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 sha. Guess again. Cheating and greed are just as rife, and the story centres around a bung that goes wrong. 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
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
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.
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.
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.
Paddy Campbell’s Wet House at Live Theatre is a promising start. But in spite of this, I have some misgivings about Live’s influence.
Like most new writing theatres, Live Theatre wants to build up relationships with writers they can call their own. Lee Hall has a string of successes at Live, as shortly to be demonstrated by the upcoming re-run of one of his many successes, Cooking With Elvis. More recently, Lee Mattinson has been building up a respectable following. But they both had to start somewhere. Every established playwright was once an untested one where the theatre had to take a gamble and hope for the best. Live’s last gamble was Zoe Cooper with Nativities, which was sadly a disappointment. So now, step forward Paddy Campbell with Wet House. Like Nativities, this is a play largely drawn from personal experience. But whilst Nativities tried to make an interesting story out of office politics – not an easy choice of topic, it must be said – Wet House dwells on the more interesting, and much darker, topic of a hostel-cum-scrapheap for incurable alcoholics.
There is a cast of six: three care workers and three of the many residents. Helen (Jackie Lye) is a jaded care worker disillusioned by a management that cares more about targets than people. Mike (Chris Connell) is an equally jaded care worker and ex-squaddie, who thinks this whole thing is a waste of time. Enter new recruit Andy (Riley Jones) in an unplanned change of career direction after buggering up his arts history degree. Probably the most accurate description given of the place was “like Dignitas, but takes longer, and without the dignity”. But Mike is the sort of ex-squaddie who spent little time promoting peace and understanding in warzones and a lot of time dangling IRA suspects out of helicopters, and he takes his style with him to the Wet House. When a silly mistake by Andy provides Mike with an opportunity to inflict his DIY justice on a sex offender resident, Andy’s life progressively becomes unbearable.
Michael Chaplain’s Tyne may be popular locally but won’t have life outside of Tyneside. However, the hard work that went into this is an example for everyone else to follow.
This is one of the few plays I see where I’m not really in a position to say whether it’s any good. Tyne, Live’s contribution to the festival of the North East, is clearly aimed at the people of Tyneside, packed with stories and memories that the people of Tyneside identified with. It certainly was a box office success – almost every performance sold out – but those who’ve followed this blog will know how suspicious I am of local writing. Maybe my cynicism has been entrenched from years of the Gala Theatre’s “local” productions that weren’t even local (Durham council please take note: the people of Durham city do NOT consider themselves a suburb of Newcastle), but I’ve been very disillusioned by how formulaic a “local” play can be and still get bums on seats. The typical mediocre “local” play tends to have a very basic plot that could have been acted in 30 minutes rather than the two hours, and the rest of the time is spent talking about local references. And, worse, it always seems to be the same lazy predictable things referenced in play after play.
Well, this point of laziness is what separates Tyne from all these mediocre scripts. This play is essentially a collage of numerous stories, real and fictitious, past and present, from the banks of the Tyne. Some of the stories are passages from past local plays at Live, but much of it is local legends and even stories of ordinary people who the writer talked to. Most of these stories were things I’d never heard of, and the amount of work Michael Chaplin must have done is admirable. Thank God for a play that recognises there’s more that defines Tyneside than St. James’s Park and the Angel of the North.