Odds and sods: January 2020

Those of you with good memories will recall that my monthly odds and sods articles are supposed to come shortly after month has ended, not when we’re nearly at the end of the next one. My excuse is that there’s no let-up in my day job and 50-hor weeks are still the norm. As such, I was tempted to gave January a miss and catch up with everything in a February edition. However, there have been a couple of pretty major things that have happened over the winter that need attention, but I’ve decided it’s better late than nuver.

Stuff that happened in December and January

So what’s been happening in December and January to grab my attention. Let’s start with two pretty major news stories that could have a lot of repercussions, and then follow it up with two more things of interest.

Goodbye Great Yorkshire Fringe

https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GreatYorkshireFringeLogo.jpgSo there was one big bit of news that almost passed me by, but after five years of the Great Yorkshire, founder Fringe Martin Witt has pulled the plug on this festival – and is blaming York City Council for this. As my regular readers will know, I’ve been quite critical of this fringe in recent years for its practice of curating who can take part, in contrast to all the major fringe that are open to all. However, in the end, the mood is it’s a dispute over city centre management that has brought about the end. There does seem to be a consensus that it came down lack of space to set up its pop-up venues, meaning it would have spread over more of the city instead of the cluster of venues in one place. That, I appreciate, must have been demoralising for the fringe organisers. Continue reading

Ask Me Anything: two plays in one

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/AMA-website.jpg

The Paper Birds pull off a huge challenge with a play that says two different things to two different audiences. But as a vehicle for change, there’s one more thing they could do.

If there’s one thing you cannot fault The Paper Birds for, it’s ambition. Anyone who saw Mobile can vouch for this. I gone on long enough about how brilliantly this was staged – a small site-specific piece in a caravan, with talking clock radios and microwaves, moving views out the windows, astral projections as so on – but I’ve not really talked about how difficult it is to pull something like this off. There’s a lot more to this than technical know-how: you need a vision, the ability to guess if an audience will buy into this vision, and – the hardest one seeing as there’s no knowing what an audience will make of it – the audacity to attempt this in the first place. But, that achievement under their belt, where do you from there? In terms of technical ambition, I don’t see how you could top Mobile. And when you’re scaling up to a bigger audience in a co-production with Live Theatre, an intimate performance in something caravan-sized isn’t an option either. And yet their follow-up, Ask Me Anything, is just as ambitious as Mobile, but in a different way.

Apart from their innovative staging, the other thing that The Paper Birds are noted for is their verbatim theatre. This time round, they did something similar, and based the entire show around asking teenagers to write in and ask them anything. Some of them asked for factual information (answered in a song at the beginning going into the joy of tax returns), some asked for some more personal questions, and some questions were tough to answer. Whether The Paper Birds realised it or not, they set themselves a real challenge, because this is, in effect, two different plays being told at the same time. To a regular theatre audience, this is an interesting measure of how teenage life has – or hasn’t – change since we were that age. But to teenagers themselves, it’s going to be a guide as to what to expect in the years ahead – a kind of theatrical version of the personal pages of Mizz or Just Seventeen. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2020

image

Skip to: And She, Ask Me Anything, The Future is Mental, Badass Be Thy Name, Skank, 39 Degrees

I know I already have two unfinished articles on the go, but I’ve got to hury out this one because the Vault Festival has begun. And now that I know enough about who’s coming to pick some recommendations, I’d better get a move on before they’re gone.

First, a reminder of what the Vault Festival is about. It is, as some people acclaim, London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe? Well, yes and no. It is true that the work on offer in the Vault Festival is quite similar to what you see on the Fringe circuit – indeed, a lot of stuff goes to both – but unlike the Fringe, it’s a curated festival instead of an open festival. And, in all fairness, it’s couldn’t work as anything but an open festival, with applications outstripping capacity something like 6:1. It you’re after an environment where anyone can put on a play and you can choose what you want to see, it’s better to think of the whole of London throughout the year as the “London Fringe”. But if you’re after the festival atmosphere, the Vault Festival is the closest thing you’ll find in the winter months.

For anyone coming to the Vault for the first time, apart from understanding what kind of festival this is, there’s only two things you need to know. Firstly, it’s an evening-only festival on weekdays (not surprising as the bulk of the audience will be coming from work) running Wednesday-Sunday. Secondly, you think Edinburgh Fringe tickets are expensive? Welcome to London. Rest of it you’ll pick up as you go along. For Vault Festival veterans, the biggest change I’ve noticed this year is that they’ve moving away from classifying everything as theatre, comedy or lates and instead adapting a wider list of categories like the fringes to. There should be no more shoehorning of musicals and spoken word into theatre or comedy.

Big disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list of what to see, just the ones that I know about. This caveat applies to all fringes but especially applies to the Vault Festival, where I’ve only heard of a small fraction of the acts that are on there. I’m also leaving out perennial comedy returners (Dark Room, Notflix and the MMORPG show) as they have more than enough publicity. Other than that, this is a single list. Some I wholeheartedly recommend seeing, others I don’t know much about but I consider notable. So this year it turns out I’ve quite a northern-heavy list.

(All events are in the Vaults itself unless otherwise noted.)

And She

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/2518f1_893db14ee33e48c2bbaf5e7e6d6714ee~mv2_d_3261_2163_s_2.jpg/v1/crop/x_0,y_266,w_3261,h_1891/fill/w_947,h_546,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/and%20she%20portrait%20full%20size%20(website).webpOne of the big news stories from the north-east is Northern Stage’s “takeover” of Vault. I reported on this back in December, and (depending on what the new artistic director of Northern Stage chooses to pursue) may replace the Edinburgh Fringe as their preferred presence. But right now I’m only interested in reporting which of these is worth seeing, and the easy pick from here is Bonnie and the Bonnettes. “Bonnie” is the stage name of Cameron Sharp, and their first play, Drag Me To Love, was his story of moonlighting in Doncaster when he was fourteen. The story was mostly told in a very funny way, and the ending was unexpectedly poignant.

However, they are bringing their follow-up play to the Vault: And She, a play about their mothers. I haven’t managed to see this yet so I don’t know how this compares to their debut, but Northern Stage clearly thought highly enough of this one to pick it over their successful first play. Whatever is in store, Bonnie and the Bonnettes is one of the most memorable acts in the north-east, with the ensemble of three all bringing individual characters to the fore. This is on the 8th & 9th February at 6.10 p.m.

Ask Me Anything

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/093-DSC_3341.jpgNorthern Stage isn’t the only Newcastle Theatre turning their attention south instead of north. Live Theatre’s co-production with The Paper Birds is also heading London’s way as part of its tour. The Paper Birds have toured many productions before, but by far the most memorable one was Mobile, a piece of verbatim theatre done inside a caravan with some amazing staging.

Ask Me Anything is just as ambitious, but in a different way. The group asked teenagers from all over the country to write in with questions they have about anything. This means the play has to cater to two very different audiences: teenagers wanting to prepare for the less predictable world of adulthood, and the rest of us who see how things have, or have not, changed for teenagers. It’s currently running at Live Theatre, and I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw the preview last summer that was promising. It’s at it s strongest, however, when they do their innovative staging, and not just making up stage plus auditorium to look like a teenager’s bedroom. See this on 7.15 p.m. on the 11th – 15th February.

The Future is Mental

Thttps://www.networktheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Future-is-Mental-620x402.jpghis one is on my list as something that is interesting and different. When the Vault Festival expanded out of the space under Waterloo station, one venue they took on was the Network Theatre, a nearby amateur theatre. As part of the bargain, they get a slot of their own in the festival. Far from the village hall production from Hot Fuzz, Network Theatre put up a good standard against the professionally-trained actors that dominate the festival. The one thing that does stand out is that their plays are relatively safe compared to what you usually see here. And I like that – in a festival where so many people are scrabbling to be the next best thing with something innovative and different from everyone else, it’s a refreshing change to have a group that stays conventional.

It’s not entirely in the comfort zone – Network Theatre still take on new writing of their own here, and this one is a collection of short-stories set in the near future, drawing, we are told, on Black Mirror, Margaret Attwood and Killing Eve. This shows on the 18th – 23rd February at 7.45 p.m. in the Network Theatre.

Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name

https://thetheatretimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/BadassBeThyName-1250x625.jpg

The Pretend Men had an unexpected hit in 2015 with Police Cops, a parody of basically every 1970s TV cop show ever made. It’s almost like they sat down with a list of every cop show cliche ever used and worked it in into one hour, with a highly energetic show that earned them praise and sell-out Edinburgh Fringe runs. This was followed up with Police Cops in Space, a parody of basically every 1970s TV sci-fi show ever made, which is almost like they sat down with a list of every sci-fi show cliche ever etc. etc. But where do you go from there? There is a downside to the smash hit. Keep going with the same and eventually your audience tires of it. But do something too different and you lose the thing that built your following in the first place.

Well, they’ve gone for a mashup in what seems to be the format of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. But instead of our kick-ass martial arts hero teaming up with a cowboy or a knight, he’s apparently teaming up with a rave-loving dude from Madchester. I’m not suer the timeline quite matches up here, but to be fair, neither did the Jackie Chan films. I didn’t manage to see this at Edinburgh but the reaction was very positive. They’ve just finihsed a run at Soho Theatre, but you can catch them again on the 18th – 21st March at 9.15 p.m.

Skank

Nhttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/50428/original/Skank_2.jpgow for another play I’ve not seen but I’ve heard a lot about. Skank is on my list because this is a showcase of what we may be seeing a lot more of in the future: the rapidly rising fringe theatre scene in Manchester. In the last few years, Manchester has become noted for both a year-round fringe theatre scene similar to London’s, and an open festival fringe similar to Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton/etc. So get used to this – we can expect Manchester to have a lot more influence on fringe theatre inside and outside festival season in the future. (This particular play started off in Yorkshire, but it was in Manchester where this really got its name.)

Kate dream of being a successful writer but ends up spending all her energy to try to shag Sexy Gary. Skank is billed as a “Tesco value northern Fleabag”, although the trailers I’ve seen look like the altogether more excruciating humour of Peep Show. It also seems, like the famous play it compares itself to, there’s a lot more Kate’s character than this, and there’s an underlying theme of insecurity throughout this. It’s on the 14th & 15th March in The Horse and Stables at 7.00 p.m.

39 Degrees

https://redbellyblacktheatre.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/gopr0967_1564162607603_high.jpgMost of my Vault Festival recommendations come from elsewhere, but my last recommendation is on the strength of a group’s performance same time same place last year. I really liked RedBellyBlack’s Tacenda last year, a cleverly-crafted tale where the same day is played over four times, until the two women involved correctly choose the right battles to pick. The real strength in this, however, was their devised theatre making. I’m used to a high standard of devised theatre, this ensemble of three executed it perfectly.

So this year they are doing a play about the heatwave on July, when the temperature reached 39 degrees (except for me – I was in Florence that day and it was 42 degrees, you wimps). The Beano character embarking on his quest to destroy the country in a hilarious slapstick accident may or may not feature in this, but otherwise they’re not giving many clues away. On the 10th – 15th March at 7.30 p.m.

And there’s your list. I’m going to be around on the 14th-15th and 21st-22nd March. Looking forward to seeing how these do.

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2020

Skip to: Jane Eyre, The Kite Runner, Educating Rita, Green Knight, Quality Street, Ask Me Anything, Crongton Knights, Ten Times Table, Ladybones, Shandyland

And here it is. 2020. And a disappointing lack of flying cars and three-course meal pills that we were promised. So instead let’s look at what’s coming up locally.

Safe Choice:

Usual rules, you can find them here. Beginning with safe choices, these are plays that I’ve either seen before or have heard enough about to be sure that if you like the sound of this play, you’ll like this one – and all of these also have wide appeal. This time, we have three high-profile productions in the same month, and one very different thing.

Jane Eyre

https://i1.wp.com/www.blackeyedtheatre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/BE_JaneEyre-7351-1024x683.jpgBlackeyed Theatre have been touring the country for years with consistently high standards, and their current tour is no exception. Jane Eyre is the third play written by Nick Lane, Blackeyed’s latest creative collaborator, and it continues their high standard: well-written adaptations that use small ensemble casts that – with one exception – stay faithful to the original books, and yet maintain a consistent style throughout their work that is unmistakeably theirs. Jane Eyre is halfway through its tour and I’ve already seen it, and, as expected it lived up to expectations, with the added bonus of a nice throwback to the acoustic sound plots that Blackeyed Theatre does so well.

The most exciting Blackeyed Theatre event this year is yet to come. The one story where Nick Lane made a major change – the addition of Elenor Laynon in The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde – was superb. That is returning later this year. But in the meantime, the return of Jane Eyre is well worth catching if you missed it last time round. The tour takes in Middlesbrough Theatre on the 6th – 7th May.

The Kite Runner

https://www.londontheatre1.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/the-kite-runner-uk-tour.jpg

I rarely send adaptations straight to safe choice solely on the strength of the source material, especially when I don’t know anyone involved in the adaptation, but having seen how effective A Thousand Splendid Suns was on the stage last year I’m sending this straight to the top of the list.There’s a few differences between the two stories though. Loosely mirroring Hosseini‘s own life, Amir’s family succeeded where Laila’s failed: getting out of the country before it was too late. As a result, Amir is spared the horrors of Soviet rule then Taleban rule, but the people he leaves behind aren’t so fortunate. As a result, survivor’s guilt plays a large part of the story.

One curiosity is that The Kite Runner was the target of a minor censorship campaign, from people outraged that over the book giving such an unfairly negative portrayal of, er, the Taleban. On the whole, however, if you liked A Thousand Splendid Suns you will like this one too. The two stories complement each other well to give rounded and nuanced perspective of a dark period of Afghan history that looks beyond the simplistic divisions of goodies and baddies. It calls at the north east with Darlington Hippodrome on the 12th-16th May.

Educating Rita

https://www.educatingrita.co.uk/static/ER-1692380ae26eabff851f2f51bb6e6c50.pngWho’d have predicted this? Less than three years ago, the Gala Theatre ran Willy Russel’s masterpiece for one week, solely for the sake of getting in-house productions back up and running. Jessica Johnson’s superb performance as Rita then inspired Theatre by the Lake to cast her in their own production, along with north-east heavyweights Max Roberts as director and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank. Now that tour has been a success and they are back with a bigger and better tour. I’d originally assumed if this ever came to Newcastle, Live Theatre would be the obvious choice and that’s the favourite haunt of both director and actors. Not now – this calls for a bigger theatre.

And so, what began with a low-key beginning comes to Newcastle Theatre Royal on the 18th-23rd May. The play itself of course needs no introduction, but Jessica Johnson perfectly captures the character of Rita, torn between an ambition to make more of her life than a lowly hairdresser and low self-esteem brought on by friends and family expecting her to know her place. This play has so far only been a footnote in the theatre news of Newcastle, but you have no excuse to miss it this time. It’s about time this performance got the audience it deserves on home terf, so do not miss this.

Green Knight

img_3932e-343x343The first three safe choices are major tours, but this final safe choice is quite the opposite: a solo performance the requires next to nothing in the way of staging. A low-key performance at the last two Buxton Fringe, this swiftly earned a reputation as one of the best performances going. Green Knight is a retelling of Sir Gawain’s legend as told by the temptress Lady Bertilak, but it’s a clever retelling. Nothing is changed from the original story, but a lot is added – and, in a way, this is the only way it could have been if you think about the story. By popular demand, I will point out that Lord Bertilak is a bit of cock and the game he plays was really a cock thing to do. But as well as being a pawn in his game, she is also in love with the noble and gallant Sir Gawain.

The other thing that stands out of the play is its simplicity. Whilst the other three plays all make use of the big stages in their own ways, this performance works best in the small intimate spaces it tours to. No need for lavish lighting and sound plots here – just Debbie Cannon and the props Lady Bertilak brings on stage is all that’s needed to tell that tale. You can see this at York Theatre Royal‘s studio theatre on the 5th February.

Bold choice:

Next three are plays that I know less about, but I have reasons to believe they’re worth a punt. It’s a bit more a risk that may not work out, but if it comes off, you might be glad you were one of the first to see this.

Quality Street

https://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Screenshot-2019-09-12-at-14.47.15.pngProbably the most notable item on the list is Northern Broadsides’ first production under its new artistic director, Laurie Samson. Northern Broadsides raised a few eyebrows last year with the surprise news that its interim artistic director, Conrad Nelson – who everyone assumed was a shoo-in as Barrie Rutter’s permanent replacement – left the company completely. But Laurie Samson is a formidable successor, a former artistic director of both the Royal & Derngate and the National Theatre of Scotland. Huge vote of confidence for Northern Broadsides that they had candidates of that calibre. I’ve only seen one of his plays before years ago, and that was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Fringe; but that was excellent, and a style that I reckon will suit the Broadsiders very well.

Bold choice as Quality Street is an unknown quantity, but what is ? This is a story by J. M. Barrie, and since you’re probably wondering: yes, this is what the well-known chocolates are named after. The story is of Phoebe, who, upon discovering her old flame back from the wars has lost interest in her, re-invents herself as the wilder and sassier Livvy to get him back. Apparently this production has worked in some true-life stories from the real Quality Street factory in Halifax, however that works. One notable change is that, for the first time since God knows when, Northern Broadsides is coming to Newcastle, at Northern Stage on the 24th – 28th March. The Yorkshire stops include the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 12th – 16th May, Harrogate Theatre on the 19th – 23rd May, and York Theatre Royal on the 9th – 13th June.

Ask Me Anything

Ihttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/53403/original/Ask_Me_Anything.jpgt would be a monumental task for The Paper Birds to top Mobile, but that doesn’t stop them trying. Their smash hit from three years ago took people’s stories of social mobility and staged it in a mobile home with amazing effects. This follow-up looks at the world of teenagers. They asked teenagers across to the country to write in and ask their questions, and this is where they give their answers. Already this is a very interesting premise, because there’s two very different audiences to cater for here: teenagers like them who want answers to the life ahead of them, and the rest of the audience who get to see how much things have or haven’t changed since they were that age.

It’s billed as an immersive production: not quite Great Gatsby levels of immersion, but the theatre made up to look like a teenager’s bedroom, and if you’re going to do this properly you should sit on one of the cushion seats. The preview last summer was promising, but the show was at its strongest when it made the most of the innovative staging that made Mobile such a success – I reckon the more opportunities they find to do this, the better the final version will be. It runs at Live Theatre on the 30th January – 8th February. There is also a couple of performances at Black Box, York (I think that’s a space associated with the University) on the 27th-28th February, and then, by a strange coincidence, five cities in alphabetical order. And one other destination worth a mention, but I will get on to that shortly.

Crongton Knights

Pilot Theatre are another frequent visitor to my recommendations, but, everything I’ve seen them do so far has impressed me. Most of scripts are stories I’ve never heard of, but so far I’ve always liked them. What really makes them stand out, however, is their sets. How they stage their plays varies, but from the complex but superbly executed running treadmill plus projections in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to simply but stunningly effective set of Noughts and Crosses last year, they’ve never disappointed.

I confess, however, that on this occasion I honestly don’t know what they’ve got in store. Neither the original book nor this play adaptation are giving away much about what happens. All it says is that McKay and his mates live on a rough estate, until one day a friend gets into trouble and they embark on a mission “that goes further than any of them imagined”. But if Noughts and Crosses is anything to go by, they are holding back on something big. The tour takes in York Theatre Royal on the 25th – 29th February.

You might like …

This category is mainly for plays I’ve seen before and, like safe choice, is something I’m confident you’ll enjoy if you like the sound of this. The only thing they don’t need that safe choice does is wide appeal – these can have more specialist appeal. We have coming up:

Ten Times Table

https://www.kenwright.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/015_Ten-Times-Table_Pamela-Raith-Photography.jpgI don’t normally list Ayckbourns in my picks: legend though he is, you know what you’re getting and know what to expect. However, Ten Times Table has my attention because, over and above the usual reasons to see an Ayckbourn, this revival has accidentally found a new lease of life as a satire of modern politics. Originally meant to poke fun at the pettiness of council committee meetings, the main appeal now is watching the meetings spiral out of control into a power-struggle between the extreme left and extreme right over the pettiest matters imaginable. Needless to say, if you are a Boris superfan or a Jeremy superfan you will probably miss the point of the play. If you grew sick of both Boris superfans and Jeremy superfans a long time ago, you’ll be nodding along. As I said, a somewhat specialist appeal.

Ayckbourn productions are frequently misunderstood by companies who produce them, and the most effective way of ensuring you see Ayckbourn done properly is to see a Stephen Joseph Theatre production – but this production, although not affiliated with the SJT, can almost be claimed as one of theirs, with Robin Herford, Ayckbourn’s deputy for many years, directing the play. This is at York Theatre Royal on the 10th – 15th February. Shit, I’ve left this late. Get your ass down to York today.

Ladybones

I saw this at last year;s Vault Festival and this is worth seeing as something different. Sorcha McCaffrey plays Nuala, an archeology student whose finds a skull on a dig that becomes a trigger for the unravelling of her orderly life. And for her, order is important, because Nuala has OCD. And – as this play sets out to show – OCD is not just an eccentricity involving arranging pens; when events send her out of her comfort zone the play shows how the world becomes a terrifying place.

This isn’t the most straightforward play to follow, but that’s very much the point of story. The tone follows the story – an easy to understand beginning with the discovery of the skull and the attention of a senior researcher with dubious morals; a middle where things get confusing at the height of an OCD episode; before return to some sort of sense and normality at the end. Following a well-received run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, it’s on tour again and comes to Alphabetti Theatre on the 18th – 21st Febuary.

Wildcard

Finally, one thing where I’ve no idea whether or not it’s any good, but it’s grabbed my attention as something of interest. This, however, is something that I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for while.

Shandyland

One thing that every theatre wants is to get more audience in from working-class backgrounds, but it’s only in recent years I’ve seen these efforts stepped up. And yet … I am sceptical. One form this has taken – as this is already becoming an in-joke in theatres – is endless plays about miners. The other forms I’m frequently seeing is political causes popular with middle-class left-wingers, apparently assuming this is what the working class wants to see. Whilst the truth, of course, is that working class (like every other group) is a vastly diverse bunch of people with a whole range of backgrounds, interests, experiences and opinions. I cannot speak for anyone working-class myself, but if it was me, this would come across as a programme that a middle-class dominated theatre elite thinks the working-class ought to be interested in, regardless of reality.

So I’m pinning my hopes of Shandyland, coming in the spring. This is a co-production between four theatres and Greyscale, and is the is story of Amy, who was born on the floor of a Working Men’s Club. The story spans twenty years, and promises a shout of frustration from an abandoned community. So far, so good. Can this avoid the pitfalls that so many other plays fall foul of? Find out on the12th – 23rd May at Northern Stage.

Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school

be_janeeyre-7269-1024x683-1

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.

approaching-empty_production_helenmurray-8-1024x683-1

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.

Continue reading

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

Odds and sods: November 2019

Time for 2019’s final odds and sods. Let’s get straight into it. November has been a month of riots and the total destruction of the country, or at least that’s what Mark Francois told me. But in between rebuilding civilisation from the shattered remains of our society, this happened:

Stuff that happened in November

There was one important bit of news, and that was the events at Middlesbrough Town Hall coming to light. The short version is that this venue refused “comedian” (note use of quotation marks) Roy Chubby Brown the use of Middlesbrough Town Hall, the mayor overruled management, and the manager of the venue resigned in protest. The long version is these actions shine a spotlight into the normally murky world of programming and politics. And with both the original actions of the venue and the subsequent intervention of the mayor, you should be concerned. For more details, see We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown.

Apart from that, here’s the rest of the news, and my thoughts on the matter.

Lumiere 2021 is on

ejgvzgzxuaieqqjWe start with the big event of November, which is Lumiere. As usual, I will be doing a roundup, probably so late that by the time it’s done it’ll be time for the next Lumiere. As anyone who was in Durham that week will know, the weather was not kind and there was a lot of rain on three of the four nights. Anecdotally, I overheard a lot of people saying they weren’t going to bother because of the weather, and for anyone who is used to Lumiere crowds and know when and where it’s hard to get around, it was plain to see the numbers were down, although there was a consolation that you had to spend less time queuing in the rain. The turnout estimates are now out and as suspected, it is down quite a lot: 165,000, a drop of nearly a quarter from last year’s peak of 240,000. Had this happened in 2013, when the question over a return was up in the air, that would have been a disaster. 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

lord_of_the_flies_1

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.

Continue reading

We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown

Roy Chubby Brown and Robert Walpole
FIGHT!!!!!

COMMENT: It won’t be easy to find a right balance when programming controversial acts in publicly-run venues. But neither unofficial blacklists nor political intervention are the way to do it.

Oh dear. This almost passed me by, but there’s been a pretty major controversy over at Middlesbrough. Roy Chubby Brown is coming to Middlesbrough Town Hall in spring next year. Given the, shall I say, “contentious” nature of Roy Chubby Brown’s material, that alone raises a few eyebrows. But the really controversial bit is not the decision itself, but how the decision was made. The management had originally refused the booking – it was the newly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough who overruled them, and the manager of the Town Hall resigned apparently in protest.

In the end, however, something like this was bound to happen. The issue over venues refusing to programme Roy Chubby Brown goes back years, with reasons for refusal rarely being more specific than “it’s offensive”. And with so many venues owned by their respective local authorities, it was only a matter of time before someone higher up took the view that people who are offended don’t have to watch it. I wasn’t expecting things to come to a head so close to home, but in hindsight, it’s not too much of a surprise it happened in Middlesbrough – and not just because this is his home town. I will come on to this reason later.

So here we go again. As this raises questions about censorship and this is an anti-censorship blog, it’s time for me to give my thoughts. I don’t respond to every story that’s a censorship issue, but the main reason for this one – apart from the fact it’s happened on my doorstep – is that this shines a spotlight on two practices that normally have no scrutiny: one is how arts venue managers choose to programme at publicly-owned facilities; the other is how and when people higher up intervene in the running of these venues. And on this one occasion where we get an insight into what happens behind closed doors, it’s worrying for a lot of reasons. Continue reading