September 2022 roundup: Sugar Baby and more

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.

Lord of the Flies, Hound of the Baskervilles

Skip to: Lord of the Files, Hound of the Baskervilles

Let me begin with an apology for being slow on the reviewing front in the last six months. I don’t use this blog for a running commentary of things going on in my life, but those of you who know me will be aware that I’ve been getting a lot of hassle, firstly from some circumstances that forced me to move, and then the process of buying somewhere that turned out the be ten times as complicated as it needed to be. But I’ve finally done it. I’m a homeowner, and to celebrate I’ve subscribed to the Daily Mail so I can obsess over house prices. I’m already sick of those idle spongers in their social housing. Nice Mr. Dacre told me so.

Anyway, what this has meant for the blog is that I’ve fallen behind a lot, partly the time needed sorting things out, and partly as I was feeling in a bit of a hole over this time. This has also meant I’ve missed a few plays I was hoping to watch and review – if that was yours, I do apologise. (My tour with Elysium Theatre also produced a couple of casualties.) However, we are now into December and January, which is my down time and my chance to catch up.

So let’s start the catch-up with two productions I saw at the Gala, both adaptations of famous works. One was a stop of a highly-anticipated local tour, and the other was an in-house production – but a different kind of in-house production to anything you’ve seen at the Gala before. And that is where we begin.

Lord of the Flies

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All eyes may be permanently on the theatre news from Newcastle, but one thing that has been slowly but steadily taking place in Durham is the increasing influence of Durham Student Theatre – and, in parallel, the increasing influence of The Assembly Rooms, their main venue. That venue has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, a secondary studio venue will be opening shortly, and both venues are looking to take touring professionals. The Assembly Rooms also partnered with Elysium Theatre, although this has recently been overtaken by the latter’s other partnership with Queen’s Hall Hexham. But along with this, there’s a third strand reaching out beyond the university, and that an unprecedented collaboration with the Gala Theatre and Unfolding Theatre. Taking on students as cast but professional produced and directed, Lord of the Flies was one of the most notable productions in Durham for some time.

Continue reading

Two by Two Pints

When you have a set of plays to review, it is often tempting to look for common themes between plays. In early autumn, as it happens, two plays came along with not only shared the theme of pubs, but were also very heavily themed around the number two. More by accident than by design, the two plays have a lot more in common besides. So let’s get right to it.

SKIP TO: Two, Two Pints, Talking Heads

Two

8736534The Gala Theatre are continuing their in-house productions with another classic, Jim Cartwright’s famous story of a night in a working-class pub. This is a safe bet for any theatre to choose (more on this in a moment), but Two is a safe bet for a good reason. It’s lots of little stories of snippets of people’s lives, all played by the same two actors. Some are funny, some are tragic, and one or two where the bar staff really ought to intervene. But it’s a busy Saturday night, and besides, the husband and wife who run the bar have their own problems to keep them busy, and it’s not their constant bickering and put-downs throughout the evening. That is just their way of distracting themselves from something in their past they can’t ignore, however much they might want to.

All you really need for Two to be a success are two capable actors who can play all fourteen characters convincingly (although I did once see a student production who played it with fourteen different actors, somewhat missing the point of the title). Luckily, the Gala can call upon Christopher Price and Jessica Johnson, who were both naturals for this. But this isn’t quite a paint-by-numbers production. Two was originally intended as a small studio piece and it’s not a straightforward play to scale up to a bigger stage. In a fringe-scale venue it’s treated as normal that there’s no set and virtually all interaction with props are mimed, but in bigger theatres expectations are different – but a fully naturalistic production with two actors is impossible. Continue reading

Educating Rita and September in the Rain

Two productions of classic plays caught my eye this month. One was a headline production at the Gala Theatre, continuing its transition back to a producing theatre. The other was a smaller-scale production down in Yorkshire. Both are excellent scripts where there is little the producing company can do other than be faithful to it, so let’s get straight on with how they did.

Skip to: Educating Rita, September in the Rain

Educating Rita

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Starting at the Gala, this is their second in-house production since they restarted this last year with The Fighting Bradfords (or the third if you count their small-scale immersive piece No Turning Back). Last year it was new writing, this year it’s the revival of a classic. Not everyone who came to see last year’s friends will be interested in a revival; but there again, not everyone who watches a tried and tested play wants the lottery of a new work. As the only major theatre in Durham, I think it’s fair enough to have different plays appealing to different audiences. “Rita” (not really her name, but that becomes relevant later) signs on with the Open University wanting to learn more about literature. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. The barrier is partly snobbery – even supportive tutor Frank sometimes lets his casual prejudices slip in – and partly her own fear of this snobbery, but it’s mostly the inverse snobbery of friends, family, and husband who all expect her to stop learning and have a baby like everyone else. Continue reading

The Fighting Bradfords: a belated homage

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The Gala’s first theatre commission in years, The Fighting Bradfords, might not be the most memorable World War One play, but it portrays a faithful story of four forgotten brothers.

What a year it’s been for the Gala Theatre. Ever since the acrimonious departure of artistic director Simon Stallworthy, the Gala Theatre’s status has been relegated to a second division receiving venue, with very little actual theatre being programmed. I got wind of things changing around 12 months ago with the appointment of a new programming director and a renewed interest from the County Council. Things started bearing fruit earlier this year with a lot of high-profile companies coming to the theatre – there had been the odd high-profile company before, but three companies in one season (Northern Stage, Original Theatre Company and John Godber company) was new. Then came Next Up …, the inaugural scratch night, which was successful enough to become a regular thrice-yearly fixture.

Now comes The Fighting Bradfords, the Gala’s first commission. Well, sort of. Officially, this is a Durham County Council commission for a play to be performed at the Gala. The Gala is owned by the council, and theatre management is so tightly integrated into the council structures, there’s no clear line for what cultural activities in Durham County do and don’t count as the Gala’s own. In this case, the commission (along with No Turning Back over the summer) was part of a wider series of events over the county called Durham Remembers, marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and the commission requested by the council was the story of four sons of the respected Bradford family. All enthusiastically signed up to fight, all were decorated for bravery – and all but one gave their lives. Continue reading