SJT at 60: spoilt for choice

All the eyes of the theatre world might be on Edinburgh at the moment, but for those northerners who’ve stayed at home there’s been another big thing: the 60th anniversary of the legendary Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the day when all three theatres (their current site and their two predecessors, the library and Westwood) were open for celebrations, but the main attraction for me was the plays. I even had to do some complicated and cunning travel plans to fit them into my busy summer schedule.

This year, their summer season consists of reprises of some of the famous theatre’s greatest hits of the last six decades. And Cox and Box. Oh. But never mind, the rest of the line-up looked very tempting. And with the three headline shows done over the summer, let’s have a roundup. I’m not going to do a detailed critical analysis of these plays because they’re all huge successes that don’t need my help, but I’ll quickly chip in what I thought.

If you only had time to see one show, I think the prime choice has to be The Woman in Black. Even against the high standard of this season’s offerings, this one wins by a convincing margin. After Alan Ayckbourn, this is probably the biggest impact the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s had on the wider world. It originally began as a studio play commissioned to an unknown Stephen Mallatratt, back in the Westwood era when the studio theatre doubled up as the restaurant, and even then only really served the purpose of filling the programme. Who’d have thought? Continue reading

Stephen Joseph’s secret weapon

Everybody knows the runaway success of The Woman in Black. But few people know this play’s humble origins.

West End: Glamour. Glitz. Big casts. Lavish sets. Celebrity names up in big flashing lights. Uber-expensive special effects. Live music, featuring the songs of Queen/Westlife/Jedward. One thousand Vietnamese children dressed in rags swarm the stage. (The last one has so far only been done in a Litttle Britain sketch, but I’m sure they’re working on it.)

Fringe theatre: No glamour. No glitz. No celebrity names. Little or no set. Tiny cast: talented drama graduates if you’re lucky, pretentious students if you’re not. If it’s a good play, compensate for all of this with good acting, a good script, innovative directing, and careful and cunning use of basic lighting and sound effects.

Stephen Joseph theatre: Where Alan Ayckbourn does his stuff.

These three don’t really have much in common with each other. Or do they? Let’s take The Woman in Black, which I’ve just seen for the second time, this time at Darlington. This play is now in its 21st year at the Fortune Theatre, whilst simultaneously touring the country to packed theatres. Oh, and it’s apparently the 5th longest-running West End show of all time, between Blood Brothers and Cats. In short, this is what every producer dreams of.

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Every artist’s worst nightmare

Over twenty years after the première, Duet For One is still a deeply moving portrayal of the kind of ordeal faced by Jacqueline du Pré.

Most serious artists would agree that the one thing you need to make it – whether you’re an aspiring writer, painter, composer or whatever – is dedication. Anyone who considers their art less important than silly trivial things like, oh, a social life, or a career, or a stable relationship, is clearly not going to make it. The same can be said of sportspeople. Small wonder, then, that after high-profile sportpeople retire, many of them face isolation, depression, and sometimes even suicide. Artists are a bit more lucky, and can generally keep going far beyond their thirties. But not always. When the thing you dedicated you life to is cut short by illness or injury, how do your recover from that? That was was the tragic fate of Jacqueline du Pré, an extraordinarily gifted famous cellist who lost it all to multiple sclerosis.

Duet for One is not the only story based on du Pré’s decline, nor the most famous – that title goes to the controversial Hilary and Jackie, criticised by many as sensationalist and inaccurate. Tom Kempinski on the other hand, distances his play from reality; Jacqueline du Pré becomes Stephanie Anderson, a gifted violinist, no sister in the family, and no brother-in-law to make dubious claims over an affair. Instead, we have a back-story of Stephanie’s childhood battle with a father determined she won’t pursue music as a career, proof of how much her music means to her. But the main thing remains unchanged, which is the thing that she gave everything for she can no longer do.

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