Tag Archives: Live Theatre

The Red Lion and 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

Red_lion_7I 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 sha. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong.

Apart from Marber, the other big name signed up to this play is Stephen Tomklinson, known to most for soaps, but remembered by Live regulars for his role as the insane gangster Freddy the Suit. Fortunately for everyone’s well-being, Tomskinson’s character does not go round murdering people who owe him money, but he’s still a pretty shady geezer. As the best manager the club has seen in years, Kidd could be a local hero, but he’s too wedded to the greasy pole (and owes too much child support) to settle for this. Working alongside him is Yates (John Bowler): a footballing legend who once got them through to the FA Cup Third Round, only to fall from grace both professionally and personally after a disastrous stint as manager. He disapproves of Kidd’s ethics, but Yates too has his own self-interests, just more personal ones. Only Jordan (Dean Bone) shows any real integrity. He’s the club’s new star play who refuses to dive when the ref’s not looking – but even he has weaknesses that prove his undoing.

The Red Lion has sold extremely well at Live, and whilst this may be down in part to the popular subject material of football, it must have help that Marber wrote such a super script. In spite of there only being three characters in this full-length play, you never lose interest. All three characters have intricate background, never forced into the script like many plays do with backstories, but always worked into the dialogue without break the flow of the story. It’s a three-way power-struggle – four-way if you count the unseen management that Kidd claims wants to sell off the ground – and the balance of power constantly ebbs and flows and men play off against each other, and Kidd tries to put his silver tongue to work for the deal he can’t afford to lose.

Max Roberts did a fine job directing this play, but the thing about the production I want to single out the most is the set. Live have a good track record with sets, often finding ways to to make a statement about the story without resorted to the dreaded “concept set”, but this did the job particularly well, with little touches such as one peg per player and the faded red lion that inspersed so much loyalty in the club all helping define the play. In fact the only aspect of this production I’d question was the decision to have no interval. I realise that there’s no easy place for an interval in a play of three scenes of equal length, but 1 hour 45 minutes is an awfully long time to do in one go. Interval-free plays, I feel, work best when you continually ramp up the tension and there’s no real spot for a break – this plot, I feel, was a little too slow-moving to justify this format. But that’s just a personal preference of mine.

Some new writing purists might note that this play isn’t new writing by Live’s usual strict standards, as this play had a successful run in London before Live produced their own version. I have to say, I can’t think when Live last produced a theatre already successfully produced before (excluded revivals and extra runs of their own productions). But I think they’re allowed a safe bet every once in a while, and there’s few better choices they could have made than The Red Lion.

East is East

https://i2.wp.com/nightsoutinnewcastle.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/East-is-East-at-the-Northern-Stage.png?resize=900%2C450Now over to Northern Stage. Unlike Live, Northern Stage start revives classic plays a lot more frequently, and apart from the odd “concept” adaptation (which, it must be said, has variable results), they tend to be generally faithful productions. So East is East was about as safe a bet as can be – but when the standards of the faithful productions are as good as Northern Stage’s, you can expect high standards, and that exactly what we get here.

This play is one of the best-known plays out that, thanks in a large part to the 1990s FilmFour version for the big screen. Terrific though the film is, however, is it quite a different experience from the original stage play. The plot is the same – George, wishing to be a man of standing within his local Mosque, betroths two of his eldest sons to marriage, but his British-born children have other ideas – as are the characters in the Khan family. But the film told the story in the wider community, from the Pakistani community over in Bradford to the racist neighbour in Salford. The stage version, however, is almost entirely told in scenes between the Khans, into a much more intense – and some say much darker – storyline.

Like The Red Lion, one of East is East‘s biggest strengths is its character development. The six Khan children are all different are all in various state of rebelliousness from their father: from Tariq, Salford’s own Casanova who rejects all culture that came from “the Pakis” (to use his words); to Meenah, very much Anglicised but enjoys the culture of both communities; to Maneer, a devout Muslim following in his father’s footsteps, but even he draws the line at forced marriage.

The most interesting relationship, though, is the marriage of George to his English wife Ella. It would have been easy to make George into a tyrant; instead, he’s shown as a man torn between two cultures, too beset in the good life of Muslims he grew up with in Pakistan. One interesting thing that came out of the after-play discussion is that Ayub Khan-Din wrote backstories for the characters way beyond what’s covered in the play, including how George and Ella first met, and that the family was a happy one until the children were old enough to start rebelling and Ella had to choose which battle to pick. George and Ella’s marriage at its best shows up in the touching scene where George enthusiastically brings home a dentist’s chair as his latest bargain.

The play was directed by Suba Das. Faithful revivals of plays can be a bit of a thankless task for the director – unless you are prepared to go for a new take on a play (which is risky), you can put on the greatest production and the writer takes all the credit. But one thing I can definitely credit him for here is a technical one, and that’s the blocking. In order to make use of a rotating stage for the set change, you get the dreaded triangular stage, which is a nightmare for sightlines. The otherwise excellent Educating Rita suffered for this at the Gala, and that was with a cast of two. Somehow, Suba Das managed to do a movement plot where sightlines were never obscured, and without the usual solution of obviously contrived movements to into the dreaded line. Clearly an accomplished director here.

It’s been two decades since East is East first played, but it’s never lost its relevance and Northern Stage’s version does it justice. It’s still running until the end of this week, so catch it if you haven’t already. My only thought of this is that it’s been quite a while since Northern Stage has done this sort of thing. Not so long ago, Northern Stage revived lots of classic plays to a consistently high standard, but now not so much. Live Theatre I think will always be almost exclusively new writing, and Northern Stage should do its share of original theatre too, but don’t forget the classics. That’s a strength Northern Stage should value.

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More alternative Christmas: No Knowing and Snowflakes

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

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Harriet Martineau mounts the air


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

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Another open challenge for Live Theatre (and Northern Stage too)

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 …

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The Savage: Live plays to its strengths

Blue becomes The Savage

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

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Live Gardens and Mobile

PIcture of Live Gardens

Skip to review of Mobile

Whilst I recover from Brighton, I can turn attention to the big theatre news up here in the north east, which is the opening of LiveWorks, Live Theatre’s latest development. Ever since the cuts started in 2010, Live has been busy expanding its estate, presumably motivated by getting itself a reliable income stream from real estate. With a mixture of artistic and commercial functions, we first had the Broad Chare Pub, then we had the addition of the Old Schoolhouse, and now we’ve got this addition on formerly derelict land running all the way to the water front.

As I’ve been writing about before, one question that can reasonably be asked is: should Live be getting involved in this? Some parts of the new building will be used for the arts – youth theatre is the big one this time round – but other parts are simply being rented out to any business who bids for the office space. Is it appropriate for an arts organisation to play such a strong role as a commercial landlord? It’s a valid question, but I’m okay with this. A business (especially a creative one) prepared to pay for office space on the quayside is quite likely to be prepared to pay a premium for the prestige of being part of such a prestigious theatre. Provided Live don’t lose sight of what they are there for, I look on this as a smart use of assets and a smart way of getting money. Continue reading

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Live Lab Elevator and Gated Community

Fresh my my Vault Festival visit earlier this month, it’s back to Newcastle for some new work up north. Live Theatre have their biannual new writing festival, which this year is packaged up in their new Live Lab brand in a week-long event called Elevator. Meanwhile, just up the hill is Alphabetti Theatre who have been paying host to a touring company with a new play.

The first big disclaimer for all of these is that all of these plays are billed in development one way or another. I’m less likely to review plays in development than finished products, but all of these plays grabbed by interest anyway. Nevertheless, caution should be paid to this review or anyone else’s feedback. If you’re thinking of seeing this, anything I mention in these reviews may have changed by the time you see this – hopefully for the better, but possibly for the worse.

So, that caveat out of the way, let’s get going …

Red is the New Blue


The intelligent one being annoyed by some mindless comment. Probably.

This is a new play and not a spin-off of Orange is the New Black, so don’t get excited. Red is the New Blue is a product of Live Lab’s “associate artists” scheme. For its inaugural year, they picked three spoken word artists (Rowan McCabe, Matt Miller and Matilda Neill) who have collaborated on various projects. I don’t have a lot of interest in spoken word, but these three grabbed my attention in Live Lab’s Christmas Adventures with their tale of Father Christmas’s unseen story of his floundering marriage to Mrs. Christmas. Although there were a few giveaways that this was three people’s ideas bolted together (devised theatre should ideally look like it was a single idea all along), it was an encouraging sign of their imagination at work. (See last month’s Odds and Sods for news of  this year’s associate artists.) Continue reading

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