Hard times and hard adaptations

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Hard Times is a much harder story to adapt than the other works taken on by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson, but they did the best job they could have made of it.

Who called it first? Ten years ago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a side-show against Northern Broadsides’ main attraction of Shakespeare and other classic stories, starring or directed by Barrie Rutter, or both. And yet the husband-and-wife team of Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew has grown to become an attraction in their own right, with hits from A Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture, plus a collaboration with Barrie Rutter for An August Bank Holiday Lark,with not a weak link amongst them. Now with Conrad Nelson stepping in as interim artistic director, possibly a permanent arrangement, this pair are now set to dominate the programme. So it is no surprise that after a deservedly successful run of Cyrano de Bergerac that was co-produced with the New Vic, the people of Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme would be queuing up for their next show.

Their latest adaptation, however, is of a book rather than a play. And as choices of books go, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is, somewhat befitting its name, hard. The only Dickens novel that is set in the north (albeit in fictitious Coketown), the story is, in some respects, a longer version of A Christmas Carol. The central arc of the story is the journey of Thomas Gradgrind, a self-made man who attributes his success to learning facts. That, he strongly believes, is what his two children must be taught – and anything that cannot be explained with facts, such as art and love, must be suppressed.* Like Ebenezer Scrooge, his dogmaticism, well-intentioned though it may have started, comes at a heavy price for those he loves, until finally he sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. In the book, the three parts are titles “sowing”, “reaping” and “garnering”, and that summarises the story rather well. Continue reading

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For Love or Money: Rutter’s farewell (for now?)

Barrie Rutter as Fuller

Blake Morrison does a good job updating a classic play against the high expectations set by Northern Broadsides, but Turcaret maybe wasn’t the best play to work out of its original setting.

Amongst the many strings Northern Broadsides have to their bows, including Shakespeare, classics and new writing, there are the modern adaptations of classic stories, most notably those of the legendary writer/director duo Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson. So it must be double-edged sword adapting a classic play into a new setting for Northern Broadsides if you’re not Deborah McAndrew. On the one hand, they’ve helped build the reputation of Northern Broadsides, which nicely translates into a big audience draw for you. On the other hand, however, their reputation translates into insanely expectations for you to live up to. That’s something I wouldn’t envy anyone for. But this is a challenge long-time Broadsider Blake Morrison took up for Barrie Rutter’s swansong.*

(*: Fine print: This was Barrie Rutter’s last touring play whilst Artistic Director. This doesn’t count his last last play at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. And whatever people may say at the moment, I can’t believe it will be long before he’s acting and directing again.)

On the face of it, Tucaret looks like a natural choice for a new setting. Originally an 18th-century comedy, this is transplanted to early 20th-century Yorkshire. Rose is a young widow who has frittered away her fortune in spite of the efforts for her housekeeper Marlene (which very fitting added early 20th-century Yorkshire no-nonsense). She is courted by wealthy banker Fuller (Barrie Rutter, of course) – apparently naive at first, swiftly revealed to be shallow. However, Rose is more interested in the dashing but deceitful and dastardly Arthur, bleeding Rose dry of her money almost as fast as she can get it out of Fuller. However this setting worked in the original, it’s just as good here.

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On Northern Broadsides’ Richard III

Mat Fraser as Richard III

COMMENT: There is no easy solution to including disabled actors in theatre. But what Northern Broadsides is doing is an important step in the right direction.

I’m very late to the party on this one, but one thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is Northern Broadsides’ much talked-about recent production of Richard III. Not so much the production itself, although Northern Broadsides have a good track record of critical acclaim. This time, is was the casting of Mat Fraser as everyone’s favourite Shakespeare villain, because it is one of the few times a person with a visible disability has been cast in the role. So this is a good opportunity for me to give my thoughts on something I’ve wanted to opine on for some time.

So far, I’ve shied away from commenting on plays I’ve seem which include disabled actors in the cast. It’s always worked whenever I’ve seen this done, but it is difficult to put this into a review without making it sound like a review of accommodating an actor with a disability rather than a review of the play itself. I’d find it condescending if anyone reviewed a play I was in saying how great it was that they included someone on the autistic spectrum. However, as Mat Fraser has given a lot of interviews about being cast for this play specifically in relation to a disability, such as this one to The Stage (which I broadly agree with), I think I can safely assume he wants this talked about. Which is good, because although this production may only be a small step in the right direction, it’s an important one.

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Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town. Continue reading

An August Bank Holiday Lark: when war was a big adventure

Transitional scene were the dancing morphs into march back to battle

It would have been easy for Northern Broadsides to do yet another play set in the trenches. An August Bank Holiday Lark, however, helps us understand why this came about in the first place.

I’ve never been a fan of making people write plays to “briefs”. Theatre companies do of course have to consider what sells, but I’ve always felt that the more constraints you place on what a writer can write about, the less likely you are to get a good job out of it. Well, one person who feels differently is Deborah McAndrew, who considers these constraints an opportunity for inspiration. In theory, the brief for An August Bank Holiday Lark was quite simple: Northern Broadsides wanted to do a play about World War One on the centenary of its outbreak. In practice, however, it was a lot more constrained. For a start, there are plenty of plays about the horrors of the trenches, with recent successful tours of Journey’s End and Birdsong to contend with. They might have stood out from the crowd by doing a Michael Gove-friendly version where plucky British fellows under command of brilliant aristocratic leaders ensured victory for King George by December 1914, but they didn’t.

Seriously, however, there was little enthusiasm for a trench-based play with a “northern” perspective. The lazy solution – the solution which artistic director Barrie Rutter suspects television would have done – would be to combines stereotypical northern poverty and misery with the misery and subsequent slaughter in the trenches. Then there was another constraint in play – in Lancashire, where this play was to be set, the enduring memory of the war was the Gallapoli offensive in 1915, when the Loyal North Lancashire regiment suffered its worst losses. As a result, a time-frame of 1914-1915 was suddenly imposed on the play. And there was one final constraint: the title suggested by artistic director Barrie Rutter was a line from Phillip Larkin’s famous poem MCMXIV. And it stuck.

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The Grand Gesture: suicide is big business

Victor Stark supposedly comforts Simeon Duff.

The latest McAndrews-Nelson collaboration from Northern Broadsides, an update of The Suicide takes a a long time to get going. But it’s worth it for the end.

There was a famous moment in history when a monk set himself on fire in Vietnam in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Since then, there have been many high-profile political suicides protesting against lots of things: Vietnam war, communism, nuclear war, women’s rights, and most recently austerity in the EU. Most suicides, however, are low-key non-political affairs – and such wasted opportunities. This, at least, is the premise of Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s play, The Suicide, where an unscrupulous landlord sells political soundbites on a tenant’s suicide note to the highest bidders.

Originally written and set in Russia, this play originally portrayed Stalin in a bad light. Not because there was anything against him personally, but because it made him go down in a history books as a humourless bastard (on top of less serious charges such as, oh, mass murder). The original play only made it into rehearsals before Stalin personally banned it, and had the director included in one of his purges a few years later. Contrast this to last year’s Northern Broadside pick, The Government Inspector: Tsar Nicholas I, normally a notorious autocrat, thought it was hilarious and overruled his own censors. Anyway, this unsporting behaviour of Mr. S and subsequent Soviet leaders meant the play had to wait until 1979 for a performance. And whilst The Government Inspector has enjoyed endless adaptations on the easily transplantable subject of petty local corruption, most performances of The Suicide remain set in Russia.

But in Northern Broadsides, Deborah McAndrews and Conrad Nelson specialise in transplanting classic plays to modern day northern England, and now it’s the turn of The Suicide to get the treatment. And so, The Grand Gensture begins with Simeon Duff (Semyon Semyonovitch in the original) bemoaning his unemployment. With his wife as the sole breadwinner, Simeon thinks he’s on the scrapheap. He talks about ending it all, and even gets a suicide note on standby: “In the event of my death, I blame no-one.” When his wildly optimistic dream to make it big as a tuba player collapses, he’s really low. Still probably not sufficiently depressed to be that serious but shooting himself, but why let that silly detail get in the way of a good commercial opportunity? Continue reading

How not to raise a son and heir

Rutherford and Son is little-known 1912 gem by Githa Sowerby. Once again, Northern Broadsides has shown how good they are at reviving forgotten plays.

One complaint I frequently hear is that women don’t get a fair crack at having a career at a playwright – one stat frequently mentioned is that apparently only 17% of performed plays are written by women. But if anyone thinks they’ve got it bad now, it used to be a lot worse. Back in 1912, Githa Sowerby fancied a crack at being a playwright. As a precaution against stupid generalisations about women writers, she chose to play it safe and used the name “KG Sowerby”. The good news was that Rutherford and Son was a smash hit. The bad news was that that is was such a hit everyone just had to find out more about the writer. And they found out what the “G” stood for. And the moment the press knew she was a woman, they did one of the most blatant U-turns in the history of theatre journalism. It didn’t kill her career as such, but she never reached the same heights again, moved into children’s writing, and died at the age of 93 believing that no-one was interested in her work any more.

However all is not lost. After her death, her work was rediscovered by a number of groups, and the latest group to rediscover this play is Northern Broadsides, who have quite a speciality in reviving forgotten plays. And, quite frankly, all those people who dismissed her work out of hand were fools, because she paint a very convincing portrait of of life in a family like Rutherford’s. It is widely believed that John Rutherford is based on Githa’s own grandfather, who reputedly ran both his glass-making business and his family with an iron fist. Same goes for John Rutherford, who aided by a nit-picking sycophantic sister, refuses to acknowledge the wife of one son who married a girl from a lower class without permission, rubbishes his other sons’s career as a priest (admittedly not a successful job when the whole town hates your father), and keeps his ageing daughter under lock and key.

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