Taking Steps and A Brief History of Women

Production shot from Taking Steps

SKIP TO: Taking Steps, A Brief History of Women

It took a few years to settle down after Alan Ayckbourn left as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but a pattern has finally emerged: the earlier summer season is where his artistic director successor does his stuff, with a revival of a successful earlier Ayckbourn introduced later in the summer, and then a new Ayckbourn play in September and October. 2017 was no exception. For once, I couldn’t catch them in Scarbourough, but luckily, I can count on a transfer to the New Vic that’s now in easy reach of me.

It is difficult to tell how new Ayckbourns will turn out in advance. Ayckbourn has a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but a lot of his new plays have been using old tricks in new ways. Don’t dismiss that – when it works well, it’s outstanding, but it’s always a bit a of pot luck involved to see how the new offering turns out. But the revival on offer is something that I recommended, not just because I know and like the play – but because this play is one of the few where it’s important to see it done by someone who knows how it’s meant to be done. That’s where we shall begin. Continue reading


Breaking the Code: People’s show the way


Bringing in their own touches, yet keeping everything that made the play the classic it is, the People’s Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code is a lesson to everyone in how to do this right.

Regulars here may have noticed that I review very few plays from conventional amateur dramatics. This is partly because the two I watch the most I work too closely with to review fairly, but it’s more that it’s rare for me to see anything that stands out. It’s a tough thing to do. A fringe theatre company working with a fraction of the resources can wow me with a great script or originality, but when you’re performing a well known play, what can you do? It must be said that a lot of amateur dramatics productions don’t help themselves by thinking that a good play is all about remembering your lines and standing in sightlines – even People’s productions have fallen into that trap before. But even with the best will in the world, there’s always the nagging thought at the back in the back of your mind that no matter how well you do, a professional company can do it better. Sure, the script might be great – and few would say anything else about Hugh Whitemore’s story of the Alan Turing and one of the nation’s greatest injustices against one of its greatest heroes – but that achievement isn’t yours.

So it is a rare pleasure to see the People’s defy these expectations completely, and put something that is not only on par with a professional company’s offerings, but in some ways even surpasses them. The People’s is at an advantage over most of its peers in that it has a far wider choice of actors – everyone here was suited to their part, from a suitably shifty Ron Miller to 1950-mentality detective Mick Ross to a suitably officious Dilwyn – but that is not what makes this play stand out. What stands out here is touches the People’s added to make their production unique. From the start and throughout, Leah Page’s creative set added a personal stamp on the play, but by biggest change – and a bit of a gamble too – was transforming this play from an intimate production with never more than three people on stage to a big productions with a cast of seventeen.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Breaking the Code, People's Theatre

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Odds and sods: January 2018

Right, thanks a bunch Manchester Art Gallery for giving me extra work to do. That’s okay, I’ve been meaning to get off my chest this new kind of censorship that’s been creeping into the arts. However, it does mean that odds and sods is now ten days overdue. I’m holding you personally responsible.

I skip December for odds and sods, because usually not a lot happens apart from pantos, pantos and more pantos. This time, however, there was a bit of a scandal; for a region where the local media says everything is awesome, this raised quite a lot of eyebrows. That kept me distracted for a lot of the last two months. But apart from that, and those silly people over in Manchester, here’s the other things that have caught my eye.

Stuff that happened in December and January

Enter Joe Douglas

So the big news from the north-east is that Live Theatre has chosen a new Artistic Director, replacing Max Roberts who announced he was stepping down last year. That’s about all I can say it this point. Joe Douglas is currently a freelance director based mostly in Scotland, but it’s hard to tell what his background means for live, other than the obvious thing of producing more new writing. As we saw from Paul Robinson’s arrival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, by the time the new artistic director commissions his own work, programmes it, directs it and performs it, it can take over 18 months before you get a good idea of what a new artistic director is going to bring. Continue reading

Why you should worry about the Hylas takedown

Waterhouse Hylas painting obscured by Mary Whitehouse saying

COMMENT: The high-profile removal of a popular painting has backfired very badly. But this should be a wake-up call over a new emerging threat to artistic freedom.

Grief, what were they thinking? If you witnessed the unfolding public reaction to removal of a much-loved painting from a northern gallery, a thought of that nature probably crossed your mind. Manchester Art Gallery says it’s delighted that they provoked such depth and breadth of feeling amongst the public, but when the vast majority of comments outright opposed the removal – with various unflattering remarks regarding the gallery’s management – it’s clear they’re in full-on damage control. And to anyone with the slightest grasp of public opinion, it was pretty obvious what would happen, especially when your reasons for doing it smack of moralising. It was completely unavoidable, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Or is it? Some people suspect – given the level of idiocy required to not realise how badly this would go down – that this was their plan all along. Perhaps it was all a publicity stunt. After all, a lot more people know about this painting now than before. And it might have been, but I can think of two other possibilities as to their true motives. One possible motive is a little more concerning than a publicity stunt, and the other one is a lot more concerning. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2018

Okay, here we go again. Hope you all made the most of your month off theatre (two if you’re allergic to pantomimes). But February is coming, and with this another season of recommendations. As always, the rules for how I choose recommendations are here. Just a reminder that I rarely recommend a play solely because it’s being produced by a high-profile company – normally it will be on the strength of a writer, director, or performing company I’ve seen before. But that way, this means the little fish stand a fair chance against the big fish.

One notable omission is it stands it Live Theatre. For some reason, they still haven’t announced all of their next season. As soon as I hear what they’re doing, I will insert anything worth including. Continue reading

Goodbye panto, hello farce


UPDATE: Most of you looking for this article will know this already: but there is one small but important clarification to make. This story, along with everything else written at the time, said Denise Welch quit the show. We now know this is disputed: Denise Welch has since said she was sacked after threatening to speak out. Doesn’t change what I wrote, but something to bear in mind. Will update on all the shennagins soon.

Sorry to burden you with another Pantogate article. I wrote one, and thought that would be enough. But that was before the shit really hit the fan. Oh boy. Just when everyone thought things had settled down at Times Square Panto after the celebrity walkout, it came to a head on the last day with another walkout, only this time, it was enough to get the last two performances cancelled. It would be extremely tempting at this stage for me to say “I told you this would happen,” but that wouldn’t be truthful. In all honesty, I never for a moment imagined things would get this bad.

I have a rule on this blog (indeed with life in general) that I don’t kick public figures when they’re down. For reason I’ll come on to in a moment, I think the game is up for Times Square Panto, so there’s little point dogpiling any further. All it’s fair to do now is sum up what happened and ask what lessons can be learned. However, some questions need asking over how this was allowed to get to this point. Had there been some more vigilance, I have doubts it would ever have had to come to this.

What happened

Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Oh boy.

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Goth Weekend: more Goth please


Skip to: Di, Viv and Rose

Paul Robinson’s new writing debut for the Stephen Joseph Theatre is an interesting insight into to misunderstood world of subcultures. That is where Goth Weekend was at its strongest.

Ever since Chris Monks unexpectedly announced his departure from a theatre in Scarborough with a very famous predecessor, one of the big questions was where the Stephen Joseph Theatre would go next. Paul Robinson’s appointment was announced in early 2016, with a strong indication that the theatre wanted to go in the direction of new writing, but such is the long timescale of planning theatre programmes that it wasn’t until late 2017 that we had our first real indication of what kind of new writing we can expect. Goth Weekend isn’t Paul Robinson’s first play directed at the SJT, but it is the first next play, so all eyes were on this.

There were two things notable about this choice of play. Firstly, it’s a co-production between the SJT and Live Theatre. This might seem a tall order, with these two theatres’ audiences having very different tastes, but the crossover has worked before, and brings a unique touch to both theatres. Secondly, it shares in common with And Then Come the Nightjars, Paul Robinson’s last touring production in his previous job at Theatre 503, a setting of a world described in detail. Then it Bea Robert’s story of a farm during and after the foot and mouth outbreak – now it’s Ali Taylor’s play the world of Goth subculture. Continue reading