September 2022 roundup: Sugar Baby and more

Skip to: Sugar Baby, Shakers, Brassed Off

So fringe season is over and it’s back to local plays. I saw three play in September, all bringing stories from outside the area into the north east in different ways: a straight revival, an ambitious update, and a challenging adaptation. The result vary, so let’s see how they do.

Sugar Baby

So we begin with a play at Alphabetti. Although Alphabetti theatre has made the three-week run the norm, it varies where the plays come from. Some are new plays by local artists, but this one is a revival of a play by Welsh playwright Alan Harris. It was also premiered at Paines Plough’s Roundabout at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. Having been encouraged to check out what they do in Edinburgh, this was a good opportunity for a catch up.

On the face of it, Sugar Baby could be a thriller. Marc is trying to clear some debts with loan shark Oggy. Lisa also owes Marc money, and is paying her debts by being his sugar baby. Unknown to Oggy, however, Lisa has always has the hots for Marc. That in itself could make a decent thriller. However, the twist to all of this is that 1) it all takes place in the same suburb of Cardiff and 2) everybody in this story seems to have gone to the same school, which just makes it all the more awkward. This balances up the thriller with comedy. The third part to to story, however, is an unexpected poignancy. Marc is trying to pay off his dad’s debts, but it barely registers at the beginning of the play that he has no contact with his estranged mother. When circumstance forces him to come to her for help, there are touching moments in an otherwise madcap about reconnecting with someone you cut out of your life.

The play is a good all-rounder. As well as straddling genres so well, Alan Harris’s writing is sharp and witty, always keeping up the pace, occasionally introducing moments of surrealism, but never one forcing characters to do implausible things for the sake of either plot or jokes. Natasha Haws does a fine job of directing this, and Ben Gettins nails the part of Marc perfectly. I don’t think there was a weak link anywhere amongst the team, but I was particularly impressed with Matt Jamie’s projections on the walls. It wasn’t just the technical skill for doing this, but also the styling way it was done. I don’t know how much of this was the idea of the production and how much was stated in the script, but this is one of the times where simplicity works so well.

There’s just one small irritation. I can’t remember to Alphabetti has reconfigured its seating, but there is a corner with filled in seating. As anyone used to a thrust stage knows, corners with aisles for seating are a good spot to face inwards to the stage, so that you completely have you back to no-one – but unfortunately I was sitting in that corner and spent a lot of time looking at Ben Gettin’s back. But that’s only a small issue. It’s a fun play more than anything challenging, but it’s is a very enjoyable read. Sugar Baby finishes this week and it’s work catching if you can.

Sugar Baby continues until 8th October at Alphabetti Theatre.

Shakers: under new management

Now, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Shakers is famous for being the female version of Bouncers, with John Godber this time co-writing the play with his wife, Jane Thornton. However, the focus is quite different. Ralph, Judd, Les and Lucky Eric are quite content to hand around the door of a seedy nightclub looking moderately intimidating, but that’s not an option for cocktail waitress Adele, Mel, Carol and Nicky. They have to be nice to all the customers even though many of them treat the four like shit. The inspiration for the play was the camaraderie that workers in these jobs develop when the going gets tough (something I can vouch for based on conversations I’ve had with people in these jobs for real).

However, the difference is with how the play is updated. Godber tweaks Bouncers every time he produces it, but the story is broadly the same. Jane Thornton makes the point that the lot of these waitresses hasn’t changed much either, which may well be true – however, what has changed is that this is being talked about a lot more. At the time this was written, it passed without comment that bar workers would walk home alone in the early hours – today, that is a hot topic of debate. Shakers bar, however, is stubbornly refusing to move with the times, with managers sodding off before the going gets tough, and no money on door staff – and customers who do not, or will not, think about that these three (the cast cut from four in the original) what they have to put up with.

I’m sold on the idea, there’s clearly a lot to be done with a reboot. What I’m not quite so sold on, however, was doing this as an update rather than a sequel. Some of the things translate well. For example, the group of party girls out on the lash (like Bouncers, the cast play all the parts of the people going in and out), are now a group of teachers on the lash, only to run to a group of their pupils taking pictures of them disgracing themselves. At least you never had to worry about camera phones and the internet in 1984. Other times, however, the updates feel like a bolt-on. There is a discussion of the Ask for Angela posters in the toilets – but nothing comes of that.

Which is why I’m wondering if Godber and Thornton would have been better off doing this as a new play. Keep the play format, keep the shitty conditions, but do a new set of stories to fit around the issues we know today rather than retrofit the old stories. What if someone came to the bar as actually did ask for “Angela”? We’ve already established this bar doesn’t care enough about safety to bother with security – how are Adele, Nicky and Mel meant to confront her possibly violent bad date? It was a good time to choose to revive Shakers and it’s worth catching on tour, but maybe this would be had the most impact as Shakers 2. Next time, perhaps.

Brassed Off

And finally, on to the Gala Theatre’s flagship production for the year. In some ways, this was a safe bet: anything based on the legendary 1996 film ought to be an guaranteed draw, and although the film was set in the Yorkshire coalfield, it could just as easily have taken place in County Durham, hence the logical change of location. In other ways, however, it’s a very ambitious thing to take on: Mark Herman’s script is a very cinematic script with numerous cutscenes impossible to reproduce on stage. There is also the massive logistical challenge of how to include a brass band, which, as you may recall, has a pretty central role in the story. Two colliery bands played Grimethorpe Colliery Band; I saw Fisburn on the night I went, it’s vital for the band to have a decent standard of playing if we’re to believe they’re going to win at the Albert Hall, and they did they job. Even so, putting this all together on stage is a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, the Gala Theatre can call on Conrad Nelson, who has a long track record with Northern Broadsides of making polished productions out of logistical nightmares. This is the sort of script where it’s goes unnoticed when you do things right and sticks out like a sore thumb, so the fact that this all went off without a hitch is a credit to the production.

However – and apologies for putting a hot take here – I am not taken in with Paul Allen’s stage adaptation. This script came two years after the film and has run and run, so he must be doing something right (and his biography of Alan Ayckbourn is excellent). But I’m not convinced Allen’s style of writing is suited to Mark Herman’s style of cinematography; nor am I convinced does it go that well with Conrad Nelson’s strengths as a director. To appreciate how cinematic Mark Herman’s screenplays are, it’s worth seeing both the stage and screen versions of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Both versions are great, but Herman’s screen play of Jim Cartwright’s stage play is a very different experience. Doing it the other way round and changing his script from screen play to stage play isn’t straightforward, because some of the most memorable moments of the film are a single line delivered in a single frame – the union official’s reading out of the ballot result being one that spring to mind. Paul Allen, however, is a much more static play with longer scenes and semi-permanent sets taking up the stage. In addition, the script seems to flesh out chunks of the story that didn’t need fleshing out, and sometimes knocks things out of balance. Andy and Gloria were a believable couple in the film, but in the stage script they spend 90% of their time bickering about pit closure politics and the chemistry is lost.

I know Conrad Nelson (whose previous work I’ve loved) isn’t going to agree with my verdict of the script. He’d previously directed it for the New Vic and wouldn’t have done it again if he didn’t believe in it. There are some touches in the play that I like: the men queuing up to vote in the pit closure ballot making the most important decision of their lives was a good addition, where body language said more than any words. Credit goes to Maddie Hanson for doing what Tara Fitzgerald didn’t and play her own flugelhorn. The Gala’s production does achieve every it set out to do, of bringing a story into County Durham, involving local people who otherwise wouldn’t take part in theatre, and drawing in a good audience, but it’s harder to please someone who loves the original film and carries forward the sky-high expectations. What’s frustrating is that I reckon his usual collaborator and wife Deborah McAndrew could have done an excellent adaptation if her track record of previous adaptations is anything to go by. Probably impossible to go down this route now, not without some massive arguments, but should they ever gown down that route, I’ll be up for it.

April 2022 fringe roundup

Skip to: The Hunger, Opolis

This was supposed to be a longer article, but owing to a series of cancellations and sell-outs I’ve only managed to catch two fringe-scale plays. But it’s a pleasing two, which coincidentally share the same theme of dystopia.

The Hunger

Most dystopias are of a dystopian future. Black bright Theatre, however, entertains an alternate dystopian past. In these alternate 1980s Deborah and Megan are holed up in their farm deep in the Yorkshire Dales. The world has become a dangerous place since the disease took hold, spread through those who ate the flesh of infected pigs. Those who survived must evade the infected, who have been transformed into flesh-crazed monsters who can infect you. They must also, we presume, evade the vegans, who will never let you hear the last of this.

The Zombie Apocalypse is a trope that’s frequently dunked on. It’s the trope that’s been so over-used by films that it’s practically considered a genre in its own right. Every time a new zombie flick comes out people take the piss out of it with “OMG, this is the most brilliant idea for a film. You’ve got a world where this people become ZOMBIES, and they can turn other people into MORE ZOMBIES. But wait, here comes the best bit. There are survivors who group together, but the real danger is – wait for it – when they FIGHT AMONGST THEMSELVES!” Even when plays or films don’t play to trope stereotypes, it’s difficult to produce anything that’s original and not predictable. Madeline Farnhill’s primary challenge, therefore, is to somehow create something different in some way. How do you do that? Maybe play on the last corny real-life catchphrase? Learn to live with the virus?

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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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Back to business: Pod and Shine

Skip to: Pod, Shine

Okay, here we go. Now that an extremely busy fringe season is out of the way, it’s time to catch up on all the other plays I’ve seen since we got going. I am planning to do most of these in the order I saw them, which I’m afraid will mean several plays are going to get reviews several months later. However, I am bumping this first article up the list due to a sort-of review request. It came to my attention that I was supposed to be invited to one of these plays, but the invitation never reached me. The details are far too boring to go into, but I thought I’d get this one out when things are still fresh.

So … Unlike the Festival Fringes, which have been running to a sort-of-normal since June, most theatres outside of London have opted for a September relaunch. And with that, a lot of eyes have been on the relaunch plays. Live Theatre and Alphabetti have both run plays for three weeks. At the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm to praise everything simply for getting on stage. But, folks, I don’t hand out high praise as a participation prize. You still have to earn it. So, how did these do?

Pod

Pod isn’t actually Alphabetti’s reopening play – they have been bolder than most of their north-east counterparts and have been phasing in performances since April – but such was the fanfare around this one it may as well be their relaunch play. Coracle Theatre has been one of Alphabetti’s closest collaborators; indeed, they opened Alphabetti in its current venue the first time round. So whilst this play is a catch-up from a heavily postponed 2020 programme, it was good choice for a relaunch.

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My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best they could realistically achieve from one production, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen In, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

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The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2016

Skip to: Jurassic Park, Of Mice and Men, The Bookbinder, Dancing in the Dark, The Jungle Book, Le Bossu, Consuming Passions, The Season Ticket, Frankenstein, How Did We Get To This Point?

And so, we come up to the final year of the list for now. When first set off doing this, I had planned to do these articles all the way to the present day, but I found as I went along it was more fun doing this as a retrospective, in particular wondering what these artists who impressed me are doing now. So I’m going to stop here for now and continue in real time. The Ike Award Hall of Fame 2017 will be done next year, 2018 the year after, so that there will always be a 3-4 period to reflect and see what happens next.

But before that, the outstanding plays of 2016, and this is a long list. It was probably chance more than anything, but amongst the plays I saw in 2016, the standard was exceptional. As a result, there are ten of you who’ve kept me busy writing this up:

Jurassic Park / Dinosaur Park / The Jurassic Parks

What is the best thing you can hope to get from the Edinburgh Fringe. Some might say a Fringe First, some might say wall-to-wall five-star reviews, but there is surely no greater honour than everybody at the fringe saying how great you were. At the 2015 fringe, I lost count of the number of times people saying how good Jurassic Park was. So I took the opportunity to work this into my visit I checked it out for myself (now called Dinosaur Park), and found out it is indeed as good as everyone said, and more.

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Shy Manifesto and Bacon Knees

Skip to: The Shy Manifesto, Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, Bonnie and the Bonnettes

A lot of stories have been jumping the queue in this blog, but now it’s time to get back to the reviews. Two plays have been on recently about outsiders – one story about someone different through choice, and another about two people different through no choice of their own. Let’s get to it.

The Shy Manifesto

The Shy ManifestoMeet Callum. He’s going to tell you all about the virtues of being shy. When I decided to see this play, I assumed the message was going to be that not all men sing rugby songs, go body building and shout “wahey” at copies of Nuts magazine and that’s okay. Callum (Theo Ancient), however, goes further than that. If “it’s fine to be shy” is the message of the moderates, Callum belongs to the militant extremist wing. That’s not much of an exaggeration either – his only friends on social media are fellow radical shy activists from across the world, passionately reinforcing each other’s beliefs, and any lapses into extroversion are punished harshly by the group. Continue reading

Overdue and Ella Grey

Skip to: Overdue, A Song for Ella Grey

Continuing the catch-up of what’s been showing since fringe season, September got started with two concurrently-running fortnight-long plays. One was a relatively safe mainstream play in a theatre often used for new and experimental work, and the other was a very experimental piece in a theatre best known for safer bets. So let’s get to it and see what was on offer.

Overdue

3-20jack2028benjamin20michael20smith29202620beth2028rosie20stancliffe29So, starting with Alphabetti Theatre, this play took the highly prestigious slot of the opening piece for the brand-new venue. With this standing to set expectations for a lot of Alphabetti first-timers, a lot of responsibility was entrusted to co-producers Coracle Arts. But it was a good bet to take, because Arabella Arnott’s play had a very promising opening at the Gala’s scratch night, due in part to Rosie Stancliffe in the lead role of Beth. She has shone in every role I’ve seen her in, and even if the play itself doesn’t work out, she’s always added to it. Continue reading

How did they get to this point?

How Did We Get To This Point? was a gamble to the point of sheer recklessness. But it paid off and Alphabetti’s alternative Christmas show is the best thing they’ve done.

Picture on wall: man holding sign saying "Keep your coins, I want change"How did Alphabetti Theatre get to this point? Their end-of-year production was very much a hastily-arranged Plan C. The original plan fell through when another theatre nabbed the writer they intended to commission. Then the next idea, to do a plan based on talking to Leave voters about the why they voted, but they wouldn’t come forward. (More on that subject another day.) With December looming, by this point one would normally be in damage control mode, forgetting hopes of a ground-breaker and settling for something merely okay. Anyway a plan was made to sort-of revive How Did I Get To This Point?, a play they once did as a studio production at Live Theatre a few years back.

It’s not often I know the background to a play in this much detail. The reason I know this one is that the history of Alphabetti Theatre, up to and including the production of the play, is the story of the play itself, interspersed with stories of homeless people. By this point, loads of red flags ought to have been flying. Self-indulgence and self-referencing is difficult to pull off, and doubly difficult if you’ve decided to do this at the last moment. This could have been a disaster.

And what do you know? Against all odds, How Did We Get To This Point? is the best thing they’ve ever done in this theatre. Continue reading

Alphabetti in May: Frank Sumatra, The Frights, Your Ever Loving

So, just before my Brighton Fringe reviews come rolling in, there’s just time to catch up with the latest offerings from the north-east’s fringe venue, Alphabetti Theatre. They’ve been having a busy month centred around a straight swap with Theatre N16 in London. First they showed their very first play shown at the current venue, whilst their very first in-house play showed in London at the same time. Then they swapped round. In the latter case, it was part of a double-bill with a choice of a second half: either another play from N16, or two “response plays”. I went for the first choice as I’ve never been convinced by the concept of response plays, although to be honest, my choice was largely dictated by the fact that was the only time I could see it.

This is going to have to be some speedy reviews and I’m typing this an my train to London, so let’s get started. Continue reading