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

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

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

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour: Catholic girls gone inevitable


Faced-paced story, debauchery, coming-of-age stories, and live perfomances of ELO – could you ask for anything more? Well, maybe …

This offering from the National Theatre of Scotland might be a runaway hit, but I have a feeling that their fans won’t include the Catholic Education Service of the UK. Set in writer Alan Warner’s hometown of Oban (or, more fairly, a partially fictionalised version referred to as “The Port” in the original book The Sopranos), it begins at a school with an unusually high teenage pregnancy rate. But don’t worry, God told the Pope the perfect answer: give the girls of the town a sound moral upbringing by putting them in an all-girls school where nuns teach lessons that sex is a sin and the word “boys” is not allowed, because, like, that always works, doesn’t it?

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour appeals to a lot of people in different ways, but the main audience for this play seems to be women with fond nostalgia of their youth. I’m not one of those people, because this is about as far removed from my teenage years as can be – I was more minded to sit through this debauchery with a middle-aged “harumph”. But for me, I instead got to enjoy marvelling at the extent of human stupidity – in this case, the stupidity of whoever thought this trip a choir contest was a good idea, bearing in mind it’s the first trip on their own for many of their girls. And it’s to Edinburgh, #2 city in Scotland for drinking after Glasgow, and #1 city for debauched hedonism. And to top it all off, with the contest not being until 6 in the evening, the girls are welcome to go off on their own for the day to see the city. Grief, what did they think was going to happen?

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Day of the Flymo: a good play for Wet House fans

Day of the Flymo publicity image

Despite a few niggles over the episodic format, Day of the Flymo is a thoughtful play that won’t disappoint fans of Wet House.

Paddy Campbell’s had a whirlwind 18 months at Live. His début, Wet House was so much of a smash hit it won the Journal’s award for Best Play and got a revival at Live the following year. So now he’s following it up with a second play, Day of the Flymo, again at Live Theatre. What could possibly go wrong? … Actually, quite a lot. When your first play is that much of a runaway success, people’s expectations go into overdrive. And there’s no guarantee that the next play will live up to the blockbuster you’ve just done. Has anyone heard of The Sparrow? Thought not. That was a flop of Alan Ayckbourn’s that immediately followed Relatively Speaking.

Well, if Paddy was worried this might happen, he needn’t have done. It’s another decent, thoughtful play, and anyone who liked Wet House won’t be disappointed with this. It’s fair to say that Campbell played it safe this time and stuck to his strength, which is writing about what he knows, but its a strength that serves well. Last time it was based on his work in a hostel for alcoholics. This time, it’s based on his experiences of social care. But there is one big difference between in two plays. In Wet House, a bad situation was made worse by a sadistic carer who brutalised the residents, manipulated the other staff, and bullied everyone. In Day of the Flymo, social worker Ben (Akemnji Ndifornyen) is competent, capable, good-natured, and works with equally dedicated people – and yet, even with the best will in the world, things go wrong very easily.

The story centres on Liam (Kalem Patterson), a 13-year-old with, it appears, the difficult combination of Asperger’s and ADHD. He’s a tearaway who got himself thrown out of school, and was probably mentally damaged by his violent father. A strong theme of the play the effect Liam has on his family. Mother Karen (Jill Dellow), having taken the worst of her husband’s violent behaviour, never fully recovered and doesn’t know how to handle her son. Which mean it falls to Liam’s half-sister Becca (Tezney Mulroy) to look after the whole family in the middle of her GCSEs. Desperate for respect, Liam makes friends where he can: first with mischievous old ladies who get him to mow the lawn (amongst other tasks); then Clara (Sophie Pitches), who bunks off her posh school and his family issues of her own; and then, most alarmingly, a gang up to no good who can set him up for anything. Continue reading

An open challenge for Live Theatre

Live Theatre's undercroft

COMMENT: Alphabetti Theatre is a big step in the right direction for Newcastle. Here’s a suggestion for how Live Theatre could do the same.

Tomorrow is the grand opening of Alphabetti Spaghetti’s New Theatre in Newcastle. I’ve been promoting this during their crowdfunding phase, because I think it’s a welcome development in Newcastle. Anyone who have been to the festival fringes at Edinburgh or elsewhere will know how good a play can be from a small group in a small theatre space with next to no budget – and yet, in spite of Newcastle having a lot of groups on this scale, there’s never really been anywhere notable to perform it. Alphabetti’s predecessor theatre, an upstairs room at the Dog and Parrot, was a start, but this has so much more scope.

So, what’s not to like? Nothing really – except that this responsibility shouldn’t be falling to one small group of actors. There are already plenty of performance spaces in Newcastle’s existing theatres that could just as easily do what Alphabetti theatre’s doing. And even with Alphabetti’s new theatre up and running, why stop at one fringe space? Why not more? After all, festival fringes work so well by having different venues and different shows competing with each other, and may the best performers win. But most similar-sized performance spaces stand idle much of the time. This is common practice throughout theatres not just in Newcastle, but across the country. As such, it’s unfair to single out one theatre too much. But with Live Theatre seeing itself as the leading source of new writing in the north east, if anyone has a responsibility to support fringe groups more, Live Theatre does. Continue reading

Flying into Daylight: rehash or revitalising?

Publicity image of Flying into Daylight: Margo and Viginia dancing

Flying Into Daylight is described by many as Dirty Dancing for tango. In actual fact, this play is at its strongest when it when it deviates from that formula.

Okay, how’s about this for a story? There’s a young woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life, until the day she discovers tango dancing. It gives her a new purpose to her life, and yet friends and family don’t understand how much this means to her. She meets a free-spirited dance instructor who takes her under his wing. The chemistry between them is clear. Soon they’ll be more than just dance partners … Sounds familiar? Yup, this is pretty much the plot of Dirty Dancing, once you remove the word “tango” from that synopsis. And, classic though this 1980s movie may be, it suffers the curse of many classic movies: a formula so popular it gets imitated to death. I know that re-hashing film plots is a pretty effective way of selling lots of tickets without needing to be that creative, so I will admit I was somewhat sceptical about Live Theatre’s final play of 2014.

Well, hold on a second. There’s more to Flying into Daylight than a copycat of a popular film. This was originally a story by Victoria Fisher, which was adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson, who directed the play along with Live artistic director Max Roberts. The story is done as a two-hander, with Summer Strallen as Virginia, and Jos Vantyler as love interest Marco and everyone else. Also featuring on-stage musician-composer Julian Rowlands and on-stage tango choreographed by Amir Giles. It’s been described by some enthusiasts as the Dirty Dancing of tango – and I don’t think that’s a good description. Because this play, I think, is at its weakest when it’s similar to the plot of the film, and at its strongest when it goes its own way.

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Incognito: general relativity and cognitive psychology made simple

Nabokov’s second play to come to Live, Incognito, is an extremely ambitious play covering lots of issues – but maybe a little too ambitious for its own good.

Flock of birds in the shape of a face

A recent addition to Live’s touring theatre line-up is Nabokov theatre. Back in February, they made their Newcastle début with Blink, which is such a wonderful play you must see it. And I don’t care that the tour’s finished – you just going to have to crack the bit of general relativity that enables you to travel back in time to earlier this year so you can catch it. Speaking of general relativity, this is what their follow-up is about. Incognito, with Joe Murphy directing again, is all about abstract concepts of physics along with the equally light subject of cognitive psychology. And just in case you think this doesn’t stretch your brain, this play covers three stories with 21 characters over a period of sixty years. Oh, and four actors play all the characters. Whatever else you might think, you can’t say Nabokov is unadventurous.

Incognito is a co-production with Live Theatre, whose year, it must be said, has been quite conservative. A lot of their 2014 productions are repeats of 2013’s greatest hits – okay, any theatre would probably do the same when the ticket sales are that good, but 2013’s successes have meant a 2014 dominated by safe bets. So it’s good that Live are involved in something more adventurous, even those this is, artistically speaking, very much a Nabokov production. One early bit of good news is that, as far as I can tell, the science is broadly accurate. That’s good news not only for Live and Nabakov, but also for everyone else in the theatre, otherwise I would be been standing up screaming “NO, YOU IDIOTS! YOU CAN’T DO THAT! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANY PHYSICS AT ALL?” But, pedant-pleasing aside, how does it do?

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How do you solve a problem like class?

COMMENT: There probably is an attitude that theatre is for the middle class and not the working class – but the root problem is a society that thinks in classes in the first place.

Devoated and Disgruntled logoLast month I attended the Empty Space’s “Devoted and Disgruntled North East 3“. I don’t have time to explain exactly how this event works, but it’s a kind of networking event based on the idea that the most useful bits of conferences were not the structured sessions, but the coffee breaks in between where people get to talk to each other in groups of mutual interest. Anyway, there were a number of interesting topics discussed, but perhaps the most interesting talk was about the so-called “class divide” in theatre, brought up by Joe Caffrey (as recently seen in Wet House and Cooking With Elvis). There are two different issues relating the class divide. One is the apparent class divide from participation in theatre, and the other is a class divide in people coming to see it. They are both important subjects – and in the case of participation, although I think it’s more to do with connections than class, I heard of a lot of dodgy practices going on – but this discussion was very much on the latter.

Now, before I go on, I should clarify when I say “working-class” or “middle-class” in this article, I am referring to people who self-define as one or the other. I personally think this obsession with class is bollocks. It’s an outdated concept based on a long-dead system where a land-owning “upper class” had all the power. Nowadays, hardly anyone calls themselves upper-class, with middle-class and working-class being split roughly 50:50. And that’s not really a middle, is it? And with few people being born into a career nowadays, what makes you middle-class anyway? Because your parents are middle-class? Because your income or savings is over a set amount? Because you shop at Marks and Spencers? I’m struggling to find a sensible definition. But, like it or not, people define themselves as one or the other, and many people defining themselves as working class are flatly ruling out going to the theatre because it’s not for people like them. People actually says things to this effect. However stupid you might consider it, it’s a problem we can’t ignore.

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Cooking With Elvis: Before there were gross-outs …

Lee Hall’s Cooking With Elvis is tasteless, crude, and has all the ingredients you’d expect of a gross-out movie. And, strangely enough, I like it.

Stuart dressed as Elvis. Jill and Mam sitting on the bed. Long story, don't ask.

Live Theatre’s record of new writing is a hit-and-miss one. That is something that very much comes with the territory of new writing – to do something successful, you have to take risks, and inevitably there are times when it doesn’t work out. That is why I have generally been forgiving of Live when they produced the occasional dud. But sooner or later, you have to produce something to show it’s been worth it, and this year, Exhibit A from Live Theatre is a revival of Lee Hall’s 1998 play Cooking With Elvis. This time, there is no room for excuses: Lee Hall is as established a writer as you can get, they’ve had an original run to see what works and what doesn’t, and this production should be considered an example of the best Live can do. So, don’t think you’re under any pressure or anything. How does it do?

Well, I’ll start with one of my favourite moments, halfway through Act One. Stuart (Riley Jones) comes round to the house of Jill (Victoria Berwick) and her Mam (Tracy Whitwell). Jill politely tells Stuart that she hopes his last visit wasn’t too much trouble, and Stuart politely replies that it was nothing unusual. Which is probably the biggest understatement in the history of theatre, because the last time he was in the house was when he’s been brought back by Jill’s horny alcohic Mam ( Tracy Whitwell), been made to strip off, only to be interrupted by Jill wheeling in her vegetative Ex-Elvis Impersonator Dad (Joe Caffrey) who proceeds to piss on Stuart. In spite of this, Mam still brings in Stuart as her live-in toy boy. Jill, it appears does nothing but cook fancy meals, and suffers endless taunts from her mother for not doing proper stuff teenage girls to, like getting a boyfriend. Until we reach Act One Scene Thirteen. This is announced by Jill as the “end of Act One twist”, and you can probably guess what that twist involves.

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