Exposed and the Last Ships at the Laing

Yesterday, I went to the Laing Art Gallery for the first time in decades – another old haunt that I hadn’t yet got round to revisiting. But, spurred on by having a guest, I decided to check out the Exposed exhibition that is running at the moment. Titled Exposed: The Naked Portrait, this is a well curated show that includes a number of familiar images and many less well-known ones, and smartly considers the different ways of being naked or nude (as well as the differences between those two states), and different power dynamics between the viewer, artist and subject. Definitely worth checking out, it runs till March and full price tickets are £8.

As well as a wander round the rest of the gallery – which is a perfect size to pop in and wander without feeling overwhelmed by not being able to do everything, as you can easily cover it all in one visit – I went to the Chris Killip exhibition, The Last Ships. This free show (which is on their site as running till 2020) is worth checking out if you have any interest in the local region or industrial photography. A one-room exhibit, it features evocative black and white pictures of Wallsend and the last big ships built at Swan Hunters, and includes some stunning images of the giant ships dominating the landscape, capturing the influence they had over people’s lives, as well as the impact of their departure.

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A Family Christmas and a trip to Spanish City

I’ve never really done the ‘big’ family Christmas before. When my mum was alive, we tended to keep it small: my friends would come over with their kids in the morning, and various neighbours might pop in, but it was generally low key. Over the years I have had working Christmases, Christmases alone and ‘orphan’ Christmases – all of which were varying degrees of OK – but never done the big family event.

So I was actually a little nervous of agreeing to my cousin’s and his wife’s invitation to spend Christmas at theirs. They host the big family ‘do’ every year, of which I have heard nothing but good things, but I was still a bit anxious. Sometimes eating in big groups makes me self-conscious, and while they generously invited the friend (N) who was staying with me over the holidays, I worried that being thrown in the deep end of someone else’s family might be a bit much for her.

In the end, I needn’t have worried at all. My family are generally excellent company, and proved themselves great hosts, generous and welcoming to me and my friend, who was really touched by how much they made her feel at home. It was a multi-generational gathering that spanned pensioners to babies and all stages in between, lavishly fed and in a beautifully decorated setting. My cousin’s house – always impressive – looked like a Hallmark movie set; the photo below is of the hallway, not even the main room! (Should I ever get around to writing a Christmas romance, I might pop back here for inspiration.) There was vegetarian food aplenty (N is also vegetarian, but since one of the daughters of the house was vegan, this proved less tricky than I feared) and the whole day turned out just lovely.

Boxing Day, we did a brief detour to the sales, though my assertion that ‘it’ll probably be quiet’ was way off the mark, as the whole town was packed. Many of the pubs were closed, though – after a late lunch downstairs at the Tyneside because the coffee rooms were closed, we wandered down the Quayside with the plan to meet some friends in the Pitcher and Piano, which of course wasn’t open. Still, we managed a drink in both the Red House and the Head of Steam, and N got to see the Quayside at night, which is never a wasted trip.

Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the clement weather and take a trip to the coast at Whitley Bay. Of all the things I miss about Brighton, proximity to the sea is the main one, so it was nice to be reminded that I have a stunning coastline just a Metro ride away.

It was also nice to see the recently re-opened Spanish City. I remember it well from my youth, and was sad to see it go into decline, so I was keen to check out this revamped offering. The building has been nicely utilised: a selection of restaurants (a waffle house and patisserie on the ground floor, alongside a restaurant, Trenchers, in the central space, which seems popular for fish and chips, with a fancier restaurant and bar upstairs, and a luxurious space for afternoon tea). In the end, N and I decided to eschew eating there for lunch, venturing to a little cafe round the corner on Marine Avenue that did a nice line in vegetarian tapas. But we did pop back in for an espresso martini – a tradition of ours – to round off the afternoon, and it was lovely to be able to have a fancy drink while looking out over the seafront.

Christmas Crackers at Live Theatre

My last theatre trip of the year was, somewhat fittingly, to one of the theatres I have spent most time in since I got here, Live Theatre. Christmas Crackers is a portmanteau show – 4 short plays by the theatre’s associate artists – and though it was patchy in places, with some overdone performances, there were flashes of really great writing in there, and overall I enjoyed the warm-heartedness of the piece. Read my review here – and Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Carol in Newcastle Castle

One of the things I really love about my job is it allows me to go places I wouldn’t normally go. Last night was a great example, when I braved the cold to venture out to see a production of A Christmas Carol set in Newcastle’s castle itself.

The company had warned the castle keep was unheated, so to wrap up warm and bring a hot water bottle – a theatrical first for me. So, clad in my giant fake fur coat and a slightly incongruous bright blue woolly scarf celebrating both stormtroopers and a Japanese football team I have never heard of (shut up, it was a gift and I love it), carrying a hot water bottle tucked on my person, I headed into town.

The night started badly – apparently, my sense of direction is so poor I can lose an actual castle, so after wandering forlornly around several dark underpasses I finally accepted the castle wasn’t where I left it. (I was starting to get a bit nervous around all these tunnels, though I figured if I got mugged I could hit any assailants with my hot water bottle, which would at least have the benefit of being unexpected…)

Eventually I got my bearings and found the place, and after a quick pee in nearby pub the Bridge – which I haven’t been to in years! – was led up some steep stone stairs into the hall where the show was performed – an enjoyable mix of striking puppetry, movement and acting that, while not a classic take on the show, was a fun enough watch and certainly worth an hour of my evening, performed by an amiable, energetic company.

Plus, how often do you get to say you spent your Sunday night hanging out in a castle?

Festive entertainment at Live and Northern Stage

It’s been a busy work week for me, but I did manage to squeeze in some socialising (and shopping: I could have happily bought up the whole of Fenwick’s Christmas department…)

First up was A Christmas Carol at Northern Stage, a 20s set take on the story with a great jazz soundtrack. It took a little while to get going and was – as everything seems to be – a bit too long, but once it hit its stride it’s a delight of a show, with some really impressive physical theatre and I particularly enjoyed seeing a classic in my native accent. (Review here).

Next was Mixtape Xmas at Live Theatre. A raucous sorta pop quiz, I went with my friend L as a birthday celebration – although the show could have been much tighter, and some of the audience were frankly a bit twatty, it was good fun and for once my arcane knowledge of 80s and 90s pop lyrics came in handy…

Holy Moly and the Crackers

Friday night saw me embracing something new while also reliving my youth, in a way. My friend M is a huge fan of the ban Holy Moly & The Crackers (whose song Cold Comfort Lane was featured in the film Ocean’s 8). She saw them at Alphabetti previously, so persuaded me to get a ticket to go with her when they played the Riverside. I’m glad I did – the gig was an absolute corker, the band – who I discovered were local – played their hearts out and the place was rocking. They are coming back on tour next year with a new album, but you better not beat me to tickets.

It was also interesting to see the new Riverside. In my youth I was a regular, and went to see bands as short-lived as Menswear (who were supported by Travis!), as well as more long-lived artists. Now that whole area of town seems to have been turned into luxury flats, the venue has relocated to the old Fish Market on the Quayside. It’s a gorgeous space, and a nice integration of old and new, with lots of neon and a well-laid-out interior (plenty of seats to chill out on before the gig) but something about it jarred. Maybe because I spend a lot of my time not only in theatres but thinking about making them more inclusive spaces. Maybe that’s made me oversensitive (certainly my female companion said nothing). But I couldn’t help noticing that, despite hosting a mixed gender band and a very mixed crowd (and having plenty of women’s toilets), the decor felt very much designed for the male eye: it felt a very gendered space.

Giant pictures of musicians adorn the walls: men look cool, women look sexy. (There are a few female musicians featured, but they are the traditionally hot looking ones, such as Debbie Harry). A giant Pulp Fiction Patricia Arquette reclines in her bra against one wall; upstairs, a woman clad in knickers and fishnets has her back to the camera, showing off a God Save the Queen jacket. Rock quotes – all by men, at least that I saw – are painted throughout. It adds up to a subtle sense that it’s a space for men, that music is male, and that women get to take part providing they look good enough.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sexy pictures, of course, or boudoir design, but I’m also not sure that a 21st century venue should feel so squarely like it’s aimed at the blokes. Should it?