Lumiere 2017 roundup

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Newcastle might still be dominating the north-east’s cultural scene, but the prize for the biggest single cultural export surely belongs to Durham. Originally intended as a one-off in 2009, threatened by funding cuts in 2015, the Lumiere Festival is now not only a cultural institution in the north-east but has also been taken successfully to other cities, most notably London, who are bringing it back for the second time later this month. I’ll be giving my recommendations for London shortly – before that, however, let’s take a look at what Durham had to offer.

As usual, I’m not doing to do a comprehensive roundup of everything, simply pick out some highlights of what I think we should do more of in the future, and also some suggestions of what I’d like done better.

Overall impressions

One interesting thing I did was compare what happened this year to what I wrote about in 2015. This year, there was one big change imposed on the festival which is that a lot of Durham is a building site at the moment. Two major sites north and south of the Milburngate Bridge were (and still are) in various states of demolition and rebuilding, and most notably, the Cathedral itself, normally the centrepiece of the festival, has its own building work going on that made the normal installation impossible (more on this is a moment). There was, therefore, a few reasons to believe this would be a different Lumiere to previous festivals. Continue reading

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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2017 awards

And it’s that time of year. Time to pick some winners for the whole of 2017. And, boy, there’s been some tough choices this time round. Some of these categories I’ve been certain of a winner for months, but for others I’ve been changing my mind repeatedly up to the very last moment. But I have made my decisions, so now it’s time to announce them.

As always, a reminder of the ground rules. Anything I saw for the first time this year is eligible, whether I wrote a review or not. This includes plays previously excluded from review coverage owing to conflicts of interest (that’s a teaser). The only notable exclusion is that plays I have seen in previous years from the same company are not eligible a second time round – this is so that the awards are not dominated by long-running successful shows. So this puts I Am Beast out of the running, something that was a previous runner-up for best production and would have been well-placed for several awards this time round.

So, who’s won? The list is drawn up, envelopes are checked, and any mix-ups involving La La Land are safeguarded against. Here we go.

Best New Writing

This was a tricky one, but not the the usual reason. This time, it came down to a question of whether the winning entry can be considered new writing. This means this year’s runner-up can be considered the winner if you disagree with my ruling. So in second place for best new writing (or first if you argue that the winner doesn’t count) is BlackCatfishMusketeer. There were a lot of good scripts this year, but the thing that stood out with this one was the fact that the entire play was written in instant messages on a dating app. As any writer knows, things that read well on the page (or screen) rarely sound so good when spoken, but Dylan Coburn Grey managed to do both. With a clever unexpected twist on the issue of trust,  Malaprop Theatre comes out of nowhere to come so close to scooping one of the best awards.

the-red-lion-by-patrick-marber-trafalgar-studios-700x455So what went to a stewards enquiry but has gone on to win? It’s Patrick Marber with The Red Lion. Live Theatre’s production this year was not a premiere – that was at the Dorfman Theatre (the smallest of the three spaces in the National Theatre) in 2015. In the end, I made a decision based on what this award recognises: a successful production on the strength of a conventionally-written script, as opposed to a production that does a good production of an earlier well-known play, or a play whose script was a joint effort of the cast – both of those have their own awards. And there’s a lot to be said about Patrick Marber’s script here: a four-way power-struggle in the world of non-league football, where alliances and ambitions rise and wane on the dealings of three men in the dressing room of the club they all call home. It’s a world he knows intimately, a world he’s creating convincingly on stage, and the characterisation of the three men – all with their own hopes, strength, fear and weaknesses – is superb. It may be second time lucky for this play to gain a successful West End run, and it’s a wonder that the National didn’t make more of this the first time round, but, hey, the National’s loss is Live Theatre’s gain. Continue reading

Bonnie and Cyril

REVIEWS: Skip to: How to Win Against History, Drag me to Love

I have found a number of contrived themes as an excuse to review two plays together. Sometimes it’s two in the same town, sometimes they run at the same time, and sometimes it’s on the same theme. A common theme I was not expecting to use, however, is cross-dressing. But, by co-incidence, the only two plays on this subject come in the same month, so, what the hell, let’s have a cross-dressing themed post. (And the title of this post sounds slightly like a certain infamous couple, although neither of them have embarked on a trail of robbery and murder across the USA unless somebody knows something I don’t.)

That’s the contrived title sorted. Here we go.

How to Win Against History

howtowin2016_web_main_460_305_95_sI don’t know if Northern Stage fully realises what they’d got, but it was a massive coup for them to have Seiriol Davies coming to them. How To Win Against History is the very rare Edinburgh Fringe play that people rave about everywhere you go. This easily sold out on a two-night run in Stage 3, the only puzzle being why Northern Stage programmed such a massively successful show in its smallest space. With a bigger push with publicity I reckon this could easily have filled Stage 2. If you were someone who decided to take a punt on a play about the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, who lived his life the way he wanted, then congratulations – you saw the top reviewed Edinburgh Fringe show of 2016, scooping no less than six five-star reviews. Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2017

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Credit: Ian Woodhead

REVIEWS: Skip to BlackCatfishMusketeer, No Miracles Here, Mimi’s Suitcase, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Izzy’s Manifestoes, Replay, Cockroached, The Friday Night Effect, Richard Carpenter is Close to You, The City, One-man Apocalypse Now, Goblin Market, Boris and Sergey’s One-Man Extravaganza, You, Me and Everything Else, Love+,Victim, La Vie Dans Une Marionette, The House, Police Cops in Space, The Wedding Reception, Just Don’t Do It, Penthouse, List for the End of the World, Was It Good For You?, Give Me Your Love

At last. I am hoping the actually get 2017’s festivals rounded up in the year they actually take place, so let’s get to this. Reviews of everything I saw at Edinburgh Fringe 2017, and a few other things that were going on at the time. Most of this is covered previously in my Live Coverage, and in some cases goes into more detail, but here everything is arranged in a more logical order.

Sometimes I start off with an opening section covering any major stories that happened during the fringe. I’m not doing that this time because this year the fringe as a whole broadly went as planning with no major surprises. Arguably the most important news wasn’t what happened, but what didn’t happen. Last year, the Edinburgh Fringe had a small shrinkage which was was no big deal on its own, but could have threatened Edinburgh Fringe’s status as #1 festival if it continued. But this year, it’s back to growth, with registrations up 3.9% and – crucially – ticket sales up 9%, making this sustainable. The Festival Fringe Society might have got a fright last year, but now it looks like a false alarm. Continue reading

Overdue and Ella Grey

Skip to: Overdue, A Song for Ella Grey

Continuing the catch-up of what’s been showing since fringe season, September got started with two concurrently-running fortnight-long plays. One was a relatively safe mainstream play in a theatre often used for new and experimental work, and the other was a very experimental piece in a theatre best known for safer bets. So let’s get to it and see what was on offer.

Overdue

3-20jack2028benjamin20michael20smith29202620beth2028rosie20stancliffe29So, starting with Alphabetti Theatre, this play took the highly prestigious slot of the opening piece for the brand-new venue. With this standing to set expectations for a lot of Alphabetti first-timers, a lot of responsibility was entrusted to co-producers Coracle Arts. But it was a good bet to take, because Arabella Arnott’s play had a very promising opening at the Gala’s scratch night, due in part to Rosie Stancliffe in the lead role of Beth. She has shone in every role I’ve seen her in, and even if the play itself doesn’t work out, she’s always added to it. Continue reading

Rattlesnake: the enemy within

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Taking on the subject of domestic coercion, Rattlesnake says something new from an unexpected direction.

It’s been ages since I last saw them, but it’s about time I acknowledged the success of Open Clasp Theatre Company, one of the leading theatre companies writing stories by women about women. That scores no bonus points here though – my sole interest is whether their stories are any good, where there’s good reasons to think so. I never managed to catch the smash hit Key Change, but I did see The Space Between Us four years ago, and whilst some bits of the story didn’t make sense, the thing that really impressed me was the characterisation: four outsiders (three immigrants and one traveller) depicted incredibly convincingly based on painstaking work interviewing real women. Now, in a co-production with Live Theatre, they take on the subject of domestic abuse, but not domestic violence, as is portrayed so often, but coercive control.

The distinction between violence and control is important. It is only recently that society has started wising up to the psychological element of domestic abuse. It’s easy to say “Why don’t you just leave your partner?”, and yes, for anyone in a sound state of mind that’s an easy thing to say, but that’s precisely the tactic of the abusers: to use fear, humiliation or any other tactics to make the victim see staying as the less bad option. Even if staying means putting up with more violence. But here, there’s no violence, just the mind games, and that can also be devastating. The law started to catch up in 2015 when coercive control was made a crime. Continue reading

Don’t Go Outside: the unknown enemy

Not the most original plot, but Don’t Go Outside consolidates Twenty Seven Productions’ status as Newcastle leaders in site-specific theatre.

Ever since Alphabetti Theatre set up in 2015, it’s provided a base for a lot of small groups in Newcastle. However, one notable exception to this rule is Twenty Seven Productions. Whilst most groups have been jostling for coveted slots in Alphabetti’s programme, Twenty Seven are making a name for themselves with site-specific pieces. They have been in the Victoria Tunnel and the Tyne Theatre, but their most successful play is surely Wytch at Newcastle Castle, the site of the 1650 witch trials that this play recreates. One year later and they are back, but this time, the castle is refuge in an apocalyptic nightmare.

Two men bring in an unconscious woman into the Great Hall. We know very little about them, and when she comes round, we don’t learn that much about her either. What we do know is that something very bad is going on outside, with shouting and helicopters and explosions being heard. Prior to the play, we catch snatches of radio broadcasts about some sort of virus leading to some sort of violence, and somehow this has escalated into an emergency and an evacuation of the city that all three missed. The castle is their latest refuge – St. James’s Park has already been blown up in the fighting. No-one can be trusted to be be let in. The good news is that one of the men, James, has taken the lead and seems to know what he’s doing to hold out and survive. The bad news is that that he turns out to be insane. Continue reading