How to make next year’s Lumière even better

You might have caught the exciting news this week that Lumière is returning to Durham. This news does sound suspiciously like the news from two months ago that Lumière is returning to Durham. In fact, the only new bit of news is that they’ve chosen the actual dates: it’s the 14th-17th November 2013. But, non-news aside, eyes now turn to what we can expect from the festival next year.

At present, nothing has been announced, but the one thing we can be sure of is that is won’t be the same as last year. Last year, the popular Crown of Light installation on Durham Cathedral was too good: so popular, in fact, that Saddler Street couldn’t cope with the number of pedestrians. Even the last-moment crowd control could only do so much. Everybody who’s anybody in Durham has an opinion on this, so expect blogs and forum to shortly be jam-packed with everyone’s back-seat driving suggestions. But, what the hell, let’s join in. On the aspects of crowds and other things, here are my suggestions:

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The Lavishness of the Long-Distance Projector

Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Alan Stillitoe’s 1959 classic is a fine example of both writing and directing, but the biggest achievement of all is the stunning technical presentation.

When an earth-shattering news story shakes the entire nation, the whole nation reacts to it. Journalists fill up pages of newspaper, politicians work it into Conference speeches, and not wanting to be left out, play writers respond by writing gazillions of similar plays about it. Ever since August last year, the London Riots are all the rage, and so far we’ve probably had hits such as the modern gritty urban drama This is your Big Society Cameron, the modern gritty urban drama We Wuz Tired of Being Hassled by da Pigs Innit, and the modern gritty urban drama Concrete and Piss (okay, that last one is a fictitious title coined by Charlie Brooker, but I’m sure we’ll find a play with that name if we look hard enough). Now Pilot Theatre are weighing in with their stage adaptation of Alan Stillitoe’s classic short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, transformed into a modern gritty urban drama about the London Riots. But don’t let this put you off – it’s good.

Roy Williams transplants this story from its original setting of a 1950s borstal to the present day. There is one overriding observation: you wouldn’t guess you were watching an adaptation if you didn’t know. It makes it look like the contemporary post-riot setting was how the story was written all along. But whilst many so-called adaptations butcher the originals, in this script the key events are the same. Colin Smith (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is a young petty criminal doing time, discovered to be an extraordinary runner. The story takes place over the course of the run, flashing back to his time behind bars and the events that led him behind bars: his only caring relative, his father, dead from a terminal illness; a mother splashing out this insurance money on a new fancy man; choosing boring unemployment over boring menial jobs; and eventually arrest following a stupid attempt to rob a bakery. If he wins the race, the Governor will look good, and Colin will be set up for a glittering sports career when he gets out. Everybody wins, huh?

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Is the People’s Theatre the shape of things to come?

Howard Brenton’s Never So Good is an interesting play about a piece of British history fading from memory. Even more interesting, however, is the prospect of the rise of the semi-professional performance.

Amateur dramatics is often dismissed out of hand by professionals as, well, amateurish. For reasons I’ll come on to in a moment, I think this is a stupid generalisation, but it sticks. But in the north-east, the People’s Theatre is the exception. It is highly thought of across the region, it teams up with New Writing North for the region’s most prestigious playwriting competition, and it is reputedly popular with aspiring professional actors seeking to make a name for themselves. It even managed to get performing rights to Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters whilst the official professional production was still touring. (I’ve also heard complaints that the company is ridden with amateur dramatics politics, but let’s be fair: that applies to most drama groups.)

The People’s Theatre’s latest offering is Never So Good by Howard Brenton, a biopic of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The politics of the UK 50s and 60s is, when you think about it, a surprisingly obscure subject in the public consciousness. Political history tends to be viewed as Chamberlain, Churchill, Atlee, and then nothing of note until Thatcher. This play brings to life an era where old values are giving way to new ones. The story begins with a young Macmillan dutifully and wholeheartedly signing up for World War One; continues with Macmillan’s opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement, even overlooking his wife’s continuing affair with a political ally; his underhand tactics as Chancellor to seize power from a prime minster’s disastrous foreign intervention (does that sound familiar?); and finally, after career of public duty for country and empire, his inability to understand why people now want to laugh with oiks like Peter Cook at Beyond the Fringe, or jeopardise his government with the first major sex scandal in politics. I wasn’t quite convinced by the younger Macmillan following the older Macmillan as a mocking commentator – it seems a half-hearted attempt to integrate this into the play, and I’ve seen other writers employ this device better – but it’s still a well-written play. Continue reading

Warning: this is not Hi-di-Hi

Lee Mattinson’s Chalet Lines isn’t the gentle drama about Butlins it’s made out to be – but when you take it for what it is, it’s very enjoyable.

Live Theatre has always taken risks with its new writing. As a result, it’s very much a hit-and-miss affair. It’s worth it for the hits, because when it gets it right it produces runaway successes such as And a Nightingale Sang and The Pitman Painters. The first half of this year, however, has been on the the other end of the scale. By almost all accounts, Nativities was a disappointment and Utopia was a disaster. Geordie Sinatra and Close the Coalhouse Door were successes, but they were co-productions where the lion’s share of artistic credit really goes to the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Northern Stage respectively. Fortunately, Live can call upon playwrights with past successes and loyal followings. Steve Gilroy brought The Prize to Live last month, and now it’s the turn of Live veteran Lee Mattinson to bring Chalet Lines, directed by Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush Theatre where this play was co-produced.

I’ll start with the problem: this is a play that doesn’t do what it says on the tin. I got this impression that this was going to be a play about what made families who went to Butlins in the 70s and 80s. In a modern world of package holidays and Easyjet, it would have very interesting subject to see what made people go to the same British resort year after year. Instead, this is play focuses on a disintegrating family, mostly set in the last two decades, and the setting of Butlins is only incidental. I noticed several people (presumably people who were expecting something gentle like Hi-di-Hi!) not return to their seats after the interval. You could argue that the play’s not for those people, and that you’ve already got their money anyway, but Live is pushing their luck. They’ve frequently marketed their plays differently to what’s in them: recently we’ve had Faith and Cold Reading which little to do with faith or cold reading, and I haven’t a clue what Nativities had to do with the Nativity. This is a bad habit and will cost Live future ticket sales if they’re not careful.

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Give Darlington Arts Centre to the people

COMMENT: If Darlington Council can no longer run Darlington Arts Centre, it should be handed to people who can.

One issue that’s been discussed a lot throughout the theatre world but not much on this blog is the cuts to arts subsidies. I’ve got mixed views about it myself, which I may go into another day, but this post is about what’s happening now. As it happens, north-east theatres aren’t doing too badly. Live Theatre and Northern Stage have kept their “portfolio” status (as has the Stephen Joseph Theatre). The Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire are very much commercial ventures and so have little to fear. The Gala Theatre has got some sort of status as a “cultural” hub for all of Durham’s festivals. There’s issues over local authority funding and internal politics at the Gala, but on the whole there’s no prospect of any of these places closing their doors.

A glaring exception is Darlington. Darlington Borough Council ran two theatres on Arts Council support: the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre. But unlike its Newcastle counterparts, lack year, the funding was scrapped. For a while, the closure of both theatres was contemplated. Thankfully, the Civic Theatre has done well enough since then to escape the axe, but the Arts Centre was not so lucky. In July this year, Darlington Arts Centre was closed, and this is a big loss to the town. The Civic Theatre alone does not compensate for this. Small theatres are an asset because they allow small-scale productions to perform that would never be viable in a 500+ seat theatre. I see little chance that plays going to the Arts Centre will be using the Civic Theatre instead.

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The Empty Shop is now a theatre space!

Small bit of breaking news. I’ve known about this for some time, but it was only properly announced a few days ago.

So, I can now tell you that The Empty Shop HQ off Framwellgate Bridge is now open to wider range of events which includes the possibility of theatre. This means that the Empty Shop effectively becomes Durham’s fourth space for performance after the Gala, the Assembly Rooms and the City Theatre. All this and more is possible due to a change in license term for the building. Not sure why there was a rule against this in the first place, but whatever the reason, it’s all change.

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10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting

This is a follow-on from my Edinburgh Fringe roundup. I’ve already listed what was good about what I saw about the Fringe. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of stuff that was bad. I’m not going to name and shame individual productions – that’s not what this blog is for – but I do need to start listing what goes wrong, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, in the hope that this stops someone doing the same in the future.

First thing’s first. I do not claim to be an expert on playwriting. Indeed, some of these mistakes I’ve done myself. At present, I have written a number of one-act and full-length plays, had a few of my one-acts done on stage, made it to the finals of two playwriting competitions, and been selected for Live Theatre’s 2011 writers’ group. Not bad, but not spectacular either. What I do have is a vast number of plays I’ve seen – at least 60 plays per year lately – from small fringe productions to big-budget West End productions. I have also considered scripts of plays from Samuel French texts to unperformed unpublished works. In both cases, they range from outstanding to abominable.

The thing is, I never see a play because I expect it to be bad. Usually the description of the play was promising – it just failed to live up to its potential. And when it fails, it is down to the same mistakes being made over and over again. So here is my list of the most common easy ways that beginners spoil plays (and established professionals too, but beginners do this more often), together with some not-so-easy ways on how you can avoid this.

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