One off: history repeating

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses

Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.

Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.

oneoff_lowres-59First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.

Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.

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We Are The Best (and more from June)

Skip to: We are the Best, Charlotte Johnson, Criminally Untrue

I’ve been meaning to lessen my gaps between watching plays and writing reviews, and this has been one of my longer gaps. Apologies – anyone who saw me tearing my hair out at Buxton will understand way.

Anyway, in June I saw a play and two comedy acts worth reviews, and I was quite pleased with all of them. Let’s dive in.

We Are The Best!

It is Sweden in the early 1980s. According to popular mythology, this was the period in history when enjoying any pop group other than ABBA gets up hung drawn and quartered (with punishment today commuted to death by lethal injection). In actual fact, however, Sweden’s music scene was pretty much like ours, with diverse tastes from Scandi-disco to punk. Another thing that isn’t that different to us is the depiction of teenage life in the graphic novel Never Goodnight, later made into a film. It is this relatable theme that Live Theatre’s new artistic director is banking on. Almost everybody who comes to Live remembers their secondary school days, but where Live Theatre was pushing hard was to a teenage audience, who are going through this now.

It is the dress rehearsal of the Year 8 school concert, and impossibly rebellious friends Klara and Bobo are doing their hard-hitting (and, admittedly, slightly cringy) presentation about the plight of the planet. When they get dropped by the somewhat disdainful teachers, they resolve to take matters into their own hands. With a punk scene emerging all over, they see this as the best way of changing the world, with the first song Sports are Shit chosen after a netball practice where they are busy chatting to each other on the netball court rather than playing. Before you set your sights too high, though, this isn’t the start of a meteoric rise to fame alongside the Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, and Talking Heads (and later: the inevitable dignity-crushing downfall when they appear in an insurance advert). Rather, they are one of the many punk bands of the time who could only sort-of play instruments – yes, the title was being sort-of ironic – but didn’t care what anyone thinks.

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