Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school

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Nick Lane’s third script for Blackeyed Theatre has a lot more in common than his predecessor than the first two, but this old style still suits Blackeyed Theatre well.

Nick Lane is currently all the rage with Blackeyed Theatre. His adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not written for Blackeyed but they did the biggest tour) was a great success and is returning later this year. Since then, he’s stayed with the company and written two more adaptations: Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four and now this adaptation of one of the most famous Bronte novels. It’s a step away from Blackeyed Theatre’s strongest area of gothic horror, but only a small one. Out goes the setting befitting of those Draculas and Frankensteins, and in comes the bleak windswept moors that characterise the stories of all three Bronte sisters – something that evidently suits Blackeyed’s style well.

The usual challenge with adaptations of classic books is how to keep the cast size manageable. Unless you are setting your sights on a West End-scale production with the number of actors in double-figures, you have to delicately arrange the characters over a small cast, doubling up parts when you can, cutting characters when you can’t. Fortunately, Blackeyed Theatre have plenty of practice on this matter, and this is no exception. Kelsey Short plays Jane Eyre, seeking her own way in the world after a childhood raised by begrudging relatives. Staying faithful to the book, she also narrates in first person – after all, “reader, she married him” just isn’t the same. Ben Warwick plays Mr. Rochester, who takes her first a governess, and later seeks her as his wife. They form a good double act, with our heroine’s good heart and naivety contrasting with a principled but damaged man trying to reconnect with his human side. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2019 awards

Here we are at the end of the year, with what is probably my most interesting post of the year. There will other review of the year posts coming from other people, but even from the most enthusiastic reviewers who praise everything, this is where it comes to a crunch: you can say everything’s great, but you can’t say everything’s the greatest. You’ve got to pick one over the others. Even in this blog, pickier than most for who gets the best reviews, I have to get choosy here. There’s a long list of plays in my pick of the fringe over three fringes, and a good number of equally good plays from elsewhere, but even with a long list of categories, there aren’t enough to go round. So it’s been a tough choice of what to include – but some of the most important choices were easy.

At some point, I really ought to write up these rules. New rules have been introduced over the years in order to keep things fair, give small acts a fair chance against the big ones, and avoid the same acts coming up year after year, but all of this needs to go into one play, Maybe next year. In the meantime, however, one important clarification of an existing rule: The restrictions on conflict of interest are relaxed a bit compared to reviews. People who I’m friends with or who I previously worked with (who I wouldn’t be comfortable reviewing) can win these awards. However, people who I’m currently getting money or opportunities from are still off-limits, including productions of theirs that I wasn’t involved in.

One other caveat before I start: this has not been a typical year for me outside of theatre. I’ve written about this enough times, but you can find the details at the bottom of this post. I was in a better state some times of the year than others – as far as I can tell, this doesn’t affect my choices, but who knows? What this does mean, however, is that I didn’t get round to seeing some plays that would normally have been on my “must see” list. For anyone who’s out of the running for this reason, my apologies. Maybe next year.

So let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to get through between now and New Year’s Day when I announce the winner of best production. The envelope, please …

Best new writing:

As always, awards open with Best New Writing. The best plays are usually the combination of both script and production, but this one considers script alone. In general, another competent theatre company should be able to pick up the script and do just as good a job. In second place, this goes to The Red. Marcus Brigstocke’s play inspired by his own battle with alcohol was very well written, gave food for thought on many matters directly and indirectly related to the theme of the play, and closes with a very clever “blink and you’ll miss it” ending. There are been a fair number of disappointments in recent Edinburgh Fringes from big names turning their hand to theatre – this one will restore your faith.

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The script in first place, however, wins from an unexpected angle. Live Theatre has made a big thing of a diverse programme, and their co-production with Tamasha Theatre, Approaching Empty was a headliner. Tamasha are, of course, most famous for East is East, but the thing that struck me here was that whilst East is East was about an British Asian family where things are different, in Approaching Empty things are very much the same. That’s not what clinches the top spot though – instead, it’s Ishy Din’s excellent script of the tale of fall of innocence, where good intentions lead to a terrible outcome. It’s a struggling taxi firm run by two men and their families, one seeking to buy the business from the other – but camaraderie mixes with white lies, and white lies mix with self interest. And the way it’s done is very believable. Ishy Din has also earned my respect this year with some of the best playwriting advice I’ve heard, dispelling the myth of the life-changing moment and telling some truths of the unseen hard work that lies behind the so-called breakthrough scripts. The universality of this play is a bonus, but a welcome bonus: in a tale where people who trust each other are left with no choice but to betray each other, that truly is a story that could be anybody’s.

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Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: The Red, Testament of Yootha, Great Grimm Tales, The Red Hourglass, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Will, or Eight lost years in Shakespeare’s Life, The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, Rich Bitch, Moby Dick, Princess Party, Myra, Showstopper, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, Stanley

Oh shit, it’s nearly 2020. I really ought to start my Edinburgh Fringe coverage in the same year. Seriously though, apologies for everyone waiting to see their name in lights in the roundup – I won’t repeat the circumstances that caused me to fall behind so much, but I’ve touched on it in the last two articles. But that’s hopefully behind me now. So let’s make a start on this.

Last year’s big theme of Edinburgh Fringe was the cost of taking part in this fringe. This year, the debate has moved on to the size. Size and cost have always been linked, but this time round the debate has widened to the effect on the city of Edinburgh as a whole. Does the fringe make the city unusable for the people who live there? Some people say breaking point is being reached. The most notable thing, however, is now what’s being said, but what’s not being said. Only a few year ago, announcements that the fringe was its biggest ever were shouted from the rooftops by the Festival Fringe Society – this year, they barely mentioned this.

One stat that is watched very closely is whether ticket sales growth is keeping up with growth of the fringe. The simplified theory has always been that if the fringe grows by x%, ticket sales must grow by x% to keep it sustainable, but is this too simplistic? This year the growth was very uneven over different venues. But there’s no easy way to control the numbers at an open festival, and we will just have to wait and see next year what becomes of this. Continue reading

Lord of the Flies, Hound of the Baskervilles

Skip to: Lord of the Files, Hound of the Baskervilles

Let me begin with an apology for being slow on the reviewing front in the last six months. I don’t use this blog for a running commentary of things going on in my life, but those of you who know me will be aware that I’ve been getting a lot of hassle, firstly from some circumstances that forced me to move, and then the process of buying somewhere that turned out the be ten times as complicated as it needed to be. But I’ve finally done it. I’m a homeowner, and to celebrate I’ve subscribed to the Daily Mail so I can obsess over house prices. I’m already sick of those idle spongers in their social housing. Nice Mr. Dacre told me so.

Anyway, what this has meant for the blog is that I’ve fallen behind a lot, partly the time needed sorting things out, and partly as I was feeling in a bit of a hole over this time. This has also meant I’ve missed a few plays I was hoping to watch and review – if that was yours, I do apologise. (My tour with Elysium Theatre also produced a couple of casualties.) However, we are now into December and January, which is my down time and my chance to catch up.

So let’s start the catch-up with two productions I saw at the Gala, both adaptations of famous works. One was a stop of a highly-anticipated local tour, and the other was an in-house production – but a different kind of in-house production to anything you’ve seen at the Gala before. And that is where we begin.

Lord of the Flies

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All eyes may be permanently on the theatre news from Newcastle, but one thing that has been slowly but steadily taking place in Durham is the increasing influence of Durham Student Theatre – and, in parallel, the increasing influence of The Assembly Rooms, their main venue. That venue has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, a secondary studio venue will be opening shortly, and both venues are looking to take touring professionals. The Assembly Rooms also partnered with Elysium Theatre, although this has recently been overtaken by the latter’s other partnership with Queen’s Hall Hexham. But along with this, there’s a third strand reaching out beyond the university, and that an unprecedented collaboration with the Gala Theatre and Unfolding Theatre. Taking on students as cast but professional produced and directed, Lord of the Flies was one of the most notable productions in Durham for some time.

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SJT and Ayckbourn 2019

Another autumn, another programming of Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sticking with the long-standing pattern of the last decade, there were two Ayckbourn plays this year: a revival of a classic in the summer – another one from the height of his commercial success – and a new play in the autumn. But wait … I have a third Ayckbourn in the list, that’s officially not affiliated with the SJT, but in practice has a strong connection. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let us begin with the two plays on at Scarborough.

Season’s Greetings

Astute though Alan Ayckbourn is with his observations of human character, there is one thought that frequently goes through my head when I see an unflattering character in one of his plays: “I pity the poor bastard who this was based on.” Off-hand, I can’t think of anyone this applies to more than poor old Bernard, artistic director of the worst puppet show in the world. Bernard thinks – or has at least deluded himself into believing – that his Christmas plays for the kids are a delightful annual family tradition. For everyone else, it’s notorious, with simple fairy tales padded out to snails pace; add in the numerous complex scene changes (sixteen in this year’s performance of The Three Little Pigs And Their Wives And Families) and the play turns into an endurance test. Who was this person? Who did these awful puppet plays in real life? The answer surprised me.

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Toast and Educating Rita

In late summer and early autumn, I saw two plays on the big stages: one is regarded by everyone as a classic; the other is known a little less as a play but I nonetheless heard everyone rave about it. There is always a bit of trepidation when I see a play this well-regarded – just sometimes, I don’t share the enthusiasm of everyone else. Classic plays can also be let down by misguided productions. So how did these two fare against high expectations.
Skip to: Toast, Educating Rita

Toast

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Toast isn’t your usual subject material for a play. Nigel Slater has made a name for himself as a chef, but to most people he is better known for his writing about cookery. However, Toast – his memories of his childhood and how he decided to cook for a living – is his smash hit. Originally a book, it was made in a very successful TV programme, and now it’s a stage play. Autobiographical plays are often overrated; there are countless solo plays around at the moment from actors who I suspect substantially overestimate how interesting their life stories are to other people. But the thing that I think makes this such a success is how Toast accidentally captures a snapshot of life in the 60s and 70s through the eyes of a child.

It is the child’s perspective that makes the play the success it is. A strong theme running throughout the play is the difference in attitudes of those two decades, but that is revealed slowly through a child’s innocence. To begin with, it’s mostly simple things: holidays, school games, and most precious to young Nigel, cooking together with his mother. This recreates so convincingly the little things in live that give a child so much joy, and resonates so strongly right down to us recognising the favourite sweets that we once oh God damn it I miss being kid … Sorry, where was I?

The first sign of a different time is Nigel’s father with his attitudes to gender roles, some old-fashioned, some just bizarre. In the latter category is the incredibly arbitray and confusing list of which sweets are boys’ sweets and which are girls. A bit more of a problem is his attitude to Nigel’s favourite hobby. Remember, this is the 1960s, four decades before masculine sweary TV chefs were invented, so Dad thinks cookery is for women, otherwise it will turn you into a Nancy boy (where, to be fair, he wasn’t entirely wrong, but that’s a later chapter in this story). However, young Nigel’s carefree life is about to be changed forever. His mother’s asthma attacks are getting worse. The moments when his mother tries hide what’s happening from her is one of the most moving pieces of theatre I’ve soon. And then … it’s the 1970s. Nigel is now a teenager, in a much scarier world.

Nuance plays an important part in the story too. Nigel’s father might not have the most progressive attitudes, but he is not a bigot and more a product of his time, doing the things people like him are expected to do, thinking the things people like him are expected to think. Father and son are never that close because he views bonding as the mother’s job, and once all parental responsibilities are thrust upon him, he’s really out of his depth. Tensions especially arise when a new woman enters if life. But way this is resolve is once more a touching moment of the play.

A lot of people have been praising the play for the music. I loved the music too, but the choice is cleverer than most people appreciate. It is isn’t just greatest hits from the years of the play. As a child, the songs we hear are his mother’s favourites, gentle songs to reflect a gentle life. Whilst the songs later in the play, including Psycho Killer which everyone raves about, belong to the more unsettling world that Nigel now lives in.

In the interests of balance I am obliged to say that the factual accuracy of the story is disputed. Specifically, the depiction of stepmother Joan Potter (real name Dorothy Perrins) is one that her family contests. The play does tone this down a bit compared to the film version; on the screen she is shallow social climber and a complete bitch to young Nigel – in the stage version, some of the worst moments are left out and the resentment is portrayed more as a two-way escalation. Nevertheless, this is a good time to remind everyone that plays based on real events need to be treated with some caution – creative writers get a lot more freedom than journalists and factual claims don’t always get the scrutiny they should. This doesn’t dent the enjoyment of the play, but, as with all stories based on real events, the factual content should be treated with due caution.

That disclaimer outside, Toast is a good all-rounder. A lot of stage adaptations made famous as a screenplay first play it safe and try to be scene-by-scene remakes, which is fine, but this could easily have been written as a stage play from the outset. That’s something that may have been helped by Director Jonnie Riordan also being the choreographer, so congratulations to him and script writer Henry Filloux-Bennett for the stage version between them. The tour is still going and will be coming to York Theatre Royal in late November (19th-21st), but there will surely be another tour after this one. Well done to creative team and the five-strong ensemble for a play that’s still stick with me over a month later.

Educating Rita

9756511(An early version of this review was given during my Edinburgh fringe coverage. This is a tidied up version.)

The other high-profile tour that got me interested was Theatre by the Lake’s production of Educating Rita. But although Theatre by the Lake is based in Cumbria, this is very much a north-east production. Stephen Tompkinson, has been in numerous TV series, but in the north-east he is also known for the plays he does with Live Theatre, including the complete psycho Freddie the Suit in Faith and Cold Reading and shady non-league football manager Kidd in The Red Lion. This time he is of course playing Frank, who isn’t a psychopath, merely a schambolic/alcoholic lecturer. The other big name from Live Theatre is Max Roberts, who stepped down as artistic director last year and – as is a good idea for recently-retired artistic directors wishing to give their successors some space – is keeping himself busy directing this touring production.

But whatever big names might be selling the tickets, it is Jessica Johnson who makes this play what it is. Two years ago she played Rita as the Gala Theatre restarted its in-house productions and – no disrespect to the other guy – she stole the show. There is of course a whole range of emotions Rita needs to go through in any successful production of this play, but Jessica Johnson brings it out from the start. In scene 1, Rita walks into Frank’s life brash and in-your-face and ready to be educated, but it doesn’t take much for her insecurities to come through, the result of a lifetime of being told this life’s not for people like her. As the story continues, and the goes through the end of her marriage and a discovery of a new self and finally standing up to Frank as an equal, Johnson gets all of this.

Max and Stephen deserve credit too. Tompkinson’s touch I liked the most was Frank’s alcoholism. As the scenes progress, his movements become increasingly impaired, whether or not he’s actually drinking anything at the moment. Much as I enjoyed the Gala production, one small but annoying issue was the set and movements that messed around the sightlines for anyone sitting in the front half of the theatre. This set is laid out more sensibly and, although he was in an enviable position to have such good actors to work with (not to mention such a great play), Roberts did what he needed to do.

I don’t ned to do a full review of this – my comments from the Gala’s 2017 production apply here. Apart from the sightline issue that was fixed here, all of the viritues of this productions were pioneered in the one directed by Rebecca Frecknall. As such, it’s a pity that she and the Gala Theatre are absent from the credits here, having done so much to lay the groundwork for this. But they have a lot to be proud of, and I hope they realise it.

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Green Knight, Old Bones, Desert Bloom, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Author, Composer, Soldier of Sorts, We Apologise for the Inconvenience, Tangletree, Impostors, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, 11 Reasons

Apologies for the lateness of the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe roundups – I am currently in the thick of a house move that has taken up most of my time and energy. But these reviews aren’t going to write themselves and the backlog is getting bigger, so let’s get to it.

So Buxton has had its 40th anniversary fringe this year, and with it an extra three days were added to the festival – officially a one-off, but in practice it’s surely testing the water. As a result, Buxton ended up with its biggest fringe to date, with a record breaking 213 events, up from the PB of 183 in 2017. (The increase in performances was even more dramatic, at 750 up from previous record of 500, although this figure is artificially inflated by an unusually high number of fine art and site-specific performances – see my Buxton Fringe preview if you want more number-crunching.) So the next question was whether the fringe could sustain these extra three days – after all, this could decide whether the longer fringe becomes permanent.

Based on my observations, the answer appears to be “yes”. I am not aware of any official figures that would give us clues one way or the other (as Buxton has no central booking office there’s not really any way of keeping track of sales), but the mood amongst everyone I asked was that ticket sales were going well. I suppose on thing I didn’t get an answer to was what sales were like in the extra three days at the end of the fringe – if they tailed off that would dampen expectations. Whatever the truth, we will find out Buxton Fringe’s reaction by December, when registrations for 2020 open.

But that’s enough speculation for later. Let’s get on with the reviews.

Pick of the Fringe:

I managed to pack quite a lot in to Buxton this time round. But in the end, however, there were three obvious front-runners out of all I saw. Normally, as the biggest venue, Underground Venues dominates the listings, but this time another venue is a suprise winner, thanks to a joint colloboration from two groups that this venue chose to champion.

The three picks of the fringe are:

Green Knight

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Debbie Cannon’s writing and performance is sometimes billed as storytelling and sometimes billed as theatre, but Green Knight fits very comfortably into both. An impoverished woman is handing herself over to the convent, but before she does, she tells a story she knows about King Arthur. It is, of course, the tale of Sir Gawain, but in this story she is the woman who tempted Gawain into dishonour. But, as with many of the best retellings, something new is brought to this. None of the events of Gawain and the Green Knight are changed, but the nameless wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert takes on a very different role. In the original, her sole role is a temptress; in this, she’s still still a temptress – but not entirely by choice. She’s in love with this perfect chivalrous man who’s come into her life. Added to this, she only married to escape her own father, and her husband is, to be honest, a bit of a cock; so Gawain is, for all his restraint and honour, inadvertently leading her into temptation as much as she’s leading him.

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