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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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
Meet 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 →
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.
So, 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 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.
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 →
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 →
Alphabetti’s Carols and Cocktails, is ambitious – maybe too ambitious – but a very bold choice for a December productions.
If there’s one thing 2015 will be remembered for in Newcastle theatre, it will surely be the setup of Alphabetti Theatre. This might sound like hyperbole, but honestly, they’ve become the venue of choice for all the small-scale groups in Newcastle, and they earned the wholehearted report of the city’s other theatres. Such an advancement from two years ago when they were an obscure even in an upstairs room of The Dog and Parrot. But do they put on good plays? Yes, if The Frights is anything to go by.
And so Alphabetti close their inaugural year in their own theatre with Carols and Cocktails. This is not, as the title suggests, an end-of-year social where everyone turns up for some, um, carols and cocktails, but a play. In this play, office IT workers Phil and John put on a show for the Christmas party, not because they’re particularly into this sort of thing, but because they want to impress the ladies (because playing in a band is cool yeah). Or rather, they both want to impress one particular lady, Carol. Okay, I think I’ve spotted the flaw in this plan. One other tip: if you must resort to reading a woman’s e-mails in the server room in order to find out her personal interests, keep that fact to yourself. Continue reading →
With so much resting a good inaugural performance at Alphabetti theatre, the stakes could not be higher for The Frights. And does the job, with a play that’s intelligent, complex and – dare I say it? – thought-provoking.
With a successful crowdfunder and launch out of the way for Alphabetti Theatre, attention now turns to their first in-house production at their new theatre, The Frights. It’s directed by Ali Pritchard, who somehow managed to find the time to do this on top of actually building the venue, although it looks like he had a lot of help from the very much hands-on writer Louise Taylor. It’s not quite Alphabetti’s début – they did an Edinburgh Fringe show as Teeth in Eggcups and they’ve done a few in-house plays at their old home of the Dog and Parrot – but it was still the début that mattered. Because no matter how well you open a venue, no matter how nice the quirks such as the chairs being on sale from a local furniture store, people are going to want something to show for it. Fail to impress with the first play, and the future after first season would look shaky.
So, it must have been quite a fraught business for Alphabetti, and quite a fraught business for me too. After all of the energy I spent supporting the setup of this venue, it would have put me in a very awkward position had the first show failed to impress. But I needn’t have worried. It’s a good inaugural play, and bodes well if this is how they mean to go on. Continue reading →
So, whilst Blunt and Bryant’s fans are busy having a scrap ever elitism in arts, here’s something going on in the north-east that does something about this. As I wrote earlier this week, money can be a barrier, but the bigger barrier is not knowing the right people in the right places. And one of the many contributing factors in theatre is a polarised view of big and little artists. In many places, a lucky few have links to big theatres that get all backing and all the attention. Everyone else doing stuff of their own backs gets ignored and has no support. And if you’re in the second group, it can be nigh on impossible to get into the first group without friends in high places.
Well, up in Newcastle, there’s a low-key project going on that might be able to change this. There’s a small group called Alphabetti Spaghetti Theatre who are setting up what they call a “fringe theatre” (more on this in a moment). For most of the last two years, they were running an upstairs space in a pub called the Dog and Parrot. But last summer the owners decided they didn’t want them at Dog and Parrot any more, so they’ve decided to go a step further this time and open an actual theatre space. Details of the plans are still sketchy, but I understand they’re going to be programming touring shows looking for a space in Newcastle first, and take it from there later.