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
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
Filed under News, Reviews
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