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
Northern Stage have just completed their Queens of the North season, with the headline act being two plays with prominent female leads. As well as this, there were other plays and events that are, to use Northern Stage’s words “Stories by women, about women, about humankind through the eyes of women”. However, out of all of the events I saw, by far the strongest one was neither Dr. Frankenstein nor Hedda Gabbler, but a lower-key production over in Stage 2. So let’s begin with this.
Paddy Campbell’s new play, it must be said, had a pretty tenuous link to the Queens of the North season it was officially part of. A play that explores young people leaving foster care through their own words, both male and female, the only vague claim this has to be about humankind through the eyes of women is that the artistic director of the performing company Curious Monkey happens to be female. This play would surely have been programme with or without a Queens of the North season to put it in – it would have been crazy not to, given the following both Curious Monkey and Paddy Campbell already had.
But, hey, whatever, that’s just marketing. What I’m really interested is the play. I knew little of Curious Monkey’s previous work, but this was playing to Paddy Campell’s greatest strength on writing very fairly and knowledgeably about the social care system. The only question was whether a verbatim play could live up to his previous more conventional scripted plays. Well, what do you know? It has; in fact, it’s surpassed those expectations handsomely. Continue reading
Never satisfied with just another undemanding Christmas show for children, Northern Stage’s James and the Giant Peach is up there with the West End shows for its production value – and on a fraction of the budget.
So, here’s a new thing on this blog – a review of a show aimed primarily at children. I’ve previously reviewed family shows that have also been very popular to adult audiences, but now that I have a nephew and niece who are old enough to go to the theatre it’s time to rediscover this. I will declare at this point, I am a certified pantomime-hater. I accept they are necessary to keep theatre solvent, but I just found them depressingly garish and formulaic, especially the big commercial ones who rely primarily on big-name celebrities from soaps I never watch. If anything, the pantomimes I liked the most as a child were the ones my local amdram society put on. They were sometimes great and sometimes dire, but they were always fresh and original.
Anyway, in a pre-emptive move to ward my nephew and niece off horrible formulaic celebrity-driven pantomimes, I took them to see this year’s Christmas production at Northern Stage, James and the Giant Peach. This is not a straight stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book, but an ambitious musical adaptation from David Wood. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow appraisal of the show, because other people are far better experts of children’s shows than me. But what I can comment on are the production values. On that front, it blows the competition from commercial pantomimes out the water. In fact, the production values are comparable with those of a touring West End production, if not better.
Sometimes touching, sometimes brutal, The Season Ticket is a great four-way collaboration portraying lives on the fringe of society.
Could you assemble a better team? Lee Mattinson has already shown how skilled his writing is with Donna Disco and Chalet Lines. Pilot Theatre wowed us with one of the best staged plays ever with The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Northern Stage, of course, as an excellent track record of mainstream productions. And Purely Belter, the film adaptation already made of the book this is based on, is a cult classic in Newcastle. And yet seemingly surefire collaborations don’t always work out. Such high expectation can set up such bitter disappointments. But not here. The Season Ticket is every bit as good as I hoped it would be, and more.
Gary and Sewell are two young lads at the very bottom of the pile. Gary has a sister who is desperate to get her A-levels so that – it is quietly understated – she can get out and move on to a better life – Gary has given up on going to school, and best friend Sewell has seemingly given up in general ever since his father died. The two of them begin in the middle of an inept petty crime, looking for suitable luxury household appliances to burgle from their headmaster’s house. Perhaps, it’s suggested early on, it’s got something to do with Gary having a half-inattentive alcoholic mother. But it emerges that she, too, has her own reasons to give up, once it emerges what sort of person Gary’s father was and what he did to them. Continue reading
If Live Theatre and Northern Stage are serious about supporting artists who go to the Edinburgh Fringe off their own backs, there’s a little thing they could do which would mean a lot to them.
Last year I wrote an article around the opening of Alphabetti Theatre with a radical proposal that Live could follow in their footsteps and make theatre more accessible by using their undercroft as some sort of open access space. Looking back now, it’s interesting to see how things have developed. To some extent, this is a less important issue than it was because Northern Stage are now doing something similar by encouraging groups to use their Stage 3. Also, Alphabetti is saturated with bookings six months ahead, which shows just how much suppressed demand is out there. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion we can only balance supply and demand with a second Alphabetti-style theatre in Newcastle.
But forget about that for now. I want to make a completely different proposal for how Live Theatre can do more to support small-scale artists, and this one includes Northern Stage too. Unlike my last proposal, this is a trivially easy thing to do, it will cost nothing, but it will mean a hell of lot to some artists out there. Let me explain …
Dark, well produced and well paced, and yet the most striking thing about Northern Stage’s Get Carter is not what is in Torben Betts’s adaptation, but what isn’t.
Would Northern Stage do justice to the legendary Get Carter? I was prepared to stake my reputation on this when I made this my top recommendation of the season. Northern Stage have a long track record of decent and innovative productions, and Torben Betts has a great track record as a writer. And yet, I had a few nagging doubts. When I saw their offerings last year, both Torben Betts and Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell made some odd artistic decisions that stopped them living up to their full potential. And I was still reeling from a very disappointing (and utterly incomprehensible) version ten years ago. Well, I needn’t have worried. Get Carter is an excellent choice to put on stage if you get it right, and they did.
Get Carter is, of course, best known for the film with Michael Caine, who has the amazing ability to play any character in any film as the Michael Caine character and pull it off. He could probably have got away with saying “My name is Jack Carter. Not a lot of people know this, by my niece Doreen is actually my daughter.” Such is his dominance of any film he touches, it’s easy to forget it was already a great story without him. Set in the criminal world on 1960s Newcastle, Jack returns home for his brother’s funeral. Already a veteran of London’s criminal underworld, Jack correctly guesses his brother’s death wasn’t really an accident and people are feigning ignorance. What he doesn’t realise straight away is that he’s getting drawn into a power struggle in a web of criminal empires, each one trying to play Jack off against their rivals. Jack might have been an amoral hand for hire in London, but on learning what really happened to his family, he becomes a vengeful vigilante, dishing out somewhat arbitrary justice, with your fate largely down to how much you’ve pissed him off. Continue reading
Lorne Campbell’s decision to stage Cyrano de Bergerac in a gymnasium is very strange indeed. But in spite of this, it’s still a production worth seeing.
Right, here’s a fact I bet you don’t know. Anthony Burgess – yes, that’s the same Anthony Burgess of Clockwork Orange fame – was also a skilled literary translator, and amongst his translations is Edmond Rostand’s 19th century classic, Cyrano de Bergerac. Set in swashbuckling France at the height of the Three Musketeers era, Cyrano de Bergerac is an legendary duellist and respected commander of the French Army, let down only by his ugly long nose (and woe betide anyone unwise enough to poke fun at it too much). His less-known weakness, however, is his love for Roxanne, disguised so well even Roxanne believes him to be only a friend. But Roxanne loves handsome Christian, a new recruit to Cyrano’s company, and he agrees to act as a go-between. But Christian, shy and lost for words, relies on Cyrano to write his love letters for him. Wait a second, I think I’ve seen this story before. And from what I recall, it never ends well.
Northern Stage’s Cyrano de Bergerac is another co-production with Royal & Derngate after last year’s excellent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But whilst that play was very much a Royal & Derngate / James Dacre play, this time it’s Northern Stage firmly in the creative driving seat, with Northern Stage’s Lorne Campbell directing, and a fair number of Northern Stage veterans making the creative team. Also – and this was an excellent idea – Northern Stage’s NORTH (their annual training programme for new professional actors) provided the ensemble roles for the play. With Northern Stage’s good track record of producing classic plays, I had good expectations of this – which all got thrown into doubt as soon as the play began. Continue reading