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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What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

People holding the Edinburgh Fringe logo, but spaced out.

Skip to: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho; Skank; Watson: The Final Problem; Mimi’s Suitcase; Northanger Abbey; Screen 9; Mustard; The Great Gatsby; WSTL: Epistles; Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name; The Importance of Being … Earnest?; Could it be Magic?; Dahpna Baram: Unmuted; Those People: a play about QAnon

Let’s give credit where it is due. Two months ago the picture for Edinburgh Fringe was as bleak as can be. The mood amongst everybody was that Fringe 2021 might not be officially cancelled, but it was as good as cancelled. But Edinburgh Fringe and most of the major venues held their nerve, and in the last month has managed an impressive turnaround – given the circumstances. At the time of writing, Edinburgh Fringe has 675 registrations. This is far less than pre-Covid levels and only slightly ahead of Brighton Fringe, but compared to a month ago when the number of confirmed acts barely made triple figures, you’ve got to hand it to them.

But the fact remains that the Edinburgh Fringe has been hit much harder than fringes such as Brighton or Buxton. And whilst everybody has pulled together for the latter fringes, the same cannot be said for the big one. Most controversially: the Scottish Government’s highly questionable decision to enforce two-metre social distancing for theatres when pubs could have one. This rule has now been relaxed, and may even be dropped completely in time for most of the festival, but not before numerous acts and venues ran out of patience and opted to perform south of the border instead. On a more positive note, the Scottish Government has provided some support to many of the bigger venues to have some sort of festival. It could have been worse – but whilst Brighton and Buxton Fringes did have a feel similar to a normal year, it looks like Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will only be a shadow of its pre-2020 former self.

However, there is still enough in the programme for me to pull together a list of recommendations. Before then, however, let’s look at the fringe as a whole.

What to expect at Edinburgh

I did this for Brighton, and I’m going to do this again for Edinburgh. Whatever you want to see, there will be a lot of differences from before. These, I think, are going to be the biggest ones:

The diminished fringe: Already said before, but will say it again. Brighton and Buxton managed to pass off as normal fringes with a 40% reduction in size, but you cannot disguise an 80% reduction. This means that Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is going to be lot more like Brighton Fringe 2020, where the object of the game is to simply put on any kind of fringe. On the other hand, you have to hand it to the performers who braved the uncertainty and come anyway. The few performers here deserve a lot of respect.

The REALLY last-minute fringe: You think that Brighton Fringe left it to the last moment to put together a programme? That’s nothing compared to Edinburgh. When tickets went on sale a month before fringe opening, there were just 170 registrations – and had the numbers stayed that way, it would have been a disaster. However, that was partly because The Space and Summerhall were the only two notable venues who’d announced their programmes. Most of the venues announced their programmes later, but Edinburgh only edged ahead of Brighton with one week to go. Brighton managed to keep together with a programme known only a month in advance – we will shortly find out if Eidnburgh can get away with just a week in advance.

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2021

Skip to: Jekyll and Hyde, Mr. Fox, The Virtuous Burglar, Mike Raffone, Egriega and Ormond, An Admin Worker at the End of the World, Nathan Cassidy, Coppelia

Well, here’s a snag over a late start to the fringe season. You’ve only finished covering one fringe and the next one’s about the start. But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. It’s July, and that means it’s time for Buxton Fringe.

The news from Buxton isn’t nearly as sensational as the news from Brighton or Edinburgh. (That’s sensational in a good way and a bad way respectively.) Brighton’s comeback was noteworthy because it was not clear whether an event taking place one week after performances were allowed could work that scale, but it did – the sharp contrast to Edinburgh’s misfortunes only heightening it more. But although Buxton Fringe is a lot more low-key, they are following a similar recovery to Brighton. They go into opening night with 109 registrations, about half of pre-pandemic levels (give or take depending on whether you use 2018 or 2019 as the baseline) – that’s similar to Brighton.

Many other changes noticed at Brighton apply to Buxton too. Like Brighton, the paper programme was dropped allowing registrations to come in up to the start of the fringe (with “official” deadlines meaning little in the end). Most of the regular venues are taking part, the most notable exceptions being the Rotunda and the Arts Centre (the latter in operation for the festival but not the fringe this time). The one thing that might have been a spanner in the works was that social distancing for weeks 1 and 2 were put in place unexpectedly, but few acts have been deterred by that. One might have though Buxton would take a hit with no (meaningful) Edinburgh Fringe to be a stepping stone to, but plenty of would-be Edinburgh acts seem quite happy to go without. (That’s not unique to Buxton – Carlisle and Durham Fringes also seem to be managing fine with Edinburgh.)

At this stage, Buxton Fringe has good reasons to be quietly confident. If their fortunes carry on running in line with Brighton’s, they should expect good ticket sales and patronage if Brighton’s precedent is remotely anything to go by. The worst-case scenario I can think of is if the mostly older audience at Buxton are more reluctant to return than their Brighton counterparts, but we should find out in the next few days if this is the case.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2021

Groups sitting outside the Pavillion
Credit: Dumphasizer

Skip to: Badass Be Thy Name, About the Garden, Skank, The Tragedy of Dorian Grey, Jekyll & Hyde: A one-woman show, Rebel Boob, Clean, Spirit of Woodstock, The Ugly Ducking, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, Dapha Baram, Notflix, Geoff Mead’s tours

Well then. Who’d have guessed it?

This time last year, I idly speculated 2020 might work in Brighton Fringe’s favour. With Edinburgh Fringe cancelled and Brighton only postponed, an autumn fringe that picked up Edinburgh refugees might have done well. In the end, Coronavirus was just too stubbornly persistent for any fringe to be considered a winner – in fact, we now know the financial situation at Brighton was so dire it was a miracle an October Fringe went ahead at all. As it was, it about a tenth of the normal size, with attention rapidly shifting towards a proper relaunch in 2021 for both Brighton and Edinburgh. Then along came the accursed Kent variant, and Brighton announced a delay of three weeks. Would that be enough?

But in the last couple of months, there has been a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. In the end, Brighton has managed a fringe about half the size of 2019. There are some caveats to this number which I’ll cover shortly, but the news that nobody predicted comes north of the border. The Scottish government is insisting on two-metre social distancing, which as it stands will extend into August, much to the protest of Scottish theatres. It is difficult for a conventional theatre to work that way, but for a fringe theatre it’s next to impossible. As a result, so far all of the major venues have held off announcing anything. At the time of writing, news is emerging for the first fringe registrations, making use of some of Edinburgh’s biggest buildings and outdoor spaces, but that’s tiny compared to what the Big Four normally do.

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What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2020

Skip to: The Spirit of Woodstock, Geoffrey Mead’s Tours, Savage Beauty, Anytime the Wind Can Change, Make-Up, Jekyll & Hyde, Unquiet Slumbers, (The Trial of Harvey Matusow)

Normally, the problem with these Fringe preview articles in wondering how to open them without it sounding the same as all the ones from previous years. Not this time. Brighton Fringe has taken a major hit with Coronavirus, postponed five months and only a fraction of its normal size. But with Edinburgh Fringe cancelled outright and Buxton mostly taking place online, the fact that a physical Brighton Fringe has managed to go ahead in any form is a big achievement.

It’s fair to say that, this year, Brighton Fringe is playing for pride. Had Coronavirus come under control a month or two sooner and stayed under control, you might have had a huge autumn fringe absorbing many of the would-be Edinburgh acts. But instead, social distancing is still is place and nerves over the lurgi are still fraught, so it’s a much diminished programme with only the most determined and most bloody-minded pressing ahead. But we we at chrisontheatre HQ admire determination and bloody-mindedness, and anyone who is in the programme, no matter how financially reckless that may be, has our respect.

To complicate matters further, it’s this time round it’s open to debate what should and shouldn’t count as part of Brighton Fringe. For a start, although the Fringe officially runs on the 1st-31st October, you are allowed to register shows running in one month either side, and some September-bound shows have indeed taken this up, meaning the Fringe has sort-of started already. The other complication is that Brighton Fringe’s most prominent venue, The Warren, has already gone ahead with an outdoor season. That almost certainly could not have waited until the official fringe; apart from the obvious disadvantage of mixing large venues open to the elements with October, The Warren Outdoors was also heavily dependent on giving Edinburgh-bound acts an alternative for August. They had to strike while the iron was hot. But even if that was officially separate from the Fringe, with such a strong associate you can consider it the fringe coming early (or late) in everything but name.

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What’s worth viewing: Buxton Fringe 2020

Skip to: Nathan Cassidy, Crossing the Line, The Grandmothers Grimm, The Gambit, Debbie Cannon, Three’s Company Adventure Department, Flowerpot Trail

So, this is one of the strangest fringe previews I will be writing. For the benefit of anyone who’s time-travelled from 2019, we’re having a bit of a lurgi at the moment and all the theatres are closed. The most notable casualty is Edinburgh Fringe, which has been outright cancelled (although there is speculation that some of the venues may opt to put on a reduced festival in August anyway if they can). Brighton Fringe is more fortunate – without the need to recruit masses of temporary staff and hire out every space in a university during vacations, they are planning to postpone, and on my grapevines the mood is getting increasingly optimistic. (Buxton Fringe’s neighbour, Greater Manchester, has also opted for an autumn fringe, although with Manchester having a year-round fringe scene, they could easily form a programme of shows that would be on anyway.)

Buxton’s response, however, was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting them to also postpone, possibly making use of the vacant August slot in the fringe calendar. However, Buxton Fringe chose to dig their heels in and press on with July no matter what, even if it meant doing the whole lot outdoors and online. And with the latest news being that theatres can open but not do theatre in them, and outdoor and online festival is what we have. It’s mostly online, but there are a few physical events, mostly in the visual arts section.

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What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2020

image

Skip to: And She, Ask Me Anything, The Future is Mental, Badass Be Thy Name, Skank, 39 Degrees

I know I already have two unfinished articles on the go, but I’ve got to hury out this one because the Vault Festival has begun. And now that I know enough about who’s coming to pick some recommendations, I’d better get a move on before they’re gone.

First, a reminder of what the Vault Festival is about. It is, as some people acclaim, London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe? Well, yes and no. It is true that the work on offer in the Vault Festival is quite similar to what you see on the Fringe circuit – indeed, a lot of stuff goes to both – but unlike the Fringe, it’s a curated festival instead of an open festival. And, in all fairness, it’s couldn’t work as anything but an open festival, with applications outstripping capacity something like 6:1. It you’re after an environment where anyone can put on a play and you can choose what you want to see, it’s better to think of the whole of London throughout the year as the “London Fringe”. But if you’re after the festival atmosphere, the Vault Festival is the closest thing you’ll find in the winter months.

For anyone coming to the Vault for the first time, apart from understanding what kind of festival this is, there’s only two things you need to know. Firstly, it’s an evening-only festival on weekdays (not surprising as the bulk of the audience will be coming from work) running Wednesday-Sunday. Secondly, you think Edinburgh Fringe tickets are expensive? Welcome to London. Rest of it you’ll pick up as you go along. For Vault Festival veterans, the biggest change I’ve noticed this year is that they’ve moving away from classifying everything as theatre, comedy or lates and instead adapting a wider list of categories like the fringes to. There should be no more shoehorning of musicals and spoken word into theatre or comedy.

Big disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list of what to see, just the ones that I know about. This caveat applies to all fringes but especially applies to the Vault Festival, where I’ve only heard of a small fraction of the acts that are on there. I’m also leaving out perennial comedy returners (Dark Room, Notflix and the MMORPG show) as they have more than enough publicity. Other than that, this is a single list. Some I wholeheartedly recommend seeing, others I don’t know much about but I consider notable. So this year it turns out I’ve quite a northern-heavy list.

(All events are in the Vaults itself unless otherwise noted.)

And She

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/2518f1_893db14ee33e48c2bbaf5e7e6d6714ee~mv2_d_3261_2163_s_2.jpg/v1/crop/x_0,y_266,w_3261,h_1891/fill/w_947,h_546,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/and%20she%20portrait%20full%20size%20(website).webpOne of the big news stories from the north-east is Northern Stage’s “takeover” of Vault. I reported on this back in December, and (depending on what the new artistic director of Northern Stage chooses to pursue) may replace the Edinburgh Fringe as their preferred presence. But right now I’m only interested in reporting which of these is worth seeing, and the easy pick from here is Bonnie and the Bonnettes. “Bonnie” is the stage name of Cameron Sharp, and their first play, Drag Me To Love, was his story of moonlighting in Doncaster when he was fourteen. The story was mostly told in a very funny way, and the ending was unexpectedly poignant.

However, they are bringing their follow-up play to the Vault: And She, a play about their mothers. I haven’t managed to see this yet so I don’t know how this compares to their debut, but Northern Stage clearly thought highly enough of this one to pick it over their successful first play. Whatever is in store, Bonnie and the Bonnettes is one of the most memorable acts in the north-east, with the ensemble of three all bringing individual characters to the fore. This is on the 8th & 9th February at 6.10 p.m.

Ask Me Anything

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/093-DSC_3341.jpgNorthern Stage isn’t the only Newcastle Theatre turning their attention south instead of north. Live Theatre’s co-production with The Paper Birds is also heading London’s way as part of its tour. The Paper Birds have toured many productions before, but by far the most memorable one was Mobile, a piece of verbatim theatre done inside a caravan with some amazing staging.

Ask Me Anything is just as ambitious, but in a different way. The group asked teenagers from all over the country to write in with questions they have about anything. This means the play has to cater to two very different audiences: teenagers wanting to prepare for the less predictable world of adulthood, and the rest of us who see how things have, or have not, changed for teenagers. It’s currently running at Live Theatre, and I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw the preview last summer that was promising. It’s at it s strongest, however, when they do their innovative staging, and not just making up stage plus auditorium to look like a teenager’s bedroom. See this on 7.15 p.m. on the 11th – 15th February.

The Future is Mental

Thttps://www.networktheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Future-is-Mental-620x402.jpghis one is on my list as something that is interesting and different. When the Vault Festival expanded out of the space under Waterloo station, one venue they took on was the Network Theatre, a nearby amateur theatre. As part of the bargain, they get a slot of their own in the festival. Far from the village hall production from Hot Fuzz, Network Theatre put up a good standard against the professionally-trained actors that dominate the festival. The one thing that does stand out is that their plays are relatively safe compared to what you usually see here. And I like that – in a festival where so many people are scrabbling to be the next best thing with something innovative and different from everyone else, it’s a refreshing change to have a group that stays conventional.

It’s not entirely in the comfort zone – Network Theatre still take on new writing of their own here, and this one is a collection of short-stories set in the near future, drawing, we are told, on Black Mirror, Margaret Attwood and Killing Eve. This shows on the 18th – 23rd February at 7.45 p.m. in the Network Theatre.

Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name

https://thetheatretimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/BadassBeThyName-1250x625.jpg

The Pretend Men had an unexpected hit in 2015 with Police Cops, a parody of basically every 1970s TV cop show ever made. It’s almost like they sat down with a list of every cop show cliche ever used and worked it in into one hour, with a highly energetic show that earned them praise and sell-out Edinburgh Fringe runs. This was followed up with Police Cops in Space, a parody of basically every 1970s TV sci-fi show ever made, which is almost like they sat down with a list of every sci-fi show cliche ever etc. etc. But where do you go from there? There is a downside to the smash hit. Keep going with the same and eventually your audience tires of it. But do something too different and you lose the thing that built your following in the first place.

Well, they’ve gone for a mashup in what seems to be the format of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. But instead of our kick-ass martial arts hero teaming up with a cowboy or a knight, he’s apparently teaming up with a rave-loving dude from Madchester. I’m not suer the timeline quite matches up here, but to be fair, neither did the Jackie Chan films. I didn’t manage to see this at Edinburgh but the reaction was very positive. They’ve just finihsed a run at Soho Theatre, but you can catch them again on the 18th – 21st March at 9.15 p.m.

Skank

Nhttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/50428/original/Skank_2.jpgow for another play I’ve not seen but I’ve heard a lot about. Skank is on my list because this is a showcase of what we may be seeing a lot more of in the future: the rapidly rising fringe theatre scene in Manchester. In the last few years, Manchester has become noted for both a year-round fringe theatre scene similar to London’s, and an open festival fringe similar to Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton/etc. So get used to this – we can expect Manchester to have a lot more influence on fringe theatre inside and outside festival season in the future. (This particular play started off in Yorkshire, but it was in Manchester where this really got its name.)

Kate dream of being a successful writer but ends up spending all her energy to try to shag Sexy Gary. Skank is billed as a “Tesco value northern Fleabag”, although the trailers I’ve seen look like the altogether more excruciating humour of Peep Show. It also seems, like the famous play it compares itself to, there’s a lot more Kate’s character than this, and there’s an underlying theme of insecurity throughout this. It’s on the 14th & 15th March in The Horse and Stables at 7.00 p.m.

39 Degrees

https://redbellyblacktheatre.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/gopr0967_1564162607603_high.jpgMost of my Vault Festival recommendations come from elsewhere, but my last recommendation is on the strength of a group’s performance same time same place last year. I really liked RedBellyBlack’s Tacenda last year, a cleverly-crafted tale where the same day is played over four times, until the two women involved correctly choose the right battles to pick. The real strength in this, however, was their devised theatre making. I’m used to a high standard of devised theatre, this ensemble of three executed it perfectly.

So this year they are doing a play about the heatwave on July, when the temperature reached 39 degrees (except for me – I was in Florence that day and it was 42 degrees, you wimps). The Beano character embarking on his quest to destroy the country in a hilarious slapstick accident may or may not feature in this, but otherwise they’re not giving many clues away. On the 10th – 15th March at 7.30 p.m.

And there’s your list. I’m going to be around on the 14th-15th and 21st-22nd March. Looking forward to seeing how these do.

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2020

Skip to: Jane Eyre, The Kite Runner, Educating Rita, Green Knight, Quality Street, Ask Me Anything, Crongton Knights, Ten Times Table, Ladybones, Shandyland

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

https://www.londontheatre1.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/the-kite-runner-uk-tour.jpg

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:

Next three are plays that I know less about, but I have reasons to believe they’re worth a punt. It’s a bit more a risk that may not work out, but if it comes off, you might be glad you were one of the first to see this.

Quality Street

https://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Screenshot-2019-09-12-at-14.47.15.pngProbably the most notable item on the list is Northern Broadsides’ first production under its new artistic director, Laurie Samson. Northern Broadsides raised a few eyebrows last year with the surprise news that its interim artistic director, Conrad Nelson – who everyone assumed was a shoo-in as Barrie Rutter’s permanent replacement – left the company completely. But Laurie Samson is a formidable successor, a former artistic director of both the Royal & Derngate and the National Theatre of Scotland. Huge vote of confidence for Northern Broadsides that they had candidates of that calibre. I’ve only seen one of his plays before years ago, and that was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Fringe; but that was excellent, and a style that I reckon will suit the Broadsiders very well.

Bold choice as Quality Street is an unknown quantity, but what is ? This is a story by J. M. Barrie, and since you’re probably wondering: yes, this is what the well-known chocolates are named after. The story is of Phoebe, who, upon discovering her old flame back from the wars has lost interest in her, re-invents herself as the wilder and sassier Livvy to get him back. Apparently this production has worked in some true-life stories from the real Quality Street factory in Halifax, however that works. One notable change is that, for the first time since God knows when, Northern Broadsides is coming to Newcastle, at Northern Stage on the 24th – 28th March. The Yorkshire stops include the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 12th – 16th May, Harrogate Theatre on the 19th – 23rd May, and York Theatre Royal on the 9th – 13th June.

Ask Me Anything

Ihttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/53403/original/Ask_Me_Anything.jpgt would be a monumental task for The Paper Birds to top Mobile, but that doesn’t stop them trying. Their smash hit from three years ago took people’s stories of social mobility and staged it in a mobile home with amazing effects. This follow-up looks at the world of teenagers. They asked teenagers across to the country to write in and ask their questions, and this is where they give their answers. Already this is a very interesting premise, because there’s two very different audiences to cater for here: teenagers like them who want answers to the life ahead of them, and the rest of the audience who get to see how much things have or haven’t changed since they were that age.

It’s billed as an immersive production: not quite Great Gatsby levels of immersion, but the theatre made up to look like a teenager’s bedroom, and if you’re going to do this properly you should sit on one of the cushion seats. The preview last summer was promising, but the show was at its strongest when it made the most of the innovative staging that made Mobile such a success – I reckon the more opportunities they find to do this, the better the final version will be. It runs at Live Theatre on the 30th January – 8th February. There is also a couple of performances at Black Box, York (I think that’s a space associated with the University) on the 27th-28th February, and then, by a strange coincidence, five cities in alphabetical order. And one other destination worth a mention, but I will get on to that shortly.

Crongton Knights

Pilot Theatre are another frequent visitor to my recommendations, but, everything I’ve seen them do so far has impressed me. Most of scripts are stories I’ve never heard of, but so far I’ve always liked them. What really makes them stand out, however, is their sets. How they stage their plays varies, but from the complex but superbly executed running treadmill plus projections in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to simply but stunningly effective set of Noughts and Crosses last year, they’ve never disappointed.

I confess, however, that on this occasion I honestly don’t know what they’ve got in store. Neither the original book nor this play adaptation are giving away much about what happens. All it says is that McKay and his mates live on a rough estate, until one day a friend gets into trouble and they embark on a mission “that goes further than any of them imagined”. But if Noughts and Crosses is anything to go by, they are holding back on something big. The tour takes in York Theatre Royal on the 25th – 29th February.

You might like …

This category is mainly for plays I’ve seen before and, like safe choice, is something I’m confident you’ll enjoy if you like the sound of this. The only thing they don’t need that safe choice does is wide appeal – these can have more specialist appeal. We have coming up:

Ten Times Table

https://www.kenwright.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/015_Ten-Times-Table_Pamela-Raith-Photography.jpgI don’t normally list Ayckbourns in my picks: legend though he is, you know what you’re getting and know what to expect. However, Ten Times Table has my attention because, over and above the usual reasons to see an Ayckbourn, this revival has accidentally found a new lease of life as a satire of modern politics. Originally meant to poke fun at the pettiness of council committee meetings, the main appeal now is watching the meetings spiral out of control into a power-struggle between the extreme left and extreme right over the pettiest matters imaginable. Needless to say, if you are a Boris superfan or a Jeremy superfan you will probably miss the point of the play. If you grew sick of both Boris superfans and Jeremy superfans a long time ago, you’ll be nodding along. As I said, a somewhat specialist appeal.

Ayckbourn productions are frequently misunderstood by companies who produce them, and the most effective way of ensuring you see Ayckbourn done properly is to see a Stephen Joseph Theatre production – but this production, although not affiliated with the SJT, can almost be claimed as one of theirs, with Robin Herford, Ayckbourn’s deputy for many years, directing the play. This is at York Theatre Royal on the 10th – 15th February. Shit, I’ve left this late. Get your ass down to York today.

Ladybones

I saw this at last year;s Vault Festival and this is worth seeing as something different. Sorcha McCaffrey plays Nuala, an archeology student whose finds a skull on a dig that becomes a trigger for the unravelling of her orderly life. And for her, order is important, because Nuala has OCD. And – as this play sets out to show – OCD is not just an eccentricity involving arranging pens; when events send her out of her comfort zone the play shows how the world becomes a terrifying place.

This isn’t the most straightforward play to follow, but that’s very much the point of story. The tone follows the story – an easy to understand beginning with the discovery of the skull and the attention of a senior researcher with dubious morals; a middle where things get confusing at the height of an OCD episode; before return to some sort of sense and normality at the end. Following a well-received run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, it’s on tour again and comes to Alphabetti Theatre on the 18th – 21st Febuary.

Wildcard

Finally, one thing where I’ve no idea whether or not it’s any good, but it’s grabbed my attention as something of interest. This, however, is something that I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for while.

Shandyland

One thing that every theatre wants is to get more audience in from working-class backgrounds, but it’s only in recent years I’ve seen these efforts stepped up. And yet … I am sceptical. One form this has taken – as this is already becoming an in-joke in theatres – is endless plays about miners. The other forms I’m frequently seeing is political causes popular with middle-class left-wingers, apparently assuming this is what the working class wants to see. Whilst the truth, of course, is that working class (like every other group) is a vastly diverse bunch of people with a whole range of backgrounds, interests, experiences and opinions. I cannot speak for anyone working-class myself, but if it was me, this would come across as a programme that a middle-class dominated theatre elite thinks the working-class ought to be interested in, regardless of reality.

So I’m pinning my hopes of Shandyland, coming in the spring. This is a co-production between four theatres and Greyscale, and is the is story of Amy, who was born on the floor of a Working Men’s Club. The story spans twenty years, and promises a shout of frustration from an abandoned community. So far, so good. Can this avoid the pitfalls that so many other plays fall foul of? Find out on the12th – 23rd May at Northern Stage.

Preview: Lumiere Durham 2019

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Here it comes again. Lumiere is coming back for its biannual festival. With this being ten years since the first festival in 2009, this festival has been billed as an anniversary celebration with many – but not all – of the installations being favourites from the last five festivals. Two months ago I came up with my own wish list, which lead to Artichoke’s social media team describing me as a superfan, which I though was a bit much until I realised that I’m probably one of very few people who not only goes over all four nights but also goes to Lumiere London every time it’s on, so I guess that’s fair enough.

One word of practicalities before we begin. Blog regulars will know I always say this, but for anyone new: unless you are bringing young children who can’t last into the later evening, you do NOT need a ticket to make the most of Lumiere. When the organisers say may sound like a platitude for anyone who didn’t manage to get one, but they are 100% correct: there is more than enough to keep you busy from 7.30. About two thirds of the festival takes place outside the penninsula, and there’s still a real festival feel. Although it’s true to say that most of the best stuff is inside the ticketed area, it’s an easy enough task to see this after 7.30 when the ticket restrictions are lifted. If you’re only coming on one night, you can make the centre your finale.

Anyway, as always, I’ve looked through the programme and come up with a list of highlights. This time I’ve had to be especially choosy – there’s a lot of things coming back that I liked, but I’ve already got a third of the festival listed here and that’s about the limit. So without further ado, here we go. Continue reading

My Lumiere 2019 wish list

I’ve been meaning to write this for several months, but now I’d better get a move on. Next month the programme for Lumiere is revealed, and as this is a 10th anniversary Lumiere, they are going to give this a special theme I’m unofficially naming “Lumiere’s greatest hits”. There will be a few new installations coming, but most of them will be some of the most popular installations over the last five biannual festivals. In which case, here’s a good opportunity to give my own wish list for my dream Lumiere line-up.

Here’s the rules of this game. These installations are all personal favourites of mine, but I have taken into account popularity amongst other people too. I have, however, set myself a rule that it must be possible to put these all into one festival. I loved most of the centrepiece installations in the Market Place, for example, but the Market Place can only have one centrepiece at a time. Very occasionally, I will take the liberty of advocating moving an installation, but that is strictly reserved for cases where there’s two installations in the same place and I can’t bear to let either go.

Footnote: I’ve found out through my channels that one of these on the list is coming, but I won’t say which one because I respect embargoes. But it was already on my wish list before I knew it was coming.

Are you ready? Then here we go:

The best of Durham that I want back

Crown of Light (2009-2013)

Some people said that this installation was overused after coming back for a third appearance – but it would surely be unthinkable to leave out this iconic projection over the first three festivals. The images of the Lindisfarne Gospels projected over Durham Cathedral was the definitive image of Lumiere, and without this I doubt the festival would have catapulted the festival to national fame. As well as the images, the music used for the project – existing music though it may have been – was perfect for the setting. Nothing says Lumiere more than Crown of Light – surely surely surely this has to be in the 10th anniversary lineup. Continue reading