Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards

Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.

But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.

Best new writing:

Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.

Vivians20Music201969In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more. Continue reading

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The Lovely Bones: down to earth

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Northern Stage’s joint collaboration to bring Alice Sebold’s novel to the stage works wonders, with production values comparable to the West End, and without falling into special effects overkill that marred the film.

Skip to: Under Milk Wood

It’s rare for regional theatre to try to take on the West End for production values. Even with Royal & Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse joining forces, productions on the scale taken for granted in central London are a risky business unless you can be sure you’ll sell the tickets. So an adaptation massively successful novel of Alice Sebold is a pretty safe bet to draw in an audience – or is it?

The most well-known big-budget version of The Lovely Bones is the Peter Jackson film – and many people consider that a disappointment. The Peter Jackson film can maybe be described as a version of Ghost, but with 2009-level special effects instead of 1990-level special effects, but that arguably misses the point. Both stories involve a central character who is murdered (in Susie Salmon’s case, raped and murdered) who lives on in the afterlife, but beyond that two don’t have much in common. The driving theme in Ghost is a hero desperate to stop his killer before he harms anyone else he loves. That theme is also there in The Lovely Bones, but it’s not the main theme. And the supernatural that dominated Ghost are only incidental here, with Susie free to observe the world but near-powerless to intervene. No, the dominant narrative in the story is a family struggling to come to terms with the worst kind of bereavement in the years to come. It is this, I think, that this adaptation gets in a way that Peter Jackson’s didn’t. Peter Jackson relies on fancy effects to create Susie Salmon’s own personal heaven – in this play, her heaven is the world her family still live in, getting on with their lives the best they can. Continue reading

They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay – but what does it say?

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Northern Broadsides has a great track record in adapting classics for a modern-day audience. This re-telling of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, however, sells the story short for laughs.

I may not make many friends with my current batch of reviews, but I’ve seen several plays with sell-out ticket sales, or overwhelming acclaim, or both – and I’ve not shared the enthusiasm. They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, however, is going to be the toughest one to write, because I had the highest expectations for this. Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have a long track record of adapting classic plays for contemporary settings, and indeed another Dario Fo play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was my first experience of their collaboration, and that was excellent, with a masterful mix of comic timing and poignant messages. This time, however, one has come at the expense of the other, and the play is so hammed up for laughs it drowns out the serious meaning behind it.

When a play fails to live up to high expectations, it is tempting to write a review focusing entire on the negatives and ignore all the positives. So I shall begin with the positives. All of Northern Broadsides’ productions, from the darkest to the most farcial, have been produced to the highest production values, and this is no exception, with the fast-moving action executed flawlessly. The premise also gets off to a good start too. The play begins in a flat in Sheffield, where Anthea comes in with some big bags of shopping. Or rather looting. She confides to her friend Maggie that the local supermarket has pushed up prices one too many times and the impoverished customers won’t take any more and chose to help themselves. However, acting on the spur of the moment has its drawbacks, and Anthea finds herself loaded with plenty of items she doesn’t need, such as pet food. Then the two women have to hide the ill-gotten gains from the policemen looking for it, such as the anti-capitalist commie constable, or his boss, the anti-commie capitalist sergeant. Before, then, however, they must also hide things from Maggie’s husband Jack, who has never done anything illegal in his life (although some people might consider his dogmatic obsession with union rules and regulations to be a crime). And so we go from there. Continue reading

Two by Two Pints

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

SKIP TO: Two, Two Pints, Talking Heads

Two

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

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

Queens of the Coal Age: the last battle

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

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

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

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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credit: byronv2, flickr

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

REVIEWS: Skip to: Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Build a Rocket, The Fetch Wilson, Bite-Size, Maz and Bricks, House of Edgar, Eight, Neverwant, Hunch, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor, This is Just Who I Am, Year Without Summer, Kin, All Out of Time, The Narcissist in the Mirror, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Match, Notflix, Dark Room / Sexy Sweaty Party Party

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

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

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

Pick of the Fringe:

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

SJT Summer 2018

Before I embark on Edinburgh Fringe coverage, let’s round up another main season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Apart from a programme very heavily defined by its very famous former artistic director, the other unusual feature of the SJT is that whilst most theatre wind down for the summer as people turn their attention to holidays and/or the Edinburgh Fringe, in Scarborough the programme ramps up.

Skip to: The 39 Steps, Build a Rocket, Joking Apart, Better Off Dead

There is one change this year though – until last year, the SJT ignored the Edinburgh Fringe as it moved into peak summer season. This time, however, they have decided to do both, with a full-on summer season at Scarborough complemented with their own Edinburgh excursion. But I am going to go through the plays in (roughly) chronological order in which they were shows, so we begin with:

The 39 Steps

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In the literary world, John Buchan’s spy novel is regarded as one of the seminal spy thrillers. In the film world’ Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the books is regarded as one of the seminal spy films. But in the theatre world, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is regarded as one of the silliest hits to have graced the West End. Well, to most of the theatre. Some people somehow missed all of this going to the play expecting a deathly serious edge-of-your-seat thriller. But the surprise, when it turns out to not be what they expected, quickly turns into a pleasant surprise. Continue reading