Toast and Educating Rita

In late summer and early autumn, I saw two plays on the big stages: one is regarded by everyone as a classic; the other is known a little less as a play but I nonetheless heard everyone rave about it. There is always a bit of trepidation when I see a play this well-regarded – just sometimes, I don’t share the enthusiasm of everyone else. Classic plays can also be let down by misguided productions. So how did these two fare against high expectations.
Skip to: Toast, Educating Rita

Toast

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Toast isn’t your usual subject material for a play. Nigel Slater has made a name for himself as a chef, but to most people he is better known for his writing about cookery. However, Toast – his memories of his childhood and how he decided to cook for a living – is his smash hit. Originally a book, it was made in a very successful TV programme, and now it’s a stage play. Autobiographical plays are often overrated; there are countless solo plays around at the moment from actors who I suspect substantially overestimate how interesting their life stories are to other people. But the thing that I think makes this such a success is how Toast accidentally captures a snapshot of life in the 60s and 70s through the eyes of a child.

It is the child’s perspective that makes the play the success it is. A strong theme running throughout the play is the difference in attitudes of those two decades, but that is revealed slowly through a child’s innocence. To begin with, it’s mostly simple things: holidays, school games, and most precious to young Nigel, cooking together with his mother. This recreates so convincingly the little things in live that give a child so much joy, and resonates so strongly right down to us recognising the favourite sweets that we once oh God damn it I miss being kid … Sorry, where was I?

The first sign of a different time is Nigel’s father with his attitudes to gender roles, some old-fashioned, some just bizarre. In the latter category is the incredibly arbitray and confusing list of which sweets are boys’ sweets and which are girls. A bit more of a problem is his attitude to Nigel’s favourite hobby. Remember, this is the 1960s, four decades before masculine sweary TV chefs were invented, so Dad thinks cookery is for women, otherwise it will turn you into a Nancy boy (where, to be fair, he wasn’t entirely wrong, but that’s a later chapter in this story). However, young Nigel’s carefree life is about to be changed forever. His mother’s asthma attacks are getting worse. The moments when his mother tries hide what’s happening from her is one of the most moving pieces of theatre I’ve soon. And then … it’s the 1970s. Nigel is now a teenager, in a much scarier world.

Nuance plays an important part in the story too. Nigel’s father might not have the most progressive attitudes, but he is not a bigot and more a product of his time, doing the things people like him are expected to do, thinking the things people like him are expected to think. Father and son are never that close because he views bonding as the mother’s job, and once all parental responsibilities are thrust upon him, he’s really out of his depth. Tensions especially arise when a new woman enters if life. But way this is resolve is once more a touching moment of the play.

A lot of people have been praising the play for the music. I loved the music too, but the choice is cleverer than most people appreciate. It is isn’t just greatest hits from the years of the play. As a child, the songs we hear are his mother’s favourites, gentle songs to reflect a gentle life. Whilst the songs later in the play, including Psycho Killer which everyone raves about, belong to the more unsettling world that Nigel now lives in.

In the interests of balance I am obliged to say that the factual accuracy of the story is disputed. Specifically, the depiction of stepmother Joan Potter (real name Dorothy Perrins) is one that her family contests. The play does tone this down a bit compared to the film version; on the screen she is shallow social climber and a complete bitch to young Nigel – in the stage version, some of the worst moments are left out and the resentment is portrayed more as a two-way escalation. Nevertheless, this is a good time to remind everyone that plays based on real events need to be treated with some caution – creative writers get a lot more freedom than journalists and factual claims don’t always get the scrutiny they should. This doesn’t dent the enjoyment of the play, but, as with all stories based on real events, the factual content should be treated with due caution.

That disclaimer outside, Toast is a good all-rounder. A lot of stage adaptations made famous as a screenplay first play it safe and try to be scene-by-scene remakes, which is fine, but this could easily have been written as a stage play from the outset. That’s something that may have been helped by Director Jonnie Riordan also being the choreographer, so congratulations to him and script writer Henry Filloux-Bennett for the stage version between them. The tour is still going and will be coming to York Theatre Royal in late November (19th-21st), but there will surely be another tour after this one. Well done to creative team and the five-strong ensemble for a play that’s still stick with me over a month later.

Educating Rita

9756511(An early version of this review was given during my Edinburgh fringe coverage. This is a tidied up version.)

The other high-profile tour that got me interested was Theatre by the Lake’s production of Educating Rita. But although Theatre by the Lake is based in Cumbria, this is very much a north-east production. Stephen Tompkinson, has been in numerous TV series, but in the north-east he is also known for the plays he does with Live Theatre, including the complete psycho Freddie the Suit in Faith and Cold Reading and shady non-league football manager Kidd in The Red Lion. This time he is of course playing Frank, who isn’t a psychopath, merely a schambolic/alcoholic lecturer. The other big name from Live Theatre is Max Roberts, who stepped down as artistic director last year and – as is a good idea for recently-retired artistic directors wishing to give their successors some space – is keeping himself busy directing this touring production.

But whatever big names might be selling the tickets, it is Jessica Johnson who makes this play what it is. Two years ago she played Rita as the Gala Theatre restarted its in-house productions and – no disrespect to the other guy – she stole the show. There is of course a whole range of emotions Rita needs to go through in any successful production of this play, but Jessica Johnson brings it out from the start. In scene 1, Rita walks into Frank’s life brash and in-your-face and ready to be educated, but it doesn’t take much for her insecurities to come through, the result of a lifetime of being told this life’s not for people like her. As the story continues, and the goes through the end of her marriage and a discovery of a new self and finally standing up to Frank as an equal, Johnson gets all of this.

Max and Stephen deserve credit too. Tompkinson’s touch I liked the most was Frank’s alcoholism. As the scenes progress, his movements become increasingly impaired, whether or not he’s actually drinking anything at the moment. Much as I enjoyed the Gala production, one small but annoying issue was the set and movements that messed around the sightlines for anyone sitting in the front half of the theatre. This set is laid out more sensibly and, although he was in an enviable position to have such good actors to work with (not to mention such a great play), Roberts did what he needed to do.

I don’t ned to do a full review of this – my comments from the Gala’s 2017 production apply here. Apart from the sightline issue that was fixed here, all of the viritues of this productions were pioneered in the one directed by Rebecca Frecknall. As such, it’s a pity that she and the Gala Theatre are absent from the credits here, having done so much to lay the groundwork for this. But they have a lot to be proud of, and I hope they realise it.

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

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

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

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

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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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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