The Snow Queen: the canary in the coal-mine

Kai's gran with puppet Gerda

Oh dear, theatre’s not having a great month, is it? So many theatres hedged their bets on re-opening in time for the lucrative Christmas season, only for this new form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Coronavirus to scupper many plans. Where productions have gone ahead, it largely came down to luck, and one of the theatres on the lucky list is the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, they’ve been extraordinarily lucky: as well as being in North Yorkshire that has so far evaded tiers 3 and 4, the unscheduled shutdown in November conveniently fell in a gap between their two major performances. Even in the process of writing, they’ve had yet another narrow escape.

But if any theatre deserves a bit of good fortune in their favour, it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I cannot think of any theatre that has worked harder to re-open its doors. Even back in April, they had plans on standby to get going as soon as possible whenever they were able to. That original plan (a touring Hull Truck production of Two) has since been kicked into the long grass, but instead they got going relatively quickly with a John Godber play, conveniently written by, rehearsed and performed by his family. From the government go-ahead to curtain up it was about two months, not quite as fast off the mark as the impressive/reckless three weeks achieved by The Warren Outdoors, but still way ahead of most theatres.

Paul Robinson described their situation as “the canary in the coalmine”; and it’s true to say that had the ticket sales not materialised – and there was no guarantee they would – it would have been a disaster. But the gamble came good. I cannot tell you if Sunny Side Up was any good because the entire run sold out weeks in advance, albeit with a much reduced capacity. But I was able to make it to The Snow Queen, their hastily-planned solo Christmas show, and I can now tell you how it works.

The first impression I had was formed way before making it to Scarborough. Even though the SJT would probably have sold out the run regardless, they really went out of their way to assure audiences they would be safe to attend, both with publicity and actual measures. Even if they were taking a gamble financially, they’d erred on the side of caution with the lurgi. They manage arrival times to avoid the normal stepping over other people already in seats. Also, similar to The Warren they made use of at-seat refreshments, keeping two of their six rows free to make this possible. One side-effect of this is that capacity is cut further – had they filled seats up to the legal limit I reckon they could have sold 50% more tickets. But no-one can say they’re being blase about safety.

The Snow Queen enchants puppet KaiBut anyway, what about the play? So, The Snow Queen is sort-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. It’s actually ten years since they last performed this story, last time directed by Robinson’s predecessor Chris Monks, but that was a faithful adaptation (back in the days when you could have people from more than one household on stage without fear of dropping dead). This adaptation, on the other hand, for both financial and plague-avoiding reasons, is a solo performance, with the story told by the Snow Queen’s arch-enemy, the Sorceress of Summer, played by Polly Lister. There is another challenge: normally a theatre would have two Christmas productions, one aimed as families, the other aimed at very young children. This year, when you’re lucky to have one production, it has to appeal to both groups. And this dilemma is solved quite cleverly by Nick Lane.

If this name sound familiar to you, Nick Lane has frequently been covered by me for three adaptations produced by Blackeyed Theatre. Two of them were quite faithful, but the one of note here is Jekyll and Hyde, where he introduced a completely new character and made it look like this was in the original story all along. He does something similar here. The Snow Queen is no longer a pawn of The Devil in an epic battle of good versus evil, but an embittered woman overshadowed by both her sister, aforementioned sorceress of summer, and the big guy in red. No-one likes winter, it’s all Christmas Christmas Christmas. She’s a very different character to the original, but if you didn’t know better you’d think this was how it was always written. What this does mean is that The Snow Queen can be hammed up to the level of panto villainess, plotting to put the nice children on Santa’s naughty list – seriously, we need fun theatre at the moment, children or no children – but without really dumbing down the tale.

Not everything new is disguised as the old. If you don’t know the story you’d probably twig the play has been transplanted to Scarborough (and the alternate world of “other-Scarborough”), Kai’s gran has been changed to a no-nonsense Yorkshire Nan, and there are various other obvious liberties taken such as the vacuous social-media savvy hashtag-obsessed wise women. One big change that’s not so obvious, however, are Gerda and Kai. In the book, Gerda is a heroic teenager on a quest to save her beloved. In this version, Gerda and Kai are just kids. Kai’s fateful gaze into the sky is now a dare he sets from himself to show he’s not a scaredy-cat, but the moments where Kai and later Gerda let their fear slip through their childish bravado is one of the most effective moments.

So, how do you do this as a solo play? Well, I counted eight characters Polly Lister played throughout the play, with some appearances of Gerda and Kai done with puppets. They went to town with the set, but by far the most praise went to her versatile performance. Some people have been amazed that you can do so much with one performer; me, not so much. Anyone who’s spent time at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that actors do solo performances all the time, and switch characters using any or all of outfit, mannerisms or puppetry. As long as the actor, writer and director know what they’re doing – and I’ve seen enough of Polly Lister, Nick Lane and Paul Robinson to be sure this was the case here – they don’t disappoint. It’s just a pity that this solution, that seems a no-brainer to anyone who knows the capabilities of solo plays, isn’t considered more widely.

A few niggles. Good though the set was, I’m not sure the end-stage configuration justified the loss of one third of the seating available in the round (unless seating was already limited by getting people in and out the building, in which case ignore that). And this was maybe a little less accessible to young children as it could have been. I realise a single production that appeals to all ages is a challenge, but there were maybe a few bits where she could have spoken not quite so quickly for the benefit of the younger children. And in the final three-way showdown, it started to get a bit confusing when Lister kept switching between Gerda, Kai and the Snow Queen. Having used the puppets so effectively earlier in the play, maybe they could have made use of them here.

But on the whole, it’s a great job done under the most challenging of circumstances at a time when many theatres didn’t even try. With little enthusiasm for any more theatre in the winter months, and so many unknown variables up in the air, no-one knows what theatre will be up against in March onwards. But if it’s anything like now, there’s a lot other theatres could learn from the Stephen Joseph theatre, in terms of both practicality and artistic value. They’ve demonstrated how you can run a theatre in these circumstances and how you can achieve so much with so few on stage. The canary in the coalmine has flown outside chirping in triumph.

Note: In the two weeks prior to the performance I saw, I was staying at my mother’s in North Yorkshire. Long story how this came about – don’t worry, nobody I know has been anywhere near anyone with Coronavirus – but I assure you there is a very good reason why I temporarily needed to stay somewhere safer.

The Snow Queen runs until 31st December. Very limited tickets, returns only. Also available for online purchase via the SJT website.

The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2016

Skip to: Jurassic Park, Of Mice and Men, The Bookbinder, Dancing in the Dark, The Jungle Book, Le Bossu, Consuming Passions, The Season Ticket, Frankenstein, How Did We Get To This Point?

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:

Jurassic Park / Dinosaur Park / The Jurassic Parks

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.

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The Ike Award Hall of Fame: 2014

Skip to: Blink, Samantha Mann, Inheritance Blues, Chaplin, Roundelay

Now we go into the third year of the blog, and the plays I rated as outstanding step up a notch. I’m not sure whether I was seeing more plays or getting a better radar for the good ones, but there was quite a haul.

2014 also was noted for a different reason, but we’ll get on to this later.

Blink

Scene from Blink

It is rare for me to rate a play as outstanding, but it’s even rarer for a play to get me emotional. Nabokov’s play is one of those rarities. There’s so many plays and films of “will they or won’t they get together?” (spoiler: yes, duh) I’ve long since been desensitised to it, and yet Phil Porter’s story of Jonah and Sophie has you desperately wanting these two the happiness they need. Both outsiders on the fringe of the society, they way they come to know each other is far from ordinary,  something that would easily be misunderstood by an outsider, but the script always explains why they do what they do.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Blink, Nabokov

The thing that move the play from excellent to outstanding, however, way the ending. It might be the ending that no-one wanted, but it was the only ending that could have happened. A bog-standard love story would have ended with them getting together and living happily ever after – but real stories don’t end there. It’s a punch in the guts when the inevitable happens, but that’s the way things go sometimes.

Add to the this innovative set perfectly depicting the unreal, this could not have been a better start to the year.

Ms. Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit

Close-up of Charles Adrian as Samantha Mann

I’ve been aware for a long time that, far from being two distinct genres, theatre and comedy have a big overlap, but it was this show from the comedy sections of Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe that I rated as outstanding on the terms I rate theatre. On the surface, Samantha Mann is drag character comedy from Charles Adrian on a fuddled middle-aged spinster doing a poetry reading. If she ever gets round to the poetry. In fact, she spends half an hour whittering away before getting to this poem.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Samantha Mann: Stories of Life, Death and a Rabbit, Charles Adrian

But it’s in the whittering where the real stories. At first glance you might think she’s giving away past acecdotes of ineptness, but it’s deeper than that. Slowly an unhappy story is pieced together of Samantha Mann’s lonesome life. The shy spinster she is now is the product of distant parents, a fun brother, and a tragedy that comes out of nowhere, very cleverly disguised underneath the laughter. The final poem “Who goes there” is accidentally the most moving poem of her set. There have been companion pieces produced for the world of Samantha Mann since, but the original will always be unbeatable.

Inheritance Blues

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Student theatre has a notoriety for many reasons: badly executed, unoriginal, or mistakenly thinking they’re being deep and profound – and, boy, I’ve had my fair share of those. So Dugout Theatre is a prime example of how it can go right. I first saw them do a excellent faithful-but-menacing version of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice back when they were still students, and then I thought nothing of it until everyone started raving about their smash hit Inheritance Blues. And that, it turned out, was extraordinary. I’m not sure whether anyone in this cast of six had professional training, but I don’t need to lower the bar: this was a superb play easily at the same standard as full professionals.

Ike-Inheritance

The story is simple enough: a three-piece band come to play at a funeral, and after the wake they are trapped by a storm with the thee sons, with the one who was closest to his father trying to rope his brothers into an ill-advised scheme to run his late father’s hotel. But what made this play stand out was the music slickly combined with the story. Starting with the “Hot Air Ballues” observing the first between the three brothers and later getting drawn into the story themselves, it really comes into its own, especially the surrealistic re-enactments of the outlandish stories the favourite son of the departed believe about his dad. And yet, for all the bells and whistles attached to a funny play, there is a lovely poignant bitter-sweet ending.

I’ve seen most of Dugout’s plays they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe and loved all of them, but nothing could ever top Inheritance Blues. The last play that featured the Dugout ensemble as we know it was the aptly-named Swansong in 2017 – since they they have acted as producers for other solo plays, still to good standard, but never a replacement for the ensemble we know from their greatest hits. But Dugout Theatre harm thoroughly earned its place amongst the greatest fringe ensembles.

Chaplin

Scene from Chaplin

There’s a lot of plays going round at the moment about Charlie Chaplin, but the one I saw and loved has an obscure origin. ACE productions is based in Finland, operates all over the world, and the Edinburgh Fringe production was a rare foray into the UK. This really could have done with being a full-length production, but in the 75 minutes given they did a perfectly potted history of Charlie Chaplin, warts and all. How he began, how real events worked into his films, the suspiciously high correlation between the leading female role and who he’s currently copping of with, all culminating into his disgrace and exile from Hollywood.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Chaplin, Ace Productions

It was the final chapter that was done the most memorably. Whilst some of his indiscretions come back to bite him, this play makes a lot of his naivety over the upcoming communist scare, with the iconic speech from The Great Dictator used against him in ways no-one could have foreseen. And closing footage was perfect too: Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Award, his rehabilitation into Hollywood thankfully before he died. It’s a pity play was never heard of again, but what a one-hit wonder it was.

Roundelay

Scene from Roundelay (the Judge)

With so many successes under his belt, Alan Ayckbourn has set himself a huge task: how do you write something that doesn’t feel derivative of anything he’s written before? For me, this was achieved with Roundelay. At first glance this looks like a re-hash of Confusions – isn’t five one-act plays in two hours old hat now? – but there was one difference whose significance you must not underestimate: the five plays can be performed in any order. Indeed, the order is decided randomly for each performance. And, truly testament to Ayckbourn’s writing skills, the p[lays work in any order. One way round a play will plant a seed that forms crucial background knowledge in another play. The other way round, instead of a seed you get a revelation that changes what you thought you know about a story just gone.

Ike-Roundelay

It wasn’t perfect – perfection is not a requirement of an Ike Award. The Agent was, I thought, the weak link of the five, played for too many laughs at the expense of believability. But The Judge was wonderful, in my view better than any of the five famous plays from Confusions: an elderly man set up to meet a woman made up to look like his wife as she was when they first met. For some of Ayckbourn’s later plays, I’ve not shared the enthusiasm of the critics, but this one I think is a very underrated. Hope we have not seen the last of this.

But not …

2014 also had the dubious honour of being the year I saw a lot of terrible plays. I have a long-standing rule that I lay off low-key performances from low-key groups, but it’s bigger-budget performances from people who ought to know better are fair game. However, there was one play that scored the unholy trinity: no artistic merit, morally repellent, and a high-profile group that makes it open season. Looking for Paul achieves all three – I don’t know any other way a play can get me that angry.

As I’ve previously said, Paul McCarthy, the “artist” this play idolises, is someone I have a problem with. He’s a bit like Damien Hirst, inexplicably lauded by the fine arts world (and if you don’t like it it’s your fault for not being cultured), except that Damien Hirst  does at least draw the line at shitting coloured diarrhoea on paper. Damien Hirst also has the defence that no-one’s forcing you to look at his spot painting. Not so for Paul McCarthy, who is the darling of “public art”, especially ones involving giant turds of butt-plugs. This is the entire premise of this play, a woman who objects to a butt-plug gnome outside her window and ends up getting roped into a closing scene that is disgusting for the sake of it. It appears to be a two-fingered salute to anyone expressing incorrect opinions about what they do and don’t want built on their doorstep.

The play (if we can call is a play – an opening forty-five minutes of reading out an exchange of emails is a tenuous claim) plays on the notion that controversy is good because It Provokes Debate™, a catch-all term used to invalidate any arguments to the contrary. It couldn’t be a bigger love-letter to Paul McCarthy if all the actors gave him a blow job on stage, nor that have been any more disgusting to watch than the final fifteen minutes. I suppose it’s a bit much to focus all my ire on either this play or the artist it celebrates – it’s more that embodies everything I hate about the elitist culture of contemporary fine art. Nothing I have seen since gets anywhere near my feelings for this – but don’t worry, when it finally happens I’ll certainly let you know.

SJT and Ayckbourn 2019

Another autumn, another programming of Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sticking with the long-standing pattern of the last decade, there were two Ayckbourn plays this year: a revival of a classic in the summer – another one from the height of his commercial success – and a new play in the autumn. But wait … I have a third Ayckbourn in the list, that’s officially not affiliated with the SJT, but in practice has a strong connection. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let us begin with the two plays on at Scarborough.

Season’s Greetings

Astute though Alan Ayckbourn is with his observations of human character, there is one thought that frequently goes through my head when I see an unflattering character in one of his plays: “I pity the poor bastard who this was based on.” Off-hand, I can’t think of anyone this applies to more than poor old Bernard, artistic director of the worst puppet show in the world. Bernard thinks – or has at least deluded himself into believing – that his Christmas plays for the kids are a delightful annual family tradition. For everyone else, it’s notorious, with simple fairy tales padded out to snails pace; add in the numerous complex scene changes (sixteen in this year’s performance of The Three Little Pigs And Their Wives And Families) and the play turns into an endurance test. Who was this person? Who did these awful puppet plays in real life? The answer surprised me.

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SJT Summer 2018

Before I embark on Edinburgh Fringe coverage, let’s round up another main season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Apart from a programme very heavily defined by its very famous former artistic director, the other unusual feature of the SJT is that whilst most theatre wind down for the summer as people turn their attention to holidays and/or the Edinburgh Fringe, in Scarborough the programme ramps up.

Skip to: The 39 Steps, Build a Rocket, Joking Apart, Better Off Dead

There is one change this year though – until last year, the SJT ignored the Edinburgh Fringe as it moved into peak summer season. This time, however, they have decided to do both, with a full-on summer season at Scarborough complemented with their own Edinburgh excursion. But I am going to go through the plays in (roughly) chronological order in which they were shows, so we begin with:

The 39 Steps

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In the literary world, John Buchan’s spy novel is regarded as one of the seminal spy thrillers. In the film world’ Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the books is regarded as one of the seminal spy films. But in the theatre world, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is regarded as one of the silliest hits to have graced the West End. Well, to most of the theatre. Some people somehow missed all of this going to the play expecting a deathly serious edge-of-your-seat thriller. But the surprise, when it turns out to not be what they expected, quickly turns into a pleasant surprise. Continue reading

Taking Steps and A Brief History of Women

Production shot from Taking Steps

SKIP TO: Taking Steps, A Brief History of Women

It took a few years to settle down after Alan Ayckbourn left as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but a pattern has finally emerged: the earlier summer season is where his artistic director successor does his stuff, with a revival of a successful earlier Ayckbourn introduced later in the summer, and then a new Ayckbourn play in September and October. 2017 was no exception. For once, I couldn’t catch them in Scarbourough, but luckily, I can count on a transfer to the New Vic that’s now in easy reach of me.

It is difficult to tell how new Ayckbourns will turn out in advance. Ayckbourn has a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but a lot of his new plays have been using old tricks in new ways. Don’t dismiss that – when it works well, it’s outstanding, but it’s always a bit a of pot luck involved to see how the new offering turns out. But the revival on offer is something that I recommended, not just because I know and like the play – but because this play is one of the few where it’s important to see it done by someone who knows how it’s meant to be done. That’s where we shall begin. Continue reading

Goth Weekend: more Goth please

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Skip to: Di, Viv and Rose

Paul Robinson’s new writing debut for the Stephen Joseph Theatre is an interesting insight into to misunderstood world of subcultures. That is where Goth Weekend was at its strongest.

Ever since Chris Monks unexpectedly announced his departure from a theatre in Scarborough with a very famous predecessor, one of the big questions was where the Stephen Joseph Theatre would go next. Paul Robinson’s appointment was announced in early 2016, with a strong indication that the theatre wanted to go in the direction of new writing, but such is the long timescale of planning theatre programmes that it wasn’t until late 2017 that we had our first real indication of what kind of new writing we can expect. Goth Weekend isn’t Paul Robinson’s first play directed at the SJT, but it is the first next play, so all eyes were on this.

There were two things notable about this choice of play. Firstly, it’s a co-production between the SJT and Live Theatre. This might seem a tall order, with these two theatres’ audiences having very different tastes, but the crossover has worked before, and brings a unique touch to both theatres. Secondly, it shares in common with And Then Come the Nightjars, Paul Robinson’s last touring production in his previous job at Theatre 503, a setting of a world described in detail. Then it Bea Robert’s story of a farm during and after the foot and mouth outbreak – now it’s Ali Taylor’s play the world of Goth subculture. Continue reading

Around the World with Little Voice

SKIP TO: Around the World in 80 Days, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Apologies to everyone who’s been waiting on reviews – I have been directing a play which just went insane with its workload, and I’ve had little time for anything else. But I’ve finally got this out of the way, and I’ve manage to upgrade  sanity level up from “gibbering wreck” to “slightly less gibbering wreck”. So now’s as good a time as any to catch up, in a sort-of chronological order.

So, in early July, I caught two plays in the round as part of a round trip involving the Buxton Fringe launch, a visit to a sister and a photo stop in the Pennines. Both were high-profile shows and both are revivals, so there’s little need for me to give either constructive advice or encourage people to come along, but here’s my verdicts nonetheless.

Around the World in 80 Days

img_6331-1170x780Jules Verne’s famous circumnavigation-themed novel is a tough to to adapt faithfully. So detailed is the story that it’s next to impossible to capture the train-by-train-by-boat-by-train-by-elephant etc. epic in that level of detail. In fact, one of the biggest oddities is that some people consider the most accurate adaptation to be the 1980s children’s series Around the World with Willy Fogg. Even though all the characters are animals and they introduced extra characters such as the sneaky master of disguise wolf Transfer who tries and fails to sabotage the journey every episode, the 26-episode format meant the whole journey could be captured very faithfully. But this is theatre, where you have two and a bit hours, trains and boats on stage are not an option, and getting a lion to play Mr. Fogg is unworkable for several reasons. Continue reading

More alternative Christmas: No Knowing and Snowflakes

Skip to: The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, No Knowing

Damn. December is usually my catch-up month where all the theatres show pantomimes, which I avoid like the plague. However, this year, there have been an unusually high number of non-pantomimes in December I’ve wanted to see. I’ve already reviewed How Did We Get To This Point?, which was unexpectedly outstanding. Now for the two other standard plays I saw in December, both of which were pleasing.

The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes

The most remarkable thing about this studio piece at Live Theatre is its critical reception. I  don’t often mention other people’s reviews in my own reviews (most of the time, I avoid reading the other reviews completely to avoid influence on mine). However, this time the acclaim was unprecedented. Five stars from the Guardian. Local reviews need treating with a bit of caution, but it’s big achievement for any play to get that rating in a national newspaper; for a studio production from a first-time writer to get it (let alone get a reviewer up at all), it’s phenomenal. Continue reading

So much for Ayckbourn’s retirement 2: Henceforward, Karaoke Theatre, Consuming Passions

REVIEWS: Skip to: Henceforward …, Karaoke Theatre Company, Consuming Passions

Hey, Alan, aren’t you supposed to be having a rest? He stepped down over six years ago, but perhaps to cover a Chris Monks-shaped hole in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s programme, he’s directing three plays – four if count the lunchtime shows as two. And he’s doing the Christmas production too. He was never normally this busy when he was Artistic Director. I suppose his final season as Artistic Director back in 2008 might have been a little busier depending on how you count things, but really, what happened to this retirement of his?

The good news, of course, is that Ayckbourn-heavy seasons in Scarborough rarely disappoint, and this is no exception. So let’s get stuck in.

Henceforward …

Zoe faces Nan

Ayckbourn trivia 1: Alan Ayckbourn wrote and directed Henceforward … during his two-year sabbatical at the National Theatre. Yes, even when he was wowing crowds at the National with A Small Family Business and other plays, he still found time to produce at Scarborough. Ayckbourn trivia 2: Henceforward … was a return to a genre he’d not visited ever since a very early (and now abandoned) play Standing Room Only, that being science fiction, with a heavy emphasis on a dystopian future, breaking a twenty-five run of plays dominated by middle-class suburbia. He’s done other decent science fiction plays since, but this remains his most acclaimed, and this year it returned to Scarborough just shy of its 30th anniversary. Continue reading