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The Red Lion and East is East

Newcastle’s big two theatres have been busy in the last month, with main shows going head to head at the same time. Unusually, both productions are revivals. Not too unusual for Northern Stage to do a revival (though less often than it used to be), but unusual for Live to do this. The Red Lion only just counts a revival, having premiered at the National  Theatre in 2015, but off-hand, the only revivals I can think of at Live are re-runs of successful shows previously premiered there. Even Northern Stage haven’t done that many revivals lately if you don’t count the “concept” productions such as Hedda Gabbler and Cyrano de Bergerac.

But as far as revivals go, both productions are revivals of excellent plays, and but companies have done an great job of bringing the plays back.

The Red Lion

Red_lion_7I didn’t pay much attention to The Red Lion when Live Theatre first announced it because neither the play nor the author rang a bell. But it should have done, because whilst I didn’t remember the name, I certainly did remember one of his plays, Dealer’s Choice, performed by a then-unknown Dugout Theatre shortly before their rise to stardom. This play, a dark play about six men trapped in a dangerous spiral of high-stakes poker, always stuck in my mind amongst the hundreds of plays I’ve seen. He’s notable for other plays too, but this is the one I based my high expectations on, and he did not disappoint.

Set in the world of semi-professional non-league football, this play is inspired in part by Marber’s own experience in saving his own local club from bankruptcy. So you might think that such a play would be a homage to the beautiful game, free from the influence of spoilt millionaires, and self-serving sha. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong.

Apart from Marber, the other big name signed up to this play is Stephen Tomklinson, known to most for soaps, but remembered by Live regulars for his role as the insane gangster Freddy the Suit. Fortunately for everyone’s well-being, Tomskinson’s character does not go round murdering people who owe him money, but he’s still a pretty shady geezer. As the best manager the club has seen in years, Kidd could be a local hero, but he’s too wedded to the greasy pole (and owes too much child support) to settle for this. Working alongside him is Yates (John Bowler): a footballing legend who once got them through to the FA Cup Third Round, only to fall from grace both professionally and personally after a disastrous stint as manager. He disapproves of Kidd’s ethics, but Yates too has his own self-interests, just more personal ones. Only Jordan (Dean Bone) shows any real integrity. He’s the club’s new star play who refuses to dive when the ref’s not looking – but even he has weaknesses that prove his undoing.

The Red Lion has sold extremely well at Live, and whilst this may be down in part to the popular subject material of football, it must have help that Marber wrote such a super script. In spite of there only being three characters in this full-length play, you never lose interest. All three characters have intricate background, never forced into the script like many plays do with backstories, but always worked into the dialogue without break the flow of the story. It’s a three-way power-struggle – four-way if you count the unseen management that Kidd claims wants to sell off the ground – and the balance of power constantly ebbs and flows and men play off against each other, and Kidd tries to put his silver tongue to work for the deal he can’t afford to lose.

Max Roberts did a fine job directing this play, but the thing about the production I want to single out the most is the set. Live have a good track record with sets, often finding ways to to make a statement about the story without resorted to the dreaded “concept set”, but this did the job particularly well, with little touches such as one peg per player and the faded red lion that inspersed so much loyalty in the club all helping define the play. In fact the only aspect of this production I’d question was the decision to have no interval. I realise that there’s no easy place for an interval in a play of three scenes of equal length, but 1 hour 45 minutes is an awfully long time to do in one go. Interval-free plays, I feel, work best when you continually ramp up the tension and there’s no real spot for a break – this plot, I feel, was a little too slow-moving to justify this format. But that’s just a personal preference of mine.

Some new writing purists might note that this play isn’t new writing by Live’s usual strict standards, as this play had a successful run in London before Live produced their own version. I have to say, I can’t think when Live last produced a theatre already successfully produced before (excluded revivals and extra runs of their own productions). But I think they’re allowed a safe bet every once in a while, and there’s few better choices they could have made than The Red Lion.

East is East over to Northern Stage. Unlike Live, Northern Stage start revives classic plays a lot more frequently, and apart from the odd “concept” adaptation (which, it must be said, has variable results), they tend to be generally faithful productions. So East is East was about as safe a bet as can be – but when the standards of the faithful productions are as good as Northern Stage’s, you can expect high standards, and that exactly what we get here.

This play is one of the best-known plays out that, thanks in a large part to the 1990s FilmFour version for the big screen. Terrific though the film is, however, is it quite a different experience from the original stage play. The plot is the same – George, wishing to be a man of standing within his local Mosque, betroths two of his eldest sons to marriage, but his British-born children have other ideas – as are the characters in the Khan family. But the film told the story in the wider community, from the Pakistani community over in Bradford to the racist neighbour in Salford. The stage version, however, is almost entirely told in scenes between the Khans, into a much more intense – and some say much darker – storyline.

Like The Red Lion, one of East is East‘s biggest strengths is its character development. The six Khan children are all different are all in various state of rebelliousness from their father: from Tariq, Salford’s own Casanova who rejects all culture that came from “the Pakis” (to use his words); to Meenah, very much Anglicised but enjoys the culture of both communities; to Maneer, a devout Muslim following in his father’s footsteps, but even he draws the line at forced marriage.

The most interesting relationship, though, is the marriage of George to his English wife Ella. It would have been easy to make George into a tyrant; instead, he’s shown as a man torn between two cultures, too beset in the good life of Muslims he grew up with in Pakistan. One interesting thing that came out of the after-play discussion is that Ayub Khan-Din wrote backstories for the characters way beyond what’s covered in the play, including how George and Ella first met, and that the family was a happy one until the children were old enough to start rebelling and Ella had to choose which battle to pick. George and Ella’s marriage at its best shows up in the touching scene where George enthusiastically brings home a dentist’s chair as his latest bargain.

The play was directed by Suba Das. Faithful revivals of plays can be a bit of a thankless task for the director – unless you are prepared to go for a new take on a play (which is risky), you can put on the greatest production and the writer takes all the credit. But one thing I can definitely credit him for here is a technical one, and that’s the blocking. In order to make use of a rotating stage for the set change, you get the dreaded triangular stage, which is a nightmare for sightlines. The otherwise excellent Educating Rita suffered for this at the Gala, and that was with a cast of two. Somehow, Suba Das managed to do a movement plot where sightlines were never obscured, and without the usual solution of obviously contrived movements to into the dreaded line. Clearly an accomplished director here.

It’s been two decades since East is East first played, but it’s never lost its relevance and Northern Stage’s version does it justice. It’s still running until the end of this week, so catch it if you haven’t already. My only thought of this is that it’s been quite a while since Northern Stage has done this sort of thing. Not so long ago, Northern Stage revived lots of classic plays to a consistently high standard, but now not so much. Live Theatre I think will always be almost exclusively new writing, and Northern Stage should do its share of original theatre too, but don’t forget the classics. That’s a strength Northern Stage should value.

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Brighton Fringe 2017 – as it happens,h_774,al_c,q_90,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/835ea5_bf07b1e4bf4a4c8296c576b948e6bc11~mv2_d_2700_1801_s_2.jpgMonday 22nd May: All right, I think we are close enough to the start date for me to now be able to legitimately bang on about my absolute favourite play starting on Saturday, I Am Beast. Sparkle and Dark has been one of their groups ever since The Clock Master in 2010. At the time, they were a puppetry-based group doing family plays, but as their name suggests, their fairy tales were rather dark. Since then, they’ve got darker, with the plays now aimed at adults with subject material moving from nuclear war to euthanasia and now, in this play, bereavement, depression and escapism. After a year’s break, they are back for a second tour.

If you haven’t seen Sparkle and Dark, they’re as good as they are through a superb collaboration of the three core members: Louisa Ashton who writes and performs, Lawrence Illsley who always comes up with perfect live music for the plays, and some excellent staging and choreography led by Shelley-Knowles Dixon. This is the story of Ellie, who escapes the world as Blaze, a superhero in Paradise City fighting the evil Doctor Oblivion, whilst searching for her missing partner Silver. Except that Silver is actually her mother, Doctor Oblivion gets more like the father she blames, and his new partner is also the wicked sexy Yolanda. Then the “Beast” arrives in her fantasies, and then fantasy and reality blur, until teeters scarily on the edge what destruction is imaginary or real.

Apologies for blog regulars who’ve seen me say this many times before. However, for blog regulars, along with anyone who saw this in 2015, I can advise you there are a few changes. The cast has grown from four to five, there is now a new character called Captain Lighting, and there’s a second mini-beast. I don’t know how this is going to affect the story, but it looks like there’s been more than a few tweaks since its last performance. And the play is now 20 minutes, so it looks like some new story in it. They are being tighted-lipped about this, so I look forward to seeing how this has changed.

It runs until Saturday to Monday at 4.00 p.m. in The Warren, and it’s in the Main House, so someone thinks this is going to sell very well, and quite rightly too. It’s a bit more than your average ticket price, but trust me, it is worth every penny.

There’s actually quite a lot of things coming up in the next few days, so I’ll probably continue with other recommendations tomorrow.

Sunday 21st May: So Richard III has done well. Two reviews in so far, a 4* from Fringeguru and an Oustanding from Fringereview. There may still be more reviews to come, but after all the good reputation going into the fringe, we can conclude beyond reasonable doubt this will be one of the winners of the fringe.

No news yet on ticket sales at the half-way point. Can’t remember when we heard the news this time last year, but if I hear nothing in a couple more days I’ll begin to wonder.

Whilst I wait for more news, I’ve done something completely different. For once I’ve written about something not theatre-related or even arts-related. Inspired by Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, I have decided to write Chris’s Hierarchy of Appealing to Authority. This is my hope that in the run-up to the election, people might be encouraged to back up their outlandish claims with something a little more credible than the dreaded “Studies show …”

Yes, another slow news day. Never mind, tomorrow I think I can legitimately start banging on about my clear favourite of the fringe now that it’s coming up.

Saturday 20th May: Now for another break from Brighton coverage to take a look ahead to Buxton. As well as the arrival of the Rotunda, the other big change has been the relocation of Underground Venues to The Old Clubhouse over the road. As I wrote earlier this year, the big change was that the venue that accounts for the biggest share of the fringe programme had gained one space but lost two. And this raised the question of whether this would cause the fringe to shrink. This was certainly a scenario that had to be contemplated. Taking a rough estimate of the number of shows fit into one space and supposing these acts in the shortfall opted to abandon Buxton plans rather than find a last-minute alternative venue, one would expect a reduction in the overall number at the fringe, even with the Rotunda offsetting this.

And yet, against such expectations, it’s gone up, from a previous all-time high of 170 to a new record of 183. Is there a catch? Examining the listings, there seem to be a lot of plays on for two performances instead of three as was standard last year, presumably an effect of the UV squeeze. Perhaps it would be better to consider performances instead of registrations. But that’s gone up too. Has Buxton Fringe grown in spite of the venue shortage?

Well, not necessarily. The complicating factor this time round is the appearance of the Buxton Fringe Festival. The Old Clubhouse does actually have a second performance space in a room where a refrigerator used to be. It’s too small for full plays, so instead there are going to be small-scale things throughout the day. But each day counts as a performance in the fringe programme, which makes it difficult to do a like-for-like comparison between 2017 and 2016.

At some point, I intend to do some more detailed analysis to decide if the fringe has grown or shrunk, as well as calculate the new balance of power between the venues. Expect this all to be temporary though. The last I’ve heard is that Underground Venues hopes to be back to full strength for 2018, so it could be all change again.

No immediate prospect of toppling Brighton as the biggest fringe in England. They can sleep east there.

Friday 19th May: Holy shit, Wired Theatre are completely sold out, apart from one performance of the 4th June, and this is without the help of any reviews. Either the word-of-mouth publicity is doing the job for them, or their reputation is so good anything will sell out.

Well, when I say sold out, it’s the allocation to the Brighton Fringe box office that’s sold out. There are some tickets available on the door, according to their website. Damn, looks like I’ll be coming along and hoping for the best. Wired, if you’re reading this, can’t we persuade you to do some extra performances just like successful acts in Edinburgh do? Pleeeeease.

Changing the subject, the other thing to look out for this weekend is news on how ticket sales for the whole festival are doing. Don’t expect anything specific, but if it’s good news, they’ll say someone to that effect. If we hear nothing, the chances are the news is not so good. Watch this space. Continue reading

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Educating Rita and September in the Rain

Two productions of classic plays caught my eye this month. One was a headline production at the Gala Theatre, continuing its transition back to a producing theatre. The other was a smaller-scale production down in Yorkshire. Both are excellent scripts where there is little the producing company can do other than be faithful to it, so let’s get straight on with how they did.

Educating Rita


Starting at the Gala, this is their second in-house production since they restarted this last year with The Fighting Bradfords (or the third if you count their small-scale immersive piece No Turning Back). Last year it was new writing, this year it’s the revival of a classic. Not everyone who came to see last year’s friends will be interested in a revival; but there again, not everyone who watches a tried and tested play wants the lottery of a new work. As the only major theatre in Durham, I think it’s fair enough to have different plays appealing to different audiences. “Rita” (not really her name, but that becomes relevant later) signs on with the Open University wanting to learn more about literature. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. The barrier is partly snobbery – even supportive tutor Frank sometimes lets his casual prejudices slip in – and partly her own fear of this snobbery, but it’s mostly the inverse snobbery of friends, family, and husband who all expect her to stop learning and have a baby like everyone else. Continue reading

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Leaving and Queens of the North

Northern Stage have just completed their Queens of the North season, with the headline act being two plays with prominent female leads. As well as this, there were other plays and events that are, to use Northern Stage’s words “Stories by women, about women, about humankind through the eyes of women”. However, out of all of the events I saw, by far the strongest one was neither Dr. Frankenstein nor Hedda Gabbler, but a lower-key production over in Stage 2. So let’s begin with this.



Paddy Campbell’s new play, it must be said, had a pretty tenuous link to the Queens of the North season it was officially part of. A play that explores young people leaving foster care through their own words, both male and female, the only vague claim this has to be about humankind through the eyes of women is that the artistic director of the performing company Curious Monkey happens to be female. This play would surely have been programme with or without a Queens of the North season to put it in – it would have been crazy not to, given the following both Curious Monkey and Paddy Campbell already had.

But, hey, whatever, that’s just marketing. What I’m really interested is the play. I knew little of Curious Monkey’s previous work, but this was playing to Paddy Campell’s greatest strength on writing very fairly and knowledgeably about the social care system. The only question was whether a verbatim play could live up to his previous more conventional scripted plays. Well, what do you know? It has; in fact, it’s surpassed those expectations handsomely. Continue reading

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Roundup: Vault Festival 2017

The main bar at the Vaults

REVIEWS: Skip to: Scenes from an Urban Gothic, This is not Culturally Significant, Circle Line, Claustrophilia, Mars Actually, Blood and Bone, Ventoux, Three unrelated short plays

So Vault 2017 is on. This time last year, doubts were being raised as to whether there would be a Vault 2017 at all owing to financial worries. I was always a little sceptical of this worry, because realistically this space can’t be used for anything else, but whatever the worries, this year, it’s as busy as ever, with no sign to a casual observer that there was ever any trouble. So I found the time to get myself down to London and dip my toe for four days.

To repeat the same thing I said last year (and will probably repeat every year), the Vault Festival should not, as some in the arts press suggest, be considered London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. The whole point of the Edinburgh Fringe is that anyone can take part. The Vault Festival, on the other hand, is a curated festival. I don’t like this blurring between the two kinds of festivals, because this encourages the practice of claiming your festival as a fringe then curating it (e.g. York, Ludlow), depriving entry-level performers of opportunities to get started that is so desperately lacking right now.

This is not in any way the fault of Vault – they never claimed to be a fringe themselves, it was other people who labelled them that way. It would help, however, if they were open about how they curate the festival so the difference is known and understood. I heard that a lot of acts this year was chosen based on a theme of “space”, but that could mean anything, and I always think it’s better to be open about this.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get on with covering the festival. Continue reading

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The Empty Nesters’ Show

The goodbye scene in The Empty Nesters Club

Unlike many Godber plays, The Empty Nesters’ Club is very much a niche play. But if you’re in the niche of empty nesters, you won’t be disappointed.

Since leaving Hull Truck, John Godber has, if anything, got busier. Once I made an effort to catch all his plays; now there’s so many productions coming out thick and fast I often leave it until the second tour to know if it’s worth watching. The latest show on its second tour is The Empty Nesters’ Club, a play about what happens to Vicky and Phil when their only child Millie (played by Godber’s real daughter Martha) goes to university.

Presented as a meeting of the Empty Nesters’ Club, a support group created by Vicky, she tells the story of her own daughter. The story begins with the life of typical parents of a sixth-former, working hard as a taxi service for their daughter, givng her a freedom but secretly staying awake in bed until she comes home. Being unable to resist telling everyone she’s got an offer from Oxford. (She goes to UCL instead, but that story thread will become relevant later.) All busy until the drive home from her new home – and suddenly they don’t know what to do with themselves.

This play has a similar appeal to Shafted!, which toured this time last year. Telling the story of a colliery couple after the defeat of the miners’ strike, clearly this was very popular with people who’d been there; not because it particularly took sides, but because people related to the story of what happened in the following three decades. A similar appeal is at play here: the audience was almost entirely people old enough to have been through Phil and Vicky’s experience. Continue reading

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Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town. Continue reading

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