Approaching Empty: the house built on sand

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A play from a company the brings Asian stories to mainstream theatre, but a play that is universal, Approaching Empty is an excellent story of a road to hell that’s paved with good intentions.

Tamasha Theatre might not be a name recognised my many, but their most famous production, East is East, certainly is. That play is credited by many for bringing theatre about South Asian communities out of the niche and into the mainstream. Since then, Tamasha have been keeping busy with lots of plays, and now the latest collaboration is with Live Theatre and Kiln theatre with a north-east connection. Playwright Ishy Din originates from Middlesbrough and Approaching Empty is heavily inspired by his time as a taxi driver. There is a big difference though: East is East was about a culture clash where conservative values of Pakistan clashed with the more liberal values on 1970s Salford; but Approaching Empty is a more universal story. The six characters in this story are all Asian, but that’s not what defines them. No, the defining feature here is the struggle of a post-industrial generation. Apart from a few incidental details, this could be a story from any working-class community.

There’s been a lot of talk over how diverse Live Theatre’s programme is this year. Normally I just go ahead and review plays without commenting on how diverse it is. It is of course an important issue, but this distracts from what’s surely the more important issue, namely how good the play is. But I will make an exception to state that on this blog, diversity scores no bonus points in reviews. All plays stand or fall on their merits as a play. I do not want anyone thinking I only gave a good review to a play for ticking the right boxes. And I especially want to make this clear here, because Approaching Empty is the best thing I’ve seen at Live Theatre for years.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Approaching Empty, Live Theatre / Kiln Theatre / Tamasha Continue reading

Clear White Light: more Poe please

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Few can argue with a directorial debut that sells out its entire run. But in this retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, I did miss the twists of the original story.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a lot at stake when new artistic directors make their directorial debuts in their new homes. It sets in people’s minds what kind of direction you intend to take the theatre in. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this can often happen over a year after the new artistic director is chosen, such being the timescale of programming to production. So for the directorial debut of Joe Douglas to come nine months after his appointment was announced is on the early side. Part of the reason for this is that Live was already interested in this play, and Joe was keen to pick it up. And looking at the bigger picture, it couldn’t have been a better choice, because the entire run practically sold out before the run had started.

The big draw to this play was surely the music of Lindisfarne, a north-east folk group that, as we can conclude beyond reasonable doubt, has a very strong local following. But the other draw – and the one that got me interested – was a re-telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale The Fall of the House of Usher, with the remote house of Roderick and Madeline Usher replaced with the male psychiatric ward of a short-staffed hospital. The nameless narrator is now Alison, a nurse on her first shift. Rod, the cynical senior (and only) nurse on duty takes her under his wing, but it soon transpires his own sister is committed in the same hospital on another ward. It’s such as good set-up, with the location and Alan Hull’s music providing a perfect modern gothic setting fitting of an Allen Poe story. The only trouble is, I’m struggling to identify the Allen Poe story in this. Continue reading

My Romantic History: a tale of two halves

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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

Rattlesnake: the enemy within

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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

The Red Lion and East is East

 
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

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

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

Harriet Martineau mounts the air

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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