Today is Time to Talk day. Let’s talk.

COMMENT: It’s right for theatres to take action on mental health projects, but they have to understand the problems, not just give a generic leg-up.

This is an article that, a few years ago, I would have had no intention of writing. Those of you who know me will be aware I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. That diagnosis came about under some pretty horrendous circumstances that have nothing to do with theatre; this is not the place for a blow-by-blow account of that – if you want to read about that you can read about it here and here. One of the earliest decisions I made on finding out about this is that I wanted no special treatment from anyone, in theatre or elsewhere. So after that, I carried on doing what I was doing and barely mentioned it.

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Warning! Long post ahead.

However, as anyone who has followed this blog may have noticed, more recently I have been getting noisier on this issue. One of the first things that prompted me to speak out was ITV’s awful hypocrisy over Susan Boyle and their selective freak-show mentality. But the things that’s mostly prompted me to speak out isn’t what I expected. A big thing has been made of diverse programming in the last few years ago. In principle that’s a good thing, and I’m not going to spend the article getting involved in any of those debates other than the one that concerns me. But for people like me, I have found a lot of these initiatives to be simplistic, and, in some cases, misguided. Late last year I did a guest post from someone who I believe understands the issues and does something about it – but I’m also seeing a lot of back-patting over things that aren’t helpful.

So it’s February 7th, and it’s Time to Talk day. This day seems to be mostly about positively sharing stories of mental health, but I want to talk about being included. Now, I’ve said before I don’t know whether my Asperger’s has been a help or a hindrance. Indeed, there is an argument that it’s been a net benefit, because in a place where support for aspiring theatre-makers was next to non-existent, the only people who stuck at it were people like me who develop obsessive interests to the exclusion of everything else – so when an local opportunity finally came along, I was the first/only person in the queue. But I’m also identifying areas where I believe there are barriers, and I don’t believe enough people realise these barriers exist to do anything about it. Continue reading

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Odds and sods: January 2019

It’s going to be a short odds and sods this month. Usually by the end of January things have been picking up a bit, but this time round it’s been relatively uneventful, even with news from December to catch up on. So let’s get this over and done with.

Stuff that happened in January

To be honest, much of the news from January is a continuation of developing stories from previous months, so don’t expect any earth-shattering revelations here. There are, however, some changes on the cards that have now been confirmed.

Conrad Nelson moves on

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/1080429309746184194/jpVagHOG_400x400.jpgSo let’s start with the news I wasn’t expecting this time last year. It was around this time last year that Conrad Nelson was appointed artistic director and joint CEO for 12 months. He (or at least one of him or his wife & indispensable collaborator Deborah McAndrew) was the obvious choice at the time, and I’d assumed that after this 12-month period, it was most likely he’d stay as artistic director and someone else would become a permanent CEO. Then this was all thrown into question when a job advert came out for a new Artistic Director – would Conrad Nelson apply for this? Attempts to track down an answer one way or the other proved inconclusive. I was still leaning towards betting he would apply and Northern Broadsides was merely doing open applications to be fair, but I finally have an answer. It was only an incidental mention in a What’s On article for Yorkshire, but it’s official: he’s not. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2019

Skip to: Sherlock Holmes, No Miracles Here, Bouncers, Noughts and Crosses, Two2, Trainspotting, Teechers, Rain Man, Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, Wonderland, Approaching Empty, Miss Julie, Educating Rita

It’s January, it’s cold, and it’s the second month on my enforced two-month break. Last week, I did my first ever preview of what’s grabbed by attention at the Vault Festival, a list previously short enough to be a bolt-on to the end of this list. But theatre is going on in the north-east too, so let’s go through the things that caught my eye in the months leading to May.

Safe choices:

You know the rules now, don’t you? If not, they’re here. The plays, like all plays in these recommendations, are only ever recommended if the description of the play appeal to you. But if you do, I’m confident you will like these. Some are plays I’ve seen before and loved; others are from theatre companies, writers or directors with a strong enough track record between them for me to make a firm call. So let’s get going.

Sherlock Holmes: the sign of four

https://i1.wp.com/www.blackeyedtheatre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/photo-gallery/Sign%20of%20Four%20Press%20Image%204%20WEB.jpgThe first recommendation comes from one of my main surprise discoveries of 2018: Nick Lane. Blackeyed Theatre had already made a name for themselves with two excellent gothic adaptations from writer John Ginman and director Eliot Giuralarocca – and then came a third gothic adaptation, but this was from a new name to Blackeyed fans: Nick Lane, both writer and director. Could The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde live up its predecessors? The answer, it turned out, was yes. This was also outstanding;  the style was different to the two Ginman/Giuralarocca plays, but it was still a great adaptation and – most impressively – it introduced a new major character and made it look like that was how the story was written all along. It’s fair to point out that Blackeyed’s production wasn’t the first production of this adaptation – it had already earned a lot of praise from two previous productions – but Blackeyed Theatre was the first company to take it on a tour of this size, introducing it to the rest of the country. Continue reading

Clear White Light: more Poe please

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Few can argue with a directorial debut that sells out its entire run. But in this retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, I did miss the twists of the original story.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a lot at stake when new artistic directors make their directorial debuts in their new homes. It sets in people’s minds what kind of direction you intend to take the theatre in. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this can often happen over a year after the new artistic director is chosen, such being the timescale of programming to production. So for the directorial debut of Joe Douglas to come nine months after his appointment was announced is on the early side. Part of the reason for this is that Live was already interested in this play, and Joe was keen to pick it up. And looking at the bigger picture, it couldn’t have been a better choice, because the entire run practically sold out before the run had started.

The big draw to this play was surely the music of Lindisfarne, a north-east folk group that, as we can conclude beyond reasonable doubt, has a very strong local following. But the other draw – and the one that got me interested – was a re-telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale The Fall of the House of Usher, with the remote house of Roderick and Madeline Usher replaced with the male psychiatric ward of a short-staffed hospital. The nameless narrator is now Alison, a nurse on her first shift. Rod, the cynical senior (and only) nurse on duty takes her under his wing, but it soon transpires his own sister is committed in the same hospital on another ward. It’s such as good set-up, with the location and Alan Hull’s music providing a perfect modern gothic setting fitting of an Allen Poe story. The only trouble is, I’m struggling to identify the Allen Poe story in this. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2019

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SKIP TO: April, Auntie, Police Cops
A new thing for the blog. I’ve been doing recommendations for Buxton, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes as long as I’ve been doing this blog, but the Vault Festival (not a fringe as it isn’t open-access, but the closest thing you’ll find to one until sprint comes round) I’ve always done as a footnote for my general winter/spring recommendations. That’s not because I’m giving the Vault a lesser status, but because, up to now, there were very few acts I recognised. But this time, my knowledge of what’s there is big enough to do an article in its own right.

And it’s not, I might add, based on who I’ve seen in previous Vault festivals. I’d heard of a couple of them from the Vault Festival first, but all of these artists I’ve previously seen in Buxton, Brighton or Edinburgh Fringes. Most of the artists in the Vault line-up I’ve never heard of so, as always, please treated this as a cross-section of what’s worth seeing rather than a comprehensive list. But a recommendation of something I’ve seen is not automatic – if it’s in this list, it’s in for a reason.

Safe choice:

Normally, to get into safe choice – meaning something that I’m confident anyone who likes the description will enjoy, and has a wide appeal – a play either has to be one I’ve seen before and loved, or a group doing something new with a strong track record. This time, however, we have two entries in Safe Choice from solo performers I’ve only seen once before, but they are playing to their strengths so much I’m prepared to go with a safe bet.

April

xm2ev12i_400x400I should declare a bias here. Part of the reason I loved Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons so much was how much it appealed to my anti-censorship sentiments. A long-standing tactic of censorship is to paint the thing that offends your moral purity as harmful, and make sure there’s enough public hysteria to prevent anyone actually watching/seeing/reading/play it themselves and making up their own mind. In the 1980s, one popular target was Dungeons and Dragons. Carrie Marx played Pam, a Christian busybody who’s so obviously only done cursory research and didn’t properly understand what she was talking about. But this play appealed on many levels and if you don’t relate to being on the receiving end of these scare campaigns, you might relate instead to Pam’s quietly tragic quest to find a purpose in her life. Continue reading

The Wind in the Willows: the wildest wild woods

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The Wind in the Willows is one of the longest-running family Christmas productions in regional theatre – and seeing it for myself, it’s easy to understand why.

What do moles and rats do when spring arrives? Go out for an idyllic boating ride and picnic, of course. “But wait,” I hear you say, “aren’t rowing boats a bit big for a mole and a rat?” Honestly, don’t you know anything? In the early 20th century, moles and ratties and badgers were all human-sized and did human-sized things, mixing with humans and subject to human laws of the land and all that. This, at least, was the premise of Kenneth Grahame’s book, originally meant as a bed-time story and ending up an accidental children’s classic. But the reason the book endures in so many memories is of course our hero, or rather anti-hero. Mr. Toad, the wealthy but vain owner of Toad Hall, is not arrogant as such: simply a flawed individual who is – if you will pardon the mixed metaphor – only human.

This depiction of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad as only human was, perhaps, a driver for Theresa Heskins’ choice of how to bring this to the stage at the New Vic. Plenty of adaptations use make-up or masks to represent the animals – here, however, they are better described as human embodiments of the animals they represent. The ensemble of eleven never have more than a pair of ears or a tail to show which animal they are – and it works. Because this adaptation is not using tweeness as its selling point, but instead, human personalities working and conflicting with each other: Mole, keen to be friends with everyone; Ratty, pragmatic and easy-going; and Badger, the one who knows Mr. Toad best. Mr. Toad, by all rights, ought to be the villain of the piece, throwing lavish parties to big up his own ego, never feel sorry for anyone but himself, always frittering money away on the latest fad – but he’s such an idiot over all this he becomes a lovable idiot, desperately needing his friend to protect him from himself and his new-found love of easily-crashable motor cars. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards

Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.

But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.

Best new writing:

Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.

Vivians20Music201969In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more. Continue reading