War of the Worlds: way up North

Production shot from War of the Worlds

I’m going to review this play a little differently to most of my reviews. Northern Stage’s War of the Worlds already has enough glowing reviews on the pile, and besides, the two-week sold out run says more than any review ever will. What interests me is that this was part of Northern Stage’s NORTH scheme. If you’ve not heard of this, you can safely ignore most of this review and enjoy the play for what it is, but if you want ot read on, this needs a bit of explaining. NORTH has been running since 2013, and each year they take on a group on aspiring actors and give them, amongst other things, a public production. They generally go to form their own groups afterwards, the most successful one being the inaugural year which is now the hugely-respected Letter Room.

The scheme has varied from year to year though, not least in what kind of production they do. Usually the NORTH members devise their own play, but in 2015 the intake instead played the ensemble roles in mainstream production Cyrano de Bergerac – and not everyone was happy about that. A complaint I’ve heard off the record (not from anyone in NORTH 2015, I should add) is that by getting this instead of a devised production, they never get a chance to show their own creativity. A secondary complaint was that they got caught up in a concept that didn’t work, but lack of their own production was the main thing. So now, fast forward to 2018, and once again, a NORTH ensemble take the stage in someone else’s production. This time they play the leads in a Stage 3 production rather than ensemble on the main stage, but once again, the success of a production is in someone else’s hands.

Luckily for them, that someone is Laura Lindow, who has penned a series of successful productions, the most recent one being the November Club’s Beyond the End of the Road. Together with director Elayce Ismail, it turns out, they couldn’t have wished for safer hands to be in. Continue reading

Advertisements

Beyond not just the end of the road

Production shot of dance scene

In a region that rarely looks beyond Newcastle for culture, The November Club gave a shining example of what happens when you do with Beyond the End of the Road.

It’s my eternal bugbear: the mindset ingrained over much of the region’s cultural scene that the north east is Newcastle. For all the talk about cultural engagement, for years in Tees Valley and County Durham this amounted to importing all the talent from Tyne and Wear. Usually writers based in Newcastle telling stories based in Newcastle. On the rare occasions the plays were set in places beyond Tyneside, the depictions were generic north-east suburbs with only the basic nods to the local area – there was a time at the Gala where it was virtually guaranteed you’d have a reference to getting cut off by the tide at Holy Island. In recent years, things have started edging in the right direction, but still the most depressing thing is the numberpeople in the north-east who complain, quite rightly, about nationwide funding and attention favouring London at the expense of the rest of the country. It’s depressing because the same people seem fully aware that exactly the same thing is happening between Newcastle and the north-east – and don’t appear to have a problem with it.

But amongst the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations in the region, there is one group that won’t settle for bringing in everything from Newcastle, and that’s Northumberland-based The November Club. Beyond the End of the Road is set in rural Northumberland in a town known as “place”. Far from treating this village as another Tyneside suburb, this place is distinct from the distant city not only by the surrounding countryside but by its isolation. A bypassing is being built around the place (yes, this play on words is a common theme here), and in charge is a someone apparently part workman, part narrator and part oracle, seeming to everyone’s backstories. Coming to the place are two outsiders, one seeking refuge from an unhappy marriage with a sister she barely knows, another come to give his brother advice on how to run his farm, unsolicited but very badly needed. Continue reading

Teechers and Donna Disco

(Prologue: Chris Neville-Smith sits as his computer, thinking that he really can’t be arsed to write two articles about two plays he’s already seen. “What I really need” he thinks, “is a contrived theme to connect the two together.” Suddenly, he realises they’re both set in schools. Problem solved.)

Who would be a secondary school teacher? Here you are, trying to help teenagers learn the stuff they ought to know unless they want to spend the next forty years in the beef caracass factory, and what do they do? Have a riot. And who would be a secondary school pupil? It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with thick oversized schoolboys in charge. The only consolation is that it gives teachers and pupils alike the chance to write plays about what schools are like.

So two plays that are doing to rounds now are Teechers and Donna Disco. Both plays are smash hits, and having seen them before I can vouch they are smash hits for a reason. I also had high expectations for the companies producing them. And so, in perhaps the least surprising turn of events in the history of the blog, both productions were exactly as good as I was expecting. I won’t give a detailed appraisal of the plays as they’re already getting praise from pretty every Tom, Dick and Harry, but I’ll give a quick run-down. Continue reading