Stephen Joseph’s secret weapon

Everybody knows the runaway success of The Woman in Black. But few people know this play’s humble origins.

West End: Glamour. Glitz. Big casts. Lavish sets. Celebrity names up in big flashing lights. Uber-expensive special effects. Live music, featuring the songs of Queen/Westlife/Jedward. One thousand Vietnamese children dressed in rags swarm the stage. (The last one has so far only been done in a Litttle Britain sketch, but I’m sure they’re working on it.)

Fringe theatre: No glamour. No glitz. No celebrity names. Little or no set. Tiny cast: talented drama graduates if you’re lucky, pretentious students if you’re not. If it’s a good play, compensate for all of this with good acting, a good script, innovative directing, and careful and cunning use of basic lighting and sound effects.

Stephen Joseph theatre: Where Alan Ayckbourn does his stuff.

These three don’t really have much in common with each other. Or do they? Let’s take The Woman in Black, which I’ve just seen for the second time, this time at Darlington. This play is now in its 21st year at the Fortune Theatre, whilst simultaneously touring the country to packed theatres. Oh, and it’s apparently the 5th longest-running West End show of all time, between Blood Brothers and Cats. In short, this is what every producer dreams of.

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100% is too much

COMMENT: The arts have to take their fair share of cuts along with everyone else – but the 100% proposed by Newcastle City Council is going way too far.

At the moment, everybody who’s anybody is sticking their oar in to protest against the proposed 100% cut to Newcastle City Council’s arts budget. This is gone way beyond a local campaign, and has been grabbing the attention of national media and national celebrities. I’m not really one for leaping on to bandwagons, but on this occasion I have to say I am in broad agreement with – well, pretty much everyone else.

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And don’t forget the Royalty

The Royalty Theatre’s production of The Day After the Fair shows that there’s more to Sunderland’s theatre scene than The Empire.

Let’s get this out of the way. Full disclosure: I am a not member of the Royalty Theatre, but I have links with them. At least four actors I’ve worked with are members. I have a read-through of one of my scripts coming up, and I am in ongoing discussions about the possibility of a performance. As such, I am not really in a position to give an impartial review. However, I’ve given their Newcastle counterparts (the People’s Theatre) a few mentions now, so it’s only fair that the Royalty gets a look in too. For the record, none of the people I know at the Royalty are involved in this play.

I’ve previously argued, as have many other people, that the People’s Theatre in Newcastle is a valid alternative to the many professional theatres on offer, but in Sunderland the situation is even more polarised. The only professional theatre on offer is The Empire, which describes itself as “The West End of the North East”. That’s not a bad description, but like the West End, there is very little actual theatre on offer. Out of all the events on offer in the next six months, I can only see one thing that I’d call a play; the rest are musicals, ballet, opera, big-name celebrities, and musical tribute acts. (This compares to seven at the Theatre Royal, nine at Live Theatre and three at Northern Stage.) Which means that for actual theatre in Sunderland, you usually need to turn to a much obscurer building just west of the city centre. However, the Royalty Theatre is an amateur theatre, so this can mean anything from productions as good as the professionals to toe-curlingly lame village hall shows (“Didn’t they all try hard?”) So, what do we have here? Well, the Royalty’s offering for January (indeed virtually the only offering that month if you’re allergic to pantomimes) is Frank Harvey’s The Day After the Fair, which is based on a Thomas Hardy short story, On the Western Circuit.

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What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2013

So, the 2012 awards are decided, who might be in line for 2013? Once again, I’ve been looking through the listings of the local theatres, and here’s what might be in line for a 2013 award.

First up on my recommendations is The Woman in Black. This is on a tour and will be calling at the north-east at Darlington Civic Theatre (4-9 February), York Theatre Royal (25 Feb – 3 Mar) and Newcastle Theatre Royal (20-25 May). I don’t normally make recommendations for big productions that include Newcastle’s Theatre Royal because in general they get enough publicity as it is. And, also, as you may have gathered from my lukewarm review of One Man, Two Guvnors, a show that comes highly recommended to me doesn’t always fully live up to expectations. But this time, you needn’t worry: I have seen The Woman in Black before, and I can confirm it’s good.

What’s good about the play is not only the strength of Susan Hill’s original novel, but also the strength of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation. Many West End plays based on books rely on elaborate scenes and special effects in order to try to reproduce the novel, but this does the opposite: it’s made into a play within a play, where the central character, now an old man, rehearses a re-enactment of his story of stage. With a cast of two men (plus a not totally insignificant female cameo), a relatively simple set and some clever special effect, it manages to produce something that is deservedly up there with the most successful West End plays without the razzmatazz of the others. One thing I would say is, if you can, try to see this in a smaller theatre. This is a play where, the closer you can get to the action, the better.

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Chris Neville-Smith’s 2012 awards

So, another year gone, and I’ve seen a grand total of 82 plays. So now it’s time to look back over the year and pick the ones that stood out for me. As usual, the completely arbitrary criterion for entry is that it has to be a play I happened to see. So, without further ado, let’s get going.

Best new writing:

Caroline Horton in MessQuite a few good pieces of new writing this year, but there were two things in particular which stuck in my mind. I was seriously tempted by Sparkle and Dark’s The Girl With No Heart. This was largely a team effort, and consequently the credit for the creativity lies with the whole team and not just one person, but this wouldn’t have been half the play it was without Louisa Ashton’s outstanding script. Other strong contenders include Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison and Stuart Lee’s Dev’s Army.

But the award goes to Caroline Horton for Mess, a very moving play about anorexia. It manages to tackle a very sensitive subject in a way that makes people understand why people do this, and yet keeps it humorous. Most striking, however, was the way the author clearly drew on her own experiences of anorexia, and – incredibly – performed the leading role herself. That was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, the praise for this play is thoroughly deserved, and this is someone who could be going to to better things very quickly. Continue reading

The importance of being earnestly directed

One of the rare antidotes on offer in pantomime season, The Importance of Being Earnest at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is a good case study of how a good director can make a difference.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre showed The Importance of Being Earnest over Christmas, and it’s good. To be honest, I could end the review right here. Oscar Wilde’s most famous play is, in my opinion, one of the easiest plays out there to produce. See this advertised by any semi-competent theatre company and you can be pretty confident of a good production.

So as we all know this play let’s get straight to- … What do you mean “I don’t know The Importance of Being Earnest“? Honestly, some people. Right, Act I, Algernon Moncrieff meets his friend Earnest Worthing in London, and drags out of him a confession that his real name is in fact Jack, and only goes by the identity of Earnest in the city. His sweetheart Gwendolynn, however, clearly states she only loves him because he is name’s Earnest, whilst her mother, Lady Bracknell, further discovers Jack was found as a baby in a handbag and refuses permission in marriage. Act II, Algernon, having discovered Jack has an attractive ward named Cecily, who believes Earnest is Jack’s naughty brother, pops over to Jack’s country home pretending to be Earnest and they fall in love. Gwendolynn then meets Cecily, and they of course mistakenly conclude they are both in love with the same Earnest. Cue the 19th century’s most famous bitch-fest. And so on. Are we up to date now?

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And thank you, City Hall, for being a good sport

Northern Broadsides might be best known for their Shakespeare, but A Government Inspector shows that the partnership of Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson is another priceless string to their bow.

Jonathan Sapper and the brass band

Public sector employers, for all their virtues, have never been renowned for a sense of humour. The UK civil service, for instance, goes to great lengths to say that Yes Minister is in no way an accurate portrayal of a 21st-century government department. (Footnote: I worked in one, and I can assure you the truthful response is: “Oh yes it is.”) But, in fairness, that’s nothing compared to Nickolai Gogol’s experience with The Government Inspector. When he wrote his satire of petty bureaucracy and corruption in 19th-century Russia, it was only due to the Tsar’s intervention he was able to stage it at all. But the royal endorsement didn’t do that much good, because the outrage from His Majesty’s loyal servants drove him to exile within a year.

Luckily for Gogol, he chose a subject with remarkable staying power. The story centres on a provincial Russian town that is corrupt through and through. The tinpot tyrant Mayor taking bribes from everyone, and the poor old shopkeepers at the bottom of the pile forced to pay these bribes in order to stay in business. All is well until word reaches the Mayor of a high-ranking government official coming to investigate the allegations of corruption. Don’t panic – just a temporary alteration to the pecking order. Just pass this man a few non-repayable loans and he’ll be on his way. But we never find out if this plan would have worked, because they mistake a low-grade civil servant staying at the inn for for the inspector – and worse, he’s a complete sponger only too happy to soak up the flattery and backhanders.

Needless to say, this play proves very popular for adaptations, because if you remove the references to Russia and the Tsar and it could be set anywhere. The most well-known sort-of adaptation is the Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors. But whilst Basil Fawlty eventually wises up and the sponging hotel guest eventually gets his comeuppance, the Mayor in Gogol’s play remains blissfully oblivious. Even when the Mayor’s wife and daughter both start fawning over the fake inspector, the Mayor is happy to let him help himself as long as that buys him power or influence. And it get worse. Anyway, the Fawlty Towers episode is just one of many spin-offs, and the latest one is Northern Broadsides’ own adaptation, now titled A Government Inspector.

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