Chris Monks quits Stephen Joseph Theatre after six years

Chris Monks

Guys, continued apologies for anyone waiting for the Brighton Fringe roundup. Next post, I promise. But before I can do that, a bit a surprise news I didn’t see coming at all: Chris Monks, Alan Ayckbourn’s successor as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is stepping down on the 11th December, falling just short of a seven year tenure. It’s a surprise because it’s a sharp contrast to his famous predecessor Alan Ayckbourn who was around for donkey’s years. Likewise for Max Roberts at Live Theatre.

The last time I heard an announcement of this nature was Simon Stallworthy’s sudden departure from the Gala Theatre in 2010 after five years. But that was pretty acrimonious affair after his cherished new writing programme got cut back very quickly. (For the record, I don’t miss the Gala’s new writing at all, but I still felt it was a bit off to cancel plays already programmed.) Chris Monks’s departure, however, is somewhat more mysterious. The main reason given is that the arrival of a new chief executive made it “the right time to step aside”. But with outgoing chief executive Stephen Wood also having been round for donkey’s years, that to me felt like another stage of moving on from the Ayckbourn era. Unless there’s a massive long-standing feud between Chris Monks and incoming chief executive Matthew Russell that none of us know about, it does seem a very unusual reason to choose to step down. Continue reading

Summer at SJT: Screenplay, Boy Who Fell Into a Book, and Cox and Box

Poster image from ScreenplayTurning my attention to my backlog of post-Edinburgh reviews, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, as always, has had a busy summer, with three plays on the go over August. This visit was a memorable one, not least because – in the theatre – someone managed to mistake me for Alan Ayckbourn. I kid you not. (I won’t embarrass the individual concerned by saying who he was or how this misunderstanding came about.) But enough of that, back to the plays. One is a new venture going in the right direction, another is a tried and tested venture, but the third is going in the wrong direction.

I’m going to start this roundup with Screenplay, which may not be the most high-profile of their shows, but it is the most interesting – and arguably the most important. This is the flagship event of the new writing programme from recently-appointed associate director Henry Bell. This arose from a script call last year, and a group of short-listed writers were invited to write a short play with an over-arching theme of cinema since the opening of the original Scarborough Odeon. (It also had to use the cast of Cox and Box, which I will get to later.) From this, four ideas were chosen, developed into four plays (either as four stand-alone lunchtime pieces or a quadruple bill), and here we are. So, how does it do?

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Last train to Scarborough: steam engine noir

Although obviously aimed at Scarborough locals, Last Train to Scarborough is still an enjoyable light-hearted take on film noir.

Put steam trains into any story and you’ll instantly conjure up images of romance and mystery. Everyone has their own story, from the driver to the passengers. But one career you’d not expect to get much of a look in is the railway investigator. Being a kind of predecessor to the British Transport Police, you’d think they’d be primarily concerned with boring things such as nabbing fare-dodgers and dealing with drunken football hooligans – but you’d be wrong! Apparently, railways inspectors are just the the private detectives in film noir, embroiled in all the mystery and intrigue you can imagine. This, at least, is the premise behind Last Train to Scarborough, the first in a series of books by Andrew Martin set on the York-Scarborough line, and now Chris Monks has adapted this first one into a stage version.

So, in this story, we have ex-fireman Jim Stringer who so obviously wants to be a train driver, but his ambitious wife has grander plans for him. He is on the case of Ray Blackburn, a fireman who disappeared after working – yes, you’ve guessed it – the last train to Scarborough and staying at the somewhat bizarre Paradise guest house with its alcoholic femme fatale proprietress Amanda Rickerby. (Thinks: all of the B&Bs I’ve been to in Scarborough were quite boring by comparison – where can I find one like that?).  Also present were her damaged brother Adam with a strange obsession with fatal train accidents, and two long-term residents who were former associates in a railways postcard business: cultured Howard Fielding who covers the fact he went to prison for bankruptcy, whilst sleazy Theo Vaughan moved into a different postcard business of exotic French pictures if you know what I mean. For a while I thought Theo killed Jim as a threat to his business, after Jim had explained this great invention he’d got called “the internet” – but I was on the wrong track. Continue reading

The Schoolmistress: Fun, but not completely frivolous

The Schoolmistress, like most Christmas productions, is undemanding entertainment. But credit nonetheless to the Stephen Joseph Theatre for something that was arguably a gamble.

Miss Dyott in her diva outfit, with a bemused Vere Queckett

If you fancy a bit of theatre between late November and early January, you normally get the choice of pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes or pantomimes. Oh joy (that was sarcasm). I appreciate that pantomimes are a big revenue-earner – and yes, it means that theatres can do more of the stuff the rest of us like the other ten months of the year – but over Christmas, you’re whatever the opposite of spoilt for choice is. Some theatres doing “family” plays rather than pantos, but if you’re looking for anything with a target audience over 12, you’ve got to look further afield. And for me in Durham, the closest thing I can find on offer is at Scarborough.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre has varied its Christmas entertainment in recent years, but since 2011 it’s been broadly undemanding plays with the main intention of an enjoyable night out. (Sorry for anyone hoping for something harrowing, but this is the best you’re going to get.) It was Blithe Spirit two years ago, and The Importance of Being Earnest last year, both about as safe as you can get, albeit both productions where I was impressed with the directing. But this year, director Chris Monks hit a problem: Blithe Spirit and Earnest are probably the definitive two plays of this kind. Which one next? By his own reckoning, everything he could think of was unavailable or deadly dull, until he remembered a play he’d been Deputy Stage Manager for back in 1978, The Schoolmistress by Arthur Wing Pinero. And so, here we are. (Coincidentally, Chris Monks suddenly found himself being asked to direct a student production where he got the choice of play, so this is the second time he’s directed the play this year.)

So, enough of that, what sort of play is this? A gripping drama? A heartbreaking monologue? Well, this play is described as a forerunner of St. Trinian’s. I’ve heard a lot of plays described as the forerunner of St. Trinian’s, but with this being 1886 play, The Schoolmistress probably has one of the earliest claims. Anyway, there’s four schoolgirls, and one of them has got secretly got married against the wishes of her pompous Rear-Admiral father. The other three want to throw a wedding reception for the happy couple, but they’d all like men for themselves with with it being an all-girls school that’s a problem. Coincidentally, Miss Dyott, the mistress of the school, recently married the Honoroable Vere Queckett, a supposed aristocrat whose fortune is allegedly all tied up in investments and so has to live off his wife’s income. Also coincidentally, Miss Dyott is moonlighting as an opera diva – have you guessed the genre yet? 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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Not such sweet soul music

Chris Monks’s Soul Man is a worthy effort to bring Verdi’s Rigoletto up to date – but branding the play as a soul extravaganza doesn’t do it justice.

Anyone who’s been following events at the Stephen Joseph Theatre will know that since Alan Ayckbourn stepped down as Artistic Director in 2009, his successor Chris Monks has been hard at work establishing himself. Amongst other thing, he’s been bringing his popular adaptations of operas. So far, Scarborough has seen the Mafia version of The Pirates of Penzance, the cricket version of The Mikado and a modern-day version of Carmen where the title character works in a shopping centre. However, the last three years have been re-runs of his greatest hits; this year, it’s back to the donkey work of trying something new and hoping it works.

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Not quite Vegas …

Fiona Evans never goes for easy plays, but with the help of Chris Monks, Geordie Sinatra comes off nicely.

Ladies and Gentlemen, live on stage, the one, the only, Frank Sinatra – sort of. “Frank”, is, in fact, not the Frank Sinatra but instead Geordie (Anthony Cable), once a Sinatra tribute act in Whitley Bay, but now – in the advanced stages of Dementia with Lewy Bodies – hallucinating into believing he’s the real thing. Unfortunately, as well as singing to imaginary crowds in Vegas and reliving Frank’s turbulent romance to Ava Gardner, this also includes Frank’s habits of going round without his trousers and assaulting photographers. He often confuses the people around him with the people close to Sinatra. And to complicate matters further, Geordie’s daughter Nancy (Heather Saunders) is obsessed with rescuing her career as a journalist, his partner Joan (Jill Myers) is in fact secretly his estranged wife Vera who walked out when Nancy was three, and Frank’s old friend Sonny (Kraig Thornber) believes he is the true father of Nancy. What can possibly go wrong?

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