As a rom com, it’s tough for D. C. Jackson’s My Romantic History to stand out from all other rom coms, but its biggest strength is way a the small cast weaves together all the storylines.
So, Live Theatre embraces the rom com. This is frequently maligned in the arts world for pandering the audience figures, but that’s a little unfair – why should a new writing theatre shy away from a format just because it’s popular? There is, however, a challenge with this format: rom coms, along with zombie flicks, are the two most over-used tropes in performing arts. Every kind of rom com has been done before. And every kind of zombie flick. And every kind of rom com with zombies (yes, really). That’s fine if you’re prepared to settle for a crowd-pleaser where the audience works out the entire plot ten minutes into Act One, but if you want to bring a fresh original take to this format, it’s very difficult to find one that hasn’t already been used several times already. It’s happened, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised (both rom com and zombies), but those exceptions far and few between. In short, the rom com isn’t the walk in the park you might think – certainly not to an audience who expects cutting edge writing.
Stepping up to the challenge is D. C. Jackson best know for Fresh Meat, and if you’re hoping for something as excruciating as that TV series, you won’t be disappointed. Switching students at university to thirtysomethings in the workplace, we follow the story of Tom and Amy, work colleagues who start a relationship after hooking up after Friday Night drinks. Although “relationship” is a debatable term – a less generous description would be a one-night stand which neither of them get round to calling off. And, as Tom observes, the problem with workplace flings is that the age-old excuse of telling your flingee you’re so busy in your job doesn’t work any more. The root problem, as suggested by the title, is that both Amy and Tom are both comparing each other to the long-lost loves of their lives. Although it doesn’t help that they’re viewing their teenage memories through rose-tinted glasses. In fact, unreliable memories is a key theme of this play. Continue reading
Taking on the subject of domestic coercion, Rattlesnake says something new from an unexpected direction.
It’s been ages since I last saw them, but it’s about time I acknowledged the success of Open Clasp Theatre Company, one of the leading theatre companies writing stories by women about women. That scores no bonus points here though – my sole interest is whether their stories are any good, where there’s good reasons to think so. I never managed to catch the smash hit Key Change, but I did see The Space Between Us four years ago, and whilst some bits of the story didn’t make sense, the thing that really impressed me was the characterisation: four outsiders (three immigrants and one traveller) depicted incredibly convincingly based on painstaking work interviewing real women. Now, in a co-production with Live Theatre, they take on the subject of domestic abuse, but not domestic violence, as is portrayed so often, but coercive control.
The distinction between violence and control is important. It is only recently that society has started wising up to the psychological element of domestic abuse. It’s easy to say “Why don’t you just leave your partner?”, and yes, for anyone in a sound state of mind that’s an easy thing to say, but that’s precisely the tactic of the abusers: to use fear, humiliation or any other tactics to make the victim see staying as the less bad option. Even if staying means putting up with more violence. But here, there’s no violence, just the mind games, and that can also be devastating. The law started to catch up in 2015 when coercive control was made a crime. Continue reading
SKIP TO: The Red Lion, East is East
Newcastle’s big two theatres have been busy in the last month, with main shows going head to head at the same time. Unusually, both productions are revivals. Not too unusual for Northern Stage to do a revival (though less often than it used to be), but unusual for Live to do this. The Red Lion only just counts a revival, having premiered at the National Theatre in 2015, but off-hand, the only revivals I can think of at Live are re-runs of successful shows previously premiered there. Even Northern Stage haven’t done that many revivals lately if you don’t count the “concept” productions such as Hedda Gabbler and Cyrano de Bergerac.
But as far as revivals go, both productions are revivals of excellent plays, and but companies have done an great job of bringing the plays back.
The Red Lion
I didn’t pay much attention to The Red Lion when Live Theatre first announced it because neither the play nor the author rang a bell. But it should have done, because whilst I didn’t remember the name, I certainly did remember one of his plays, Dealer’s Choice, performed by a then-unknown Dugout Theatre shortly before their rise to stardom. This play, a dark play about six men trapped in a dangerous spiral of high-stakes poker, always stuck in my mind amongst the hundreds of plays I’ve seen. He’s notable for other plays too, but this is the one I based my high expectations on, and he did not disappoint.
Set in the world of semi-professional non-league football, this play is inspired in part by Marber’s own experience in saving his own local club from bankruptcy. So you might think that such a play would be a homage to the beautiful game, free from the influence of spoilt millionaires and self-serving shareholders. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong. Continue reading
Skip to: The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, No Knowing
Damn. December is usually my catch-up month where all the theatres show pantomimes, which I avoid like the plague. However, this year, there have been an unusually high number of non-pantomimes in December I’ve wanted to see. I’ve already reviewed How Did We Get To This Point?, which was unexpectedly outstanding. Now for the two other standard plays I saw in December, both of which were pleasing.
The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes
The most remarkable thing about this studio piece at Live Theatre is its critical reception. I don’t often mention other people’s reviews in my own reviews (most of the time, I avoid reading the other reviews completely to avoid influence on mine). However, this time the acclaim was unprecedented. Five stars from the Guardian. Local reviews need treating with a bit of caution, but it’s big achievement for any play to get that rating in a national newspaper; for a studio production from a first-time writer to get it (let alone get a reviewer up at all), it’s phenomenal. Continue reading
JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits
Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.
Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?
With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow. Continue reading
If Live Theatre and Northern Stage are serious about supporting artists who go to the Edinburgh Fringe off their own backs, there’s a little thing they could do which would mean a lot to them.
Last year I wrote an article around the opening of Alphabetti Theatre with a radical proposal that Live could follow in their footsteps and make theatre more accessible by using their undercroft as some sort of open access space. Looking back now, it’s interesting to see how things have developed. To some extent, this is a less important issue than it was because Northern Stage are now doing something similar by encouraging groups to use their Stage 3. Also, Alphabetti is saturated with bookings six months ahead, which shows just how much suppressed demand is out there. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion we can only balance supply and demand with a second Alphabetti-style theatre in Newcastle.
But forget about that for now. I want to make a completely different proposal for how Live Theatre can do more to support small-scale artists, and this one includes Northern Stage too. Unlike my last proposal, this is a trivially easy thing to do, it will cost nothing, but it will mean a hell of lot to some artists out there. Let me explain …
Short Stories are often ideal pieces to make into plays – but the signature touch to David Almond’s stage adaptation of The Savage is Live’s staging of it.
With the opening of Live Gardens next door and with it Live Tales, their writing centre for children and young people, it’s little surprise they’ve chosen to adapt a children’s story for their main production. A lot of people get sniffy about adapting children’s books for an adult audience, but these tales are often ideal for an adaptation. The bane of adapting novels is that it’s very difficult to adapt anything over 200 pages without making massive cuts to the story; but this means that easy-going story length of books aimed at children or teenagers suddenly becomes ideal when transplanted to the stage.
The other things about children’s stories is that the best ones are a lot darker than grown-ups give them credit for, and David Almond’s graphic novel The Savage is no exception. The central character of the story is a boy only known as “Blue”, in the aftermath of the sudden loss of his father. A teacher tries to get him to embark on creative writing, but his mind isn’t on this – until Hopper comes along. Hopper has also lost his father, in his case to prison, and we will in time discover he is just as unhappy, but for now Hopper disguises this by tormenting Blue about his own father. So Blue comes up with a story about a “savage” who lives in a hole and kills people who get to close to him. The origins are vague – perhaps Blue considered Hopper a savage, or perhaps a savage was a fate Blue wished on Hopper, but Blue ends up finding his own self burring with his creation.
But whilst this would be a good choice for any theatre to take on, it was especially a good choice for Live to do this – and not just because it happens to be set on Tyneside. Being a new writing theatre, there is inevitably a hit-and-miss element to Live’s plays, but the thing I’ve found consistently good about them is their sets. They rarely settle for a merely functional set and there’s always something about them that catches the eye – the dive of a nightclub in Our Ladies, the (metaphorcally) crumbling household in Geoff Dead, the disappearing wall in Iris, and even the eye-catching generic set for Elevator are things that spring to mind. This one has to be seen to be believed: at first glance it looks like a Stig’s tip from Stig of the Dump, but this is in fact a multi-purpose set covering Blue’s classroom, bedroom, the quayside, and everything in between. Continue reading