppets set up outside someone's house

Skip to: The Ballad of Mulan, The Formidable Lizzie Boone, The Little Prince, Under Milk Wood, Portents, Jekyll and Hyde: a one-woman show, [BLANK], War of the Worlds, Report: an enquiry into the enquiries, Adventures in Sound and Light, Nychtophilia

If 2021 was the big party for festival fringes getting back on the road, 2022 is the big hangover. Just when Brighton Fringe looked like it was set to get back to full size, its biggest venue imploded with a knock-on effect for the whole fringe. Edinburgh Fringe is making progress back to normal, but is currently facing headaches over working conditions and accommodation expenses. Which means the prize for first fringe back to full size goes to Buxton. With 169 entries going into the programme, and a typical size of 170-180 for most of the last decade, it is generally regarded as back to normal and back to business.

However, when you look a bit closer at the numbers, there are some notable shifts within these figures. The most prominent change – which might not be obvious now but certainly will be noticed in weeks 1 and 2 – is that the Rotunda is only going to be present for the second half of the fringe. Not because the Rotunda is struggling; on the contrary, they’re having an excellent 2022, taking on a second dome, emerging as the big winners of Brighton Fringe, and earning fixtures at other festivals. Unfortunately, this has not entirely worked in Buxton’s favour, because one of those festivals in Wells Theatre Festival, which clashes with the first half of Buxton Fringe. The other change – more subtle but just as important – is that there is hardly any availability of the Arts Centre Studio this year. I don’t know the story here, but it’s most likely the Buxton Festival wants it – and, let’s face it, a 352-seater event from Buxton Festival is always going to win over the 91-seater studio configuration used by Buxton Fringe.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022

Skip to: Testament of Yootha, Under Milk Wood: Semi-skimmed, God of Carnage, The Ballad of Mulan, Yasmine Day: Songs in the Key of Me, Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show, The Last, Underdogs, Betsy: Wisdom of the Brighton Whore, The Event, Lionhouse Cabaret, Fragile, The Formidable Lizzie Boone

And we’re back. For the first time in three years, a fringe I can cover without a crisis dominating the story. I can go back to my usual focus of looking through the programme and telling you what I can recommend. However, we’re not quite back to normal. There is one indirectly related event which has shaken up Brighton Fringe a bit.

The big change:

A lot of changes were made for Brighton Fringe 2021. Towards the end of the fringe, there was a discussion on whether any changes should be made permanent. The hot tip was that the delay to three weeks leading to a festival mostly in June would be made permanent. That was considered, but in the end they decided to revert to May. In fact, the only thing which has partly stuck is doing away with the paper programme. This year, Brighton Fringe is instead doing a printed daily guide, with details on the website only. Last year it was a faff to work out what was available today – maybe this will work better. However, it does put them at odds with Buxton and Edinburgh who are reverting to full programme.

The biggest trailblazer over the last two years was undoubtedly The Warren. When most of the theatre world shut up shop for eighteen months, they got going faster than anyone with “The Warren Outdoors” in the summer of 2020. This was a big success, and they used this as the basis for their socially distanced fringe in 2021, as well as repeat of a summer season, now called “Warren on the Beach”. With the ticket sales across all of Brighton Fringe 2021 surpassing all expectations handsomely, it seem that The Warren’s boldness was thoroughly vindicated. I was even wondering if Warren on the Beach would become permanent.

But, unknown to me, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Even though the fringe was on the surface a roaring success, complaints were emerging of staff and acts not getting paid. It does seem strange that this should happen when the income looked so good, so I wondered if they’d somehow allowed expenses to spiral out of control. It now seems more likely it was just shonky financial management. Then the story went quiet again and I assumed they’d settled this quietly. But days before the programme was announced, the bombshell was announced: The Warren would not be taking part this year whilst it sorted its finances out. Worse, it seemed the acts programme into the Warren found out the same time as the rest of us.

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What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2022

Skip to: Chicago, Opolis, Brief Encounter, A Bunch of Amateurs, Gamble, We Are The Best, All Lies, Durham Fringe

Well, a long time since I’ve done a line-up of summer picks. There was a fair amount of theatre last year (and even some the year before), but the north-east only really got going in autumn last year, so there wasn’t much to write about. But we are back. Let’s go.

Safe choice:

This is for plays where, if you like the description of something, I’m confident you will enjoy it if you see it. It also needs wide audience appeal and convincingly falls into the category of theatre. Just one this time, but it’s as safe a bet as you can get.


This was supposed to be a safe choice for the start of 2022, but we all know what happened at the start of 2022, don’t we. But we’re now approaching the postponed dates, so let’s repost and update this.

Chicago needs no introduction, but amongst the many reasons this musical is a smash hit is its cynical yet uncannily accurate portrayal of the justice system as a popularity contest. I’m not sure the writers realised how accurate it was. It was originally performed in 1975, twenty years before the infamous trial of OJ Simpson, when seemingly the whole of America made up their minds, not on the basis of whether he did it, but how much they liked him as a celebrity. And in the 25-year run of the musical at the same time, this has increasingly become the norm.

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What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2022

Skip to: Drag me to Love, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Invisible Man, Sorry You’re Not a Winner, The Bone Sparrow, Howerd’s End, The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007, Gerry and Sewell, Red Ellen, Haddock and Chips, Sunderland Open House, Laurels Vault transfer, Everything I Didn’t Say

Before we begin this list, a small housekeeping notice. Normally I time this post for late January because not a lot happens in January, but by the end of the month most theatres have their seasons announced up to May or further. However, for some reason, Live Theatre has not announced anything beyond February. Not sure what’s going on there – at one point it would have made sense to be cautious, but I think we be be reasonably confident we’re not going to have runaway Omicron now. All I can think is that the new artistic director is putting together programme at relatively short notice and has to leave things to the last minute.

If Live Theatre announces anything March or beyond, I may add it into the article. But in the meantime, here’s what caught my eye.

Safe choice:

Are we refreshed with the rules now? Safe choices are for plays where I’m confident that if this sound like the sort of play for you, you’ll like it for real. The usual reason (which applies to the entire list this time) is that I’ve seen the play before. The other rule for safe choice is that it needs wide audience appeal. If you want to be sure of a good night out, I can recommend any one of these.

Drag me to Love

drag20me20to20love20220webWe start with a revival of an old surprise hit. Bonnie and the Bonnettes is a drag cabaret act who host a variety of LGBT-friendly cabaret nights, but it was their original performance that shot them to prominence. Drag Me to Love is the autobiographical story of Cameron, reminiscing of the time he moonlighted as a drag artists in Doncaster. You might think this is a niche interest but it had a wide appeal. Some bits of the performance are hilarious, including the performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart, but there is also a poignant ending about leaving a world behind and rediscovering it years later.

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Lumiere 2021 preview

Castle of Light, coming to Raby Castle

So it’s on. I had some doubts over this one. Lumiere already had the good fortune of being a biannual festival that skipped 2020, but 2021 has been far from a normal year for festivals. Brighton and Buxton Fringes operated on a reduced scale, Edinburgh Fringe limped on at a fraction of its normal size, and in Durham both the Brass Festival and Miners’ Gala were cancelled a second year running owing to continued uncertainty over restrictions. Would Lumiere meet the same fate? The outlook for November wasn’t any better than the outlook for July.

One thing we’ve learnt from experience is that yes or no decision usually gets made when it’s time to commit the money. An event cancelled a four months’ notice is only embarrassing. An event cancelled at two weeks’ notice is embarrassing and a financial disaster too. But the crunch came and went and … Lumiere is go. It is not clear what factors went into the decision, but one thing that must surely have counted in its favour is Durham’s 2025 bid for City of Culture. County Durham’s strongest asset is its festivals, and it would have been been a big setback to axe its flagship festival at this vital moment.

However, things aren’t quite the same this year. As an outdoor festival, it doesn’t have the same risk as big indoor events, but as veterans of the 2011 festival can tell you, it can still get dangerously crowded without plague thrown into the mix. As a result, crowd control measures have been stepped up, and this plus the influence of City of Culture has meant quite a few difference.

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What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2021

Emerging from bomb shelter

Skip to: Educating Rita, Jekyll & Hyde, Pod, Chicago, The Offing, Mulan, The Three Bears, Shine, Road

Right. Where were we? Just before the apocalypse happened and we all retreated into our fallout shelters.

Seriously, we have a lot to catch up on. The most relevant news to theatre, of course, has been when they will re-open. A handful of theatres were determined to open their doors whenever is possible, commercial theatre generally went for reopening in May, but regional subsidised theatres (who I guess have less worries about lost ticket revenue) have generally waited until this month. There are then a lot of side-effects of Coronavirus to consider, and there’s also been a lot of other developments that have nothing to do with the main event. I will catch up with those is due course.

However, it’s about time we did some business as usual. I’ve already been covering the festival fringes this way, but this is the first opportunity to look at what’s going on in the north-east again. So, what have we got coming up that I recommend you go and see.

Safe Choices:

Since most of up have been out of the loop for a while, I’ll start with a recap. Safe choice is the highest level of recommendation I give. Everybody has their own tastes, and no play is recommended for everybody, but if you like the sound of anything I have listed here, it is my firm call that you will like this for real. These are also generally productions or artists that have received widespread praise beyond my own verdict, and have wide audience appeal.

If you want to know my rules in more detail, come this way. For what I have actually picked, read on.

Educating Rita

er-1692380ae26eabff851f2f51bb6e6c50This one was interrupted mid-flow, but even in 2020 they didn’t give up that easily, with the production making best possible use of the the window for outdoor theatre, having been just about the key event in the Minack Theatre’s season. I saw this myself in 2019 and can confirm it is as good as everyone says. It’s a trio of north-east talent, with Stephen Tomklinson and Jessica Johnson in the roles and ex-artistic director Max Roberts directing. However, it is Jessica Johnson who’s the biggest star in this, capturing the character of Rita perfectly, and a lot of the glory goes to the Gala Theatre for originally casting her in 2016.

However, the upcoming performance in Newcastle has kept getting postponed, but finally, you get the change to see this. For the first time, this north-east trio perform in the heart of their own region at Newcastle Theatre Royal, on the 13th-18th September.

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