Bringing in their own touches, yet keeping everything that made the play the classic it is, the People’s Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code is a lesson to everyone in how to do this right.
Regulars here may have noticed that I review very few plays from conventional amateur dramatics. This is partly because the two I watch the most I work too closely with to review fairly, but it’s more that it’s rare for me to see anything that stands out. It’s a tough thing to do. A fringe theatre company working with a fraction of the resources can wow me with a great script or originality, but when you’re performing a well known play, what can you do? It must be said that a lot of amateur dramatics productions don’t help themselves by thinking that a good play is all about remembering your lines and standing in sightlines – even People’s productions have fallen into that trap before. But even with the best will in the world, there’s always the nagging thought at the back in the back of your mind that no matter how well you do, a professional company can do it better. Sure, the script might be great – and few would say anything else about Hugh Whitemore’s story of the Alan Turing and one of the nation’s greatest injustices against one of its greatest heroes – but that achievement isn’t yours.
So it is a rare pleasure to see the People’s defy these expectations completely, and put something that is not only on par with a professional company’s offerings, but in some ways even surpasses them. The People’s is at an advantage over most of its peers in that it has a far wider choice of actors – everyone here was suited to their part, from a suitably shifty Ron Miller to 1950-mentality detective Mick Ross to a suitably officious Dilwyn – but that is not what makes this play stand out. What stands out here is touches the People’s added to make their production unique. From the start and throughout, Leah Page’s creative set added a personal stamp on the play, but by biggest change – and a bit of a gamble too – was transforming this play from an intimate production with never more than three people on stage to a big productions with a cast of seventeen.
All-female theatre doesn’t have to be garish entertainment. Two Newcastle plays on this week, Open Clasp’s The Space Between Us and The Killing of Sister George at the People’s Theatre shows what else you can do.
Look, I like women. Most of my friends are female. But I cannot stand girlie entertainment. It took me years to years to recover from the Spice Girls and painful pseudo-feminism. Just when I thought it was safe to go outside, what I do I find plastered over every theatre? Girls Night, set in a karaoke bar featuring songs such as “I Will Survive” and “It’s Raining Men”. Already I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Lauded by critics as Sex and the City meets Mamma Mia! Not good. Pink glow sticks for the audience. Eeek. And the plot? Apparently five women representing the five “types” on a night out: one “born to party”, one who “says it like it is”, one with “issues”, one “boring but handy for driving”, and one “not so angelic angel.” Oh please … Actually, I think might be a blueprint for my afterlife when I die and get sent to Hell.
(Okay, and to give credit where it’s due, this is not some manufactured bum-on-seats product devised by marketing executives, but a play that writer Louise Roche originally put on off her own back without any big players backing her. For that, and getting a smash hit on audience popularity alone, she has my respect. I suppose I shouldn’t really judge this without seeing it for myself; it’s just that if I had to sit through this, I fear I may go insane.)
But help is at hand. All-female plays don’t have to be garish froth. They can be intelligent and thought-provoking too, and two that have been in Newcastle this week are Open Clasp’s The Space Between Us and The Killing of Sister George at the People’s Theatre.
Howard Brenton’s Never So Good is an interesting play about a piece of British history fading from memory. Even more interesting, however, is the prospect of the rise of the semi-professional performance.
Amateur dramatics is often dismissed out of hand by professionals as, well, amateurish. For reasons I’ll come on to in a moment, I think this is a stupid generalisation, but it sticks. But in the north-east, the People’s Theatre is the exception. It is highly thought of across the region, it teams up with New Writing North for the region’s most prestigious playwriting competition, and it is reputedly popular with aspiring professional actors seeking to make a name for themselves. It even managed to get performing rights to Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters whilst the official professional production was still touring. (I’ve also heard complaints that the company is ridden with amateur dramatics politics, but let’s be fair: that applies to most drama groups.)
The People’s Theatre’s latest offering is Never So Good by Howard Brenton, a biopic of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The politics of the UK 50s and 60s is, when you think about it, a surprisingly obscure subject in the public consciousness. Political history tends to be viewed as Chamberlain, Churchill, Atlee, and then nothing of note until Thatcher. This play brings to life an era where old values are giving way to new ones. The story begins with a young Macmillan dutifully and wholeheartedly signing up for World War One; continues with Macmillan’s opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement, even overlooking his wife’s continuing affair with a political ally; his underhand tactics as Chancellor to seize power from a prime minster’s disastrous foreign intervention (does that sound familiar?); and finally, after career of public duty for country and empire, his inability to understand why people now want to laugh with oiks like Peter Cook at Beyond the Fringe, or jeopardise his government with the first major sex scandal in politics. I wasn’t quite convinced by the younger Macmillan following the older Macmillan as a mocking commentator – it seems a half-hearted attempt to integrate this into the play, and I’ve seen other writers employ this device better – but it’s still a well-written play. Continue reading
COMMENT: Theatres have to reject most scripts that are sent to them – but they could at least say why.
Last week I did something I very rarely do – I submitted a script to another theatre. On a whim, I decided to enter New Writing North’s People’s Play competition (which is why I was late doing the Brighton Fringe roundup – I was working flat-out polishing up the script I wanted to send). Note my use of the words “rarely” and “on a whim”: I usually don’t bother with playwriting competitions at all. Same goes for most script calls and theatre reading departments. My reasons are many and varied, which you can read here, but the main one is that unless you are lucky enough to be picked – and let’s face it, the maths says it probably won’t be you – it’s a waste of time. If they don’t want your play, it gets binned without any explanation why.
Since I’m already biting the hand that might feed me, I will say this in defence of the People’s Theatre: they’ve got a good reputation for what they produce (and with me active in a fellow Little Theatre Guild venue I could do with building links), they don’t try to take ownership of your script, and they don’t charge submission fees. It’s the last one that I have big problems with, because I am very much opposed on principle to the idea of theatres making money from writers. A “reading fee” of around £30 is not uncommon for playwriting competitions, which, for all I know, could be little more than a glance of page one (and if you win the costs can be even more extortionate, but that’s another story). But even with a free competition with no strings attached, it takes time and money to get the play ready, print it, write the covering letter and post it. So usually I’m better off doing it myself.