Northern Stage had a big week in April. With their flagship production Red Ellen compressed dues to ongoing Covid woes, their press night was in the final (and only) full week of performance. At the same time, however, there was a notable play from Paines Plough running in stage 2. With Road splitting critical opinion but being a box office disappointment, they needed this week to be a good week. Let’s see how the two did.
This main stage play, co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, has been heavily postponed. It was originally meant to be done in 2020, but when that thing hit the play was put to the back of the queue, mainly because it was a large-scale play that would be vulnerable to further unexpected events. In retrospect, that was a wise decision to make. They didn’t quite emerge unscathed, as we saw from the positive cases meaning a late start to the play, but that was small fry compared to the various disasters we saw in the second half of 2021. It’s hard to compare audience turnout to Road when on a compressed timescale, but the performance I went to looked pretty good. It’s a shame so much is still hinging on when you schedule a play as opposed to what the play is, but on this vital decision: good call.
Red Ellen begins with Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) at the Labour Party conference. A lot of things are different in the early 1930s. For one thing, everybody smokes and it’s rude not to accept the cigarette you’re offered (but don’t worry, you can always smoke the special cigarettes the doctors in the ads say clears your throat). In fact, the montage Wils Wilson creates of everybody lighting up without a second’s thought is a great opening. Another thing that different about the 1930s is that it passes unremarked that she’s the only woman of any standing there. Some things, however, are familiar. In her speech, she makes an impassioned plea to wake up to a regime in Europe re-arming itself and persecuting anyone not to their liking, whilst people in her own country and own party are deluding themselves into thinking the maniac in charge doesn’t really mean it. Yet again, a play accidentally draws parallels to a current event that was unheard of at the time of writing.
This was supposed to be a longer article, but partly down to cancellations, this has ended up a bit thin on the ground. But in line with my new year’s resolution to not let backlogs build up too much, I’m going to catch up on a couple of things now.
10 things to do in a small Cumbrian town
Apologies for the lateness with this one. I had intended to do this in a roundup of all the other things on over December, but Omicron had other ideas. As you may recall, however, I was still taken in enough to name this most promising debut of 2021. Now let’s catch up with a proper review.
To be honest, I only ended up seeing this by chance. The advertised premise went in two directions: firstly, central character Jodie (played by writer Hannah Sowerby) is coming to think she’s more women than men, but with Penrith being a small Cumbrian town there’s a shortage of women inclined that way – specifically, the mum of one of her school friends. The other premise hinted to is how dull life is in the country. I will admit it was the second strand that got me a bit nervous. I’ve noticed a pattern lately of the theatre community – mostly congregated around the bigger cities – get a bit too keen on plays that look down on people who live in smaller towns. Would this be another hour of the theatrical class exchanging knowing laughter about the country folk and their backward views?
Actually, this play isn’t really about life in Penrith that much. Nor is it about growing bisexual. Both of these things are relevant to the central theme of the story, but only indirectly. No, what this play is really about is living with long-term depression. There are fundamentally two weights on Jodie’s mind. The first is that she is nineteen, and all of her friends from school have gone on to university or gap years and have all of these amazing experiences, which she’s still at home not doing much at all. The second problem is also the cause of the first problem – that is not revealed to the end so I’ll refrain from a spoiler, but the fact she lives with her gran (and does not appear to have much contact with her mother other than the occasional sporadic Christmas and birthday card) should give a clue as to what it is.
We’ve already had the tentative relaunches of the big two in the north east back in September-October, but now it’s really back to business. It’s not the first time since 2020 we’ve had a play on a main stage – Live has done several by now – but it is the first time we’ve have something on a multi-week run and full budget.
Both theatres went for something that seemed like a safe bet. Northern Stage took a classic play that catapulted a household name playwright to stardom that promised to resonate with the north east; whilst Live Theatre partnered with another theatre to adapt a recent book that took the publishing world by storm. Surely nothing can go wrong?
Well, let’s see how safe these safe bets really were.
Although The Offing is a co-production between Live Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, artistically this very much the product of the latter (with the former sharing the run largely due to the association of Paul Robinson and Graeme Thomson dating back to Theatre 503 days). The early reaction from the SJT half of the run suggested we were in for a good one, and it does not disappoint.
Theatre blog fans will remember that that when my list of theatre thing to cover suddenly dried up owing to this Thing In The News you might have heard about, I’d take the opportunity to catch up on something I’d been meaning to do for some time: backdate my Ike Awards to the start of my blog. The Ike Awards, I may remind you, are my equivalent to a 5-star review for a review publication that doesn’t use star ratings. I’d originally planned to go all the way up to the present, but I then discovered I liked the retrospective element: commenting on the plays I loved the most once more, years after I’d seen it. Sometime, it was interesting to see what happened next; sometimes, it was just fun to recall how good it was.
So I decided to leave a four,year gap, with the 2017 retrospective to come in 2021, long after the aforementioned Thing In The News is over. Spoiler: it’s still going on (sad-trombone.wav). But not to be daunted, let’s have a look at the year. A shorter list than usual, but also one of the most disparate.
Sometimes I have predicted artists starting out will go on to great things and gone on to the proven right, but sometimes I proven wrong by the people I underrated Although Paddy Campbell’s debut, Wet House, was a big success, I wasn’t that enthused with what I felt was a lack of plot. What I underestimated, however, is just how good he was at the thing he does best, which is writing about what he knows. All of his plays were based on his experiences of working in social care, and this grew stronger, but it was piece of verbatim theatre that topped it all.
And so, we come up to the final year of the list for now. When first set off doing this, I had planned to do these articles all the way to the present day, but I found as I went along it was more fun doing this as a retrospective, in particular wondering what these artists who impressed me are doing now. So I’m going to stop here for now and continue in real time. The Ike Award Hall of Fame 2017 will be done next year, 2018 the year after, so that there will always be a 3-4 period to reflect and see what happens next.
But before that, the outstanding plays of 2016, and this is a long list. It was probably chance more than anything, but amongst the plays I saw in 2016, the standard was exceptional. As a result, there are ten of you who’ve kept me busy writing this up:
What is the best thing you can hope to get from the Edinburgh Fringe. Some might say a Fringe First, some might say wall-to-wall five-star reviews, but there is surely no greater honour than everybody at the fringe saying how great you were. At the 2015 fringe, I lost count of the number of times people saying how good Jurassic Park was. So I took the opportunity to work this into my visit I checked it out for myself (now called Dinosaur Park), and found out it is indeed as good as everyone said, and more.
Let me begin with an apology for being slow on the reviewing front in the last six months. I don’t use this blog for a running commentary of things going on in my life, but those of you who know me will be aware that I’ve been getting a lot of hassle, firstly from some circumstances that forced me to move, and then the process of buying somewhere that turned out the be ten times as complicated as it needed to be. But I’ve finally done it. I’m a homeowner, and to celebrate I’ve subscribed to the Daily Mail so I can obsess over house prices. I’m already sick of those idle spongers in their social housing. Nice Mr. Dacre told me so.
Anyway, what this has meant for the blog is that I’ve fallen behind a lot, partly the time needed sorting things out, and partly as I was feeling in a bit of a hole over this time. This has also meant I’ve missed a few plays I was hoping to watch and review – if that was yours, I do apologise. (My tour with Elysium Theatre also produced a couple of casualties.) However, we are now into December and January, which is my down time and my chance to catch up.
So let’s start the catch-up with two productions I saw at the Gala, both adaptations of famous works. One was a stop of a highly-anticipated local tour, and the other was an in-house production – but a different kind of in-house production to anything you’ve seen at the Gala before. And that is where we begin.
Lord of the Flies
All eyes may be permanently on the theatre news from Newcastle, but one thing that has been slowly but steadily taking place in Durham is the increasing influence of Durham Student Theatre – and, in parallel, the increasing influence of The Assembly Rooms, their main venue. That venue has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, a secondary studio venue will be opening shortly, and both venues are looking to take touring professionals. The Assembly Rooms also partnered with Elysium Theatre, although this has recently been overtaken by the latter’s other partnership with Queen’s Hall Hexham. But along with this, there’s a third strand reaching out beyond the university, and that an unprecedented collaboration with the Gala Theatre and Unfolding Theatre. Taking on students as cast but professional produced and directed, Lord of the Flies was one of the most notable productions in Durham for some time.
Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns stays faithful to the book, but brings a new focus to the treatment of women in Afghanistan – which began earlier than you might think.
Talk to anyone about the history of Afghanistan and they’ll tell you the Taleban took over after the US armed them during the Soviet invasion. There again, talk to anyone about any topical bit of history and they’ll probably tell you whichever cherry-picked version suits whatever point they want to make. Never trust what most people tell you. As often is the case, this version is not wrong, but it’s a very simplistic version that misses out most of the intervening steps. It is this that Khaled Hosseini’s books cover well. In The Kite Runner, the main character flees Afganhistan with his father as things are starting to go downhill and only returns when Taleban rule is at its worst. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila doesn’t get the chance to escape, and witnesses the descent of her country into a theocracy. But it’s a slower descent than you might think, and not just down to Osama Bin Laden’s mates.
At the beginning of the play, Laila lives with her liberal-minded parents in Kabul. Even though her brothers fought and died for the US-backed Muhadajeen, the family is still supportive of the Americans, with her father even wearing an American T-shirt. Unfortunately, Kabul is under attack, and before her family can flee, a shell hits the house and both her parents are killed. Laila only survives because of some neighbours who take her in, but what first appears to be an act of kindness soon turns out to be an act of opportunism and the start of the nightmare. Rasheed is a self-obsessed control-freak who dominates his wife, and now wishes to take Laila as his second – something she is powerless to refuse. Mariam is at first angry with Laila for being upstaged, but as Rasheed’s true colours come to light and Laila sticks up for Mariam, the two form a hasty alliance, soon to become a true friendship. Continue reading →
Northern Stage’s joint collaboration to bring Alice Sebold’s novel to the stage works wonders, with production values comparable to the West End, and without falling into special effects overkill that marred the film.
It’s rare for regional theatre to try to take on the West End for production values. Even with Royal & Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse joining forces, productions on the scale taken for granted in central London are a risky business unless you can be sure you’ll sell the tickets. So an adaptation massively successful novel of Alice Sebold is a pretty safe bet to draw in an audience – or is it?
The most well-known big-budget version of The Lovely Bones is the Peter Jackson film – and many people consider that a disappointment. The Peter Jackson film can maybe be described as a version of Ghost, but with 2009-level special effects instead of 1990-level special effects, but that arguably misses the point. Both stories involve a central character who is murdered (in Susie Salmon’s case, raped and murdered) who lives on in the afterlife, but beyond that two don’t have much in common. The driving theme in Ghost is a hero desperate to stop his killer before he harms anyone else he loves. That theme is also there in The Lovely Bones, but it’s not the main theme. And the supernatural that dominated Ghost are only incidental here, with Susie free to observe the world but near-powerless to intervene. No, the dominant narrative in the story is a family struggling to come to terms with the worst kind of bereavement in the years to come. It is this, I think, that this adaptation gets in a way that Peter Jackson’s didn’t. Peter Jackson relies on fancy effects to create Susie Salmon’s own personal heaven – in this play, her heaven is the world her family still live in, getting on with their lives the best they can. Continue reading →
Whilst I have a post-Buxton Fringe breather (and because I want to avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassing backlog), it’s time for another catchup now. Shortly after Brighton Fringe, both Live Theatre and Northern Stage hosted plays in their main spaces. I prioritise fringe theatre reviews over mainstream theatre reviews – the latter doesn’t really need my publicity – but with Brighton Fringe under, let’s catch up with these.
This needs no introduction. The BBC Three series was phenomenal, arguably the channel’s greatest success since its controversial move to its streaming-only service (and the strongest evidence to date that a web-only BBC Three is a viable service). But before the successful TV show written by and starring Pheobe Waller-Bridge, there were the solo fringe show she wrote herself that started it all off. With the titular role now played by Maddie Rice, it’s been, to no-one’s surprise, performing to sold out houses up and down the country. With me far too disorganised to catch up with anything on television, this was a good opportunity for me see what all the fuss in about.
We begin with Fleabag (a nickname, but Waller-Bridge never specified a real name) attending a job interview, where a PG-rated misunderstanding swiftly esclates into calling each other a slut and a pervert. Then we go back to the 18-rated story of how she got here. After she masturbates to Barack Obama’s speeches with her boyfriend beside her, he leaves her yet again. No worries, this happens all the time, and Fleabag uses this as her opportunity to work her way through as many blokes as she can. Her flat still has a handprint from the threesome she had whilst on her period – we don’t get any more details as to how that came about, but I’m happy not to know that. Suffice to say this sets the tone for most of her sex life references in the story. The rest of her life is about as chaotic as her sex life. She manages a cafe that she used to run with her beloved best friend Boo. But since Boo’s tragic accident/suicide, she muddles on with that the way she muddles on with everything. Continue reading →
I’m going to review this play a little differently to most of my reviews. Northern Stage’s War of the Worlds already has enough glowing reviews on the pile, and besides, the two-week sold out run says more than any review ever will. What interests me is that this was part of Northern Stage’s NORTH scheme. If you’ve not heard of this, you can safely ignore most of this review and enjoy the play for what it is, but if you want ot read on, this needs a bit of explaining. NORTH has been running since 2013, and each year they take on a group on aspiring actors and give them, amongst other things, a public production. They generally go to form their own groups afterwards, the most successful one being the inaugural year which is now the hugely-respected Letter Room.
The scheme has varied from year to year though, not least in what kind of production they do. Usually the NORTH members devise their own play, but in 2015 the intake instead played the ensemble roles in mainstream production Cyrano de Bergerac – and not everyone was happy about that. A complaint I’ve heard off the record (not from anyone in NORTH 2015, I should add) is that by getting this instead of a devised production, they never get a chance to show their own creativity. A secondary complaint was that they got caught up in a concept that didn’t work, but lack of their own production was the main thing. So now, fast forward to 2018, and once again, a NORTH ensemble take the stage in someone else’s production. This time they play the leads in a Stage 3 production rather than ensemble on the main stage, but once again, the success of a production is in someone else’s hands.
Luckily for them, that someone is Laura Lindow, who has penned a series of successful productions, the most recent one being the November Club’s Beyond the End of the Road. Together with director Elayce Ismail, it turns out, they couldn’t have wished for safer hands to be in. Continue reading →