March 2022 Fringe roundup

Skip to: Yes! Yes! UCS, The Twenty Seven Club

There were three small-scale plays on my schedule for this month. One of them I will cover separately because it’s a part of a wider bit of news, but I shall crack on with the other two. In terms of profile, they are at opposite ends of the scale. One is a new play launched with all the fireworks the north-east cultural scene can muster; the other was an obscure event you might not even have realised was one. But it’s the latter one that’s made the bigger splash with me.

Yes! Yes! UCS

Tyneside Irish Centre is not your usual choice of venue for theatre. I don’t routinely check it for listings, and indeed I would have no knowledge of Townsend Theatre’s one-night visit had it not been for a very determined and persistent publicist finally finding me a play to invite me to that was in reach of where I live. But I firmly believe that more of us should watch plays we’ve never seen by groups we’ve never heard of in venues we’ve never been to, so that the unknowns stand a fair chance against the artists championed by the big theatres. I don’t routinely expect anything special from watching the unknowns, but very occasionally you stumble across something exceptional. It’s these rare moments when an unexpected gem comes out of nowhere that makes this mission of mine worthwhile. And that, folks, is precisely what’s happened here:

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Yes! Yes! UCS
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The Bone Sparrow: suddenly in the spotlight

Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation, with a subject suddenly thrown in to national attention, is strong all rounder carried in particular by their ever-innovative staging and one of the best individual performances I’ve seen.

One thing virtually every theatre company aspires to be is “current”, “urgent”, or one of the many other synonyms for topical. But, for all the lofty aspirations, this is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Most main stage productions are at least a year in planning. The issue that prompted you to commission a play is probably going to be long-since forgotten by the time it makes it to an audience. And in the event it is still being talked about, you are probably going to find yourself jostling for attention with another ten groups all saying the same thing as you. Nine times out of ten, you’re better off forgetting about trying to tap into trends and just do something that stands up in its own right. Unless, of course, you end up topical by accident, as happened here. When Pilot Theatre announced The Bone Sparrow (another back adaptation, this time with the original from Zena Fraillon and adapted by S.Shakthidharan), the topic of refugees was an ongoing issue but there was no particular thing bringing the matter to the fore. Now, however … well, I don’t need to tell you what changed.

The setting of The Bone Sparrow is quite far from home though. Priti Patel hasn’t exactly endeared herself to a suddenly refugee-sympathetic public, but few things are more notorious than the immigrant detention camps in Australia. Supporters of these camps will probably argue that Australia cannot be expected to single-handedly house half the world’s refugees, but a less charitable interpretation, as explored in this play, is that it’s a game of buck-passing. By trying to make your conditions for immigrants more infamous than the rest of Asia and Oceania, refugees will opt to go somewhere else instead, were it not for the fact that all other would-be safe countries are doing the same, and you get a race to the bottom. But this is not a comment piece on the merits of immigration policies, this is the place for a theatre review.

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A Northern Odyssey: People’s plays to its strengths

Originally commissioned for Live Theatre twelve years ago, Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey adapts well to the People’s Theatre in the way no-one else could do it.

FNU27_QXIAE3u41I confess, I missed Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey the first time round. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, this was before I’d got familiar with works such as The Memory of Water and Five Kinds of Silence and realised how good a writer she was – and secondly, this was at a time when I was being deluged with identi-kit “local” plays with the laziest of north-east references. However, this one went down very well and I wished I had caught it. So I was keen to take the opportunity to catch up on this, but also see what the People’s Theatre can do with this.

Unlike the aforementioned plays, where Stephenson had full creative license to do what she liked, this is about a real character, Winslow Homer, considered by many one of the greatest American painters. (Not to be confused with his Ancient Greek namesake to wrote a book called The Odyssey – thanks Shelagh for making that so simple.) We know he spent two years in Cullercoats, back when it was a fishing town in its own right rather than an area of a conurbation in North Tyneside; something that many art historians considered a step change in his work. Although most of the characters in this story are fictitious, we do know it happened at a time when seeing the world – or even a different part of your own country – was consider a niche pursuit and many people lived their whole lives in the same town down what they always do.

Where Stephenson can put her imagination to work is Homer’s personal life. Not that much is known, but he never married. One possible reason was that Homer was gay. That scenario is explored in the play, although it never firmly comes down on one side of the fence. What is without doubt, however, is that the 19th century is not a good time to be openly gay, or even secretly gay, and it was common for gay men to marry women and have children to fit in with society’s expectations. And the consequences of this were often tragic.

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Odds and sods: February 2022

Right, what happened in February. Oh yes. That.

But apart from That, this also happened.

Stuff that happened in February

So far the first time since 2019, we have preparations underway for all the main fringes. Last year was cause for celebration when, against all odds and so much stacked against them, the two biggest fringes put on great comeback festivals. Now, however, it seems we’re into the hangover. Oh dear, here’s what’s been going on.

Brighton Fringe loses The Warren

E2u1hO0XoAQQfM2How could this possibly go so wrong? Brighton Fringe 2021 was, by all accounts, a roaring success, with custom for both ticket sales and ancillary income (i.e. drinking) vastly outperforming every expectation. But then, last October, signs emerged that perhaps all was not well after all, specifically with The Warren. Complaints started emerging online from performers and staff about not being paid that year, both from the Fringe and the subsequent Warren on the Beach (although some are going further and claiming the problem goes back years). It did seem strange that such difficulties were happening after such a lucrative summer, but apparently it’s perfectly possible for this to happen simply because of inadequate financial management. The absence of anyone from The Warren at registration launch also seemed strange. Then the news died down and the registration for Brighton Fringe approached and I assumed that The Warren must have got a grip on events and settled it quietly.

And then, days before announcement of the full programme, the bombshell was announced by Brighton Fringe: The Warren will not take part in 2022 whilst it sorts out its finances. The announcement came from Brighton fringe rather than the venue, but it sounds like they’ve admitted they screwed up. The problem with the timing is a lot of artists were already programmed to perform there. There is currently a scramble to find alternatives, but off-hand it doesn’t look like there’s enough spare capacity at the other venues to absorb this. At the time of writing, Brighton Fringe doesn’t seem to be budging on its 7th March deadline to get in the printed daily guide. It also dashes the (previously quite high) hopes that Brighton Fringe would be back to full strength for 2022.

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Winter fringe 2021-2022 roundup

Skip to: 10 things to do in a small Cumbrian town, The Invisible Man

This was supposed to be a longer article, but partly down to cancellations, this has ended up a bit thin on the ground. But in line with my new year’s resolution to not let backlogs build up too much, I’m going to catch up on a couple of things now.

10 things to do in a small Cumbrian town

Apologies for the lateness with this one. I had intended to do this in a roundup of all the other things on over December, but Omicron had other ideas. As you may recall, however, I was still taken in enough to name this most promising debut of 2021. Now let’s catch up with a proper review.

s8ozkzpkfaftxnjfvqk1To be honest, I only ended up seeing this by chance. The advertised premise went in two directions: firstly, central character Jodie (played by writer Hannah Sowerby) is coming to think she’s more women than men, but with Penrith being a small Cumbrian town there’s a shortage of women inclined that way – specifically, the mum of one of her school friends. The other premise hinted to is how dull life is in the country. I will admit it was the second strand that got me a bit nervous. I’ve noticed a pattern lately of the theatre community – mostly congregated around the bigger cities – get a bit too keen on plays that look down on people who live in smaller towns. Would this be another hour of the theatrical class exchanging knowing laughter about the country folk and their backward views?

Actually, this play isn’t really about life in Penrith that much. Nor is it about growing bisexual. Both of these things are relevant to the central theme of the story, but only indirectly. No, what this play is really about is living with long-term depression. There are fundamentally two weights on Jodie’s mind. The first is that she is nineteen, and all of her friends from school have gone on to university or gap years and have all of these amazing experiences, which she’s still at home not doing much at all. The second problem is also the cause of the first problem – that is not revealed to the end so I’ll refrain from a spoiler, but the fact she lives with her gran (and does not appear to have much contact with her mother other than the occasional sporadic Christmas and birthday card) should give a clue as to what it is.

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A curated fringe won’t be a kinder fringe

COMMENT: An unwelcome part of open access is people spending too much money on Edinburgh Fringe who clearly aren’t ready – but it’s not open access you should be blaming for that.

With Edinburgh Fringe 2021 having pulled back from the brink, most are now expecting 2022 onwards to be the road to recovery. Few people, however, are enthusiastic about a return to 2019 levels. For years, Edinburgh Fringe has had a big problem of supply and demand. More and more people want to take part, but Edinburgh isn’t that big a city, and there’s only a finite amount of accommodation and finite number of buildings that can be made into theatre spaces. Consequently, the cost of these two things is going up and up and up; and no, the money isn’t being squirrelled away by greedy venue managers, but simply a product of landlords – in many cases Edinburgh University – simply renting out space for whatever people are prepared to pay.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talk of building back a “kinder” fringe. There are several things that might address the supply and demand problem without undermining open access (one of which I’m come on to later). Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably in the current climate of culture wars, a movement seems to be emerging that would rather undermine open access. I won’t link any particular story as this is a trend rather than specific people, but they do seem be edging towards the easy solution: let’s just not allow people who aren’t us to take part. At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.

Now, as most of you should be aware, I am a staunch supporter of open access. Not all arts festivals or venues need to be open access – indeed, it would be impossible for many of them to work that way – but it is vital that such festivals exist for those who wish to go that route. Why? Because there is way too much gatekeeping in theatre, and across the arts in general. Too many venues have exact ideas of what art people should be making and watching. That wouldn’t be so bad if every venue had their own tastes, but increasingly they’re all after the same thing, and if you’re not to the liking of one you’re not to the liking of any. Open festivals are a crucial check in the balance of power – if you’ve got something good to show an audience, and the audience likes it, no-one can stop you. I have to say, the loudest voices undermining open access seem to be the people who benefit the most from the current culture of gatekeeping. Perhaps they assume they’ll be amongst the approved line-up of a vetted fringe. I suspect it’s more likely they’ll get a nasty surprise, when the big venues pick big comedians and other commercially lucrative acts over them. But I have no intention of letting it get to that stage.

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Odds and sods: January 2022

Sorry this is late. I do have an excuse for this – the first week of February was solid for me.

Anyway, let’s catch up on what happened since November Odds and Sods.

Stuff that happened in December and January

So this big news from January was the cancellation of Vault Festival 2022. Ouch. Perhaps a bit over-optimistic to commit to this, but precedent shows that cancelling a festival this close to the launch is really bad news financially. I wrote extensively about how this happened and what this might mean. However, we start to roundup of smaller news with a side-effect of this closer to home.

Vault festival cancelled, Laurels steps in

f71722_57a65ccbc5654c7bb79054862d048a2amv2In the short term, the cancellation of the Vault festival leads to an issue over what happens to all the groups who were counting on their Vault slot as their big break. This might not be a big deal for, say, a comedian who had a Vault appearance as one date on a bigger tour, but it’s a huge blow if you were giving it all for a run at the Vault and nothing else. Well, The Laurels have made an unprecedented offer: accommodation and 100% box office income for shows wishing to transfer. And for those of you outside the north-east who have not caught up with this: The Laurels is the new project of Jamie Eastlake, who use to run Theatre N16 in London.

As far as I can tell, this is not a free-for-all: it’s an invitation to pitch. The pitch deadline has only just passed, so we’ll need to wait a little longer to see what we get. It may be difficult to separate who comes forwards from who gets chosen, but this may be or first clue of what sort of work The Laurels wants. Jamie Eastlake should be in a good position to organise this, having presumably had a lot of experience of London fringe theatre from N16 days. Keep your eyes peeled, because this could be very influential. It might be London’s loss is Whitley Bay’s gain.

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What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2022

Skip to: Drag me to Love, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Invisible Man, Sorry You’re Not a Winner, The Bone Sparrow, Howerd’s End, The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007, Gerry and Sewell, Red Ellen, Haddock and Chips, Sunderland Open House, Laurels Vault transfer, Everything I Didn’t Say

Before we begin this list, a small housekeeping notice. Normally I time this post for late January because not a lot happens in January, but by the end of the month most theatres have their seasons announced up to May or further. However, for some reason, Live Theatre has not announced anything beyond February. Not sure what’s going on there – at one point it would have made sense to be cautious, but I think we be be reasonably confident we’re not going to have runaway Omicron now. All I can think is that the new artistic director is putting together programme at relatively short notice and has to leave things to the last minute.

If Live Theatre announces anything March or beyond, I may add it into the article. But in the meantime, here’s what caught my eye.

Safe choice:

Are we refreshed with the rules now? Safe choices are for plays where I’m confident that if this sound like the sort of play for you, you’ll like it for real. The usual reason (which applies to the entire list this time) is that I’ve seen the play before. The other rule for safe choice is that it needs wide audience appeal. If you want to be sure of a good night out, I can recommend any one of these.

Drag me to Love

drag20me20to20love20220webWe start with a revival of an old surprise hit. Bonnie and the Bonnettes is a drag cabaret act who host a variety of LGBT-friendly cabaret nights, but it was their original performance that shot them to prominence. Drag Me to Love is the autobiographical story of Cameron, reminiscing of the time he moonlighted as a drag artists in Doncaster. You might think this is a niche interest but it had a wide appeal. Some bits of the performance are hilarious, including the performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart, but there is also a poignant ending about leaving a world behind and rediscovering it years later.

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Beauty and the Beast: back to the beginning

More ambitious than previous New Vic Christmas productions, Beauty and the Beast isn’t quite accessible to children as the others, but does a good job for the mostly adult audience it attracted instead.

The first thing I have to congratulate the New Vic for is making it through the Christmas season in one piece. I hardly need remind you of what a nightmare it’s been a second year running. Their sister theatre the Stephen Joseph, having bucked the trend last year so well, ended up cancelling half its run. From my end of the woods, only two of the five Christmas productions made it through the full run. And yet somehow, the New Vic has made it unscathed. That alone will be welcome news: the New Vic Christmas production is one of the most lucrative ones around, running well into January to cater for the school parties from miles around queuing up for tickets. This is not the first time they’ve impressed me with their resilience: when I saw The Wind in the Willows three years ago, I saw surprised to discover Mr. Toad dropped out sick, a minor character stepped in at short notice, and the rest of the cast covered his parts – and made it look like that’s how they planned to do it all along. This time round, maybe it was just luck. But well done anyway – I don’t know how how did it, but you made it.

But I digress. There are no finishers medals her, we must look at the play itself. This production, postponed from 2020 (with its small-scale replacement Coppelia itself postponed seven months), is Theresa Heskins’ take on a fairy story, but unlike a certain very popular touring show going on right now, this one goes to great lengths to avoid the Disneyfication. The 1990s film, classic though it is, took major liberties with the original plot – which is fine, but in all of the subsequent stage shows and live-action remakes Disney has an irritating habit of behaving like their animated films are the originals rather than take a second look at the source material. Heskins, on the other hand, brings back long-forgotten parts of the original book. Rather than being transformed into a Beast for refusing shelter to an old woman (which I always thought was a bit of an over-reaction), his predicament comes about from the Goblin wars in revenge for his warmongering warrior-Queen mother, which is a more understandable. And so the stage play begins with the little-known tale of the Goblins spinning their tales of mischief – mischief that unfortunately escalates rather quickly.

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Rod Liddle doesn’t understand freedom of speech

COMMENT: Controversial speakers have free speech to express their views, but the people you’re talking to have free speech to make it clear what they think. Especially a speaker who thinks he’s entitled to talk down to people who never asked for him.

And now, a rare post on this blog: a post about neither theatre nor anything else in the arts. The reason I’m doing this is that, as well as christontheatre being a theatre blog, it is also an anti-censorship blog. Normally, I am anti-censorship in the name of artistic freedom, but I am also pro freedom of speech in general. Until, now, however, everything I have written has been in support of people on the receiving end of censorship. This time, however, I am going to be singling out someone who thinks his right to free speech is being infringed when it isn’t. There are a lot of people like him, they give free speech a bad name, and it is in the interests of anyone who values free speech to stand up to this bullshit.

The reason I’m taking action over this one is because I’m doing something I’ve criticised other people for not doing: speaking out when things you say you care about happen on your doorstep. This relates to a shitstorm going on at my old university which I still have connections to. Tim Luckhurst, the principal of South College (the newest college of Durham University), invited a speaker for the end-of term Christmas formal dinner. Normally a non-issue, interesting and entertaining speakers (along boring, unfunny and incomprehensible speakers) come to dinners all the time. However, this speaker was Rod Liddle, who made exactly the kind of speech you’d expect Rod Liddle to make. Contrary to what some people think, the students of Durham University are not a bunch of ultra-right-wing Katie Hopkins worshippers and this speech went down like a lead balloon. This has escalated into widespread calls for Luckhurst to be sacked.

I will give my 2p’s worth on that row later, but what I’m really interested in is Rod Liddle’s reaction to this. He is demanding an apology from Durham University and implying that his right to free speech has been infringed. Now, there are some valid criticisms to be made of the anti-Liddle protests, but that does not stop Rod Liddle being wrong. For the reasons I will go into, Rod Liddle has not had his free speech infringed – and, if anything, he is the one who lacks respect for free speech. Here’s why.

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