Wise Children at York Theatre Royal

It’s been a week of jaunts this week – after Edinburgh on Monday, came a trip to York that I booked without realising they would fall in the space of a few days, to see the first production by Emma Rice’s new theatre company, Wise Children.

I’ve long been a fan of Emma Rice. I love Kneehigh, and although I didn’t catch much of her stint at the Globe, what I did see I really liked. I admit I was disappointed when I heard that the company would be using the Old Vic for its London base – this is a theatre that I have long avoided, having fallen out of love with it for various reasons, all of which I admit are personal (and perhaps a bit irrational).

But to my mind, it tends to be overly expensive, most of its productions are too long, and their lack of decent toilets means you stand a very good chance of missing the first 10 minutes of the second half either because you are stuck in a queue, or your view is obscured by people returning to their seats for the same reason (and this is even before you even consider the queasy, hard-to-shake taint that Kevin Spacey’s uncovered antics have tarred the place with). There are a ton of great venues in London and no such thing as an unmissable production – there’s usually half a dozen ‘unmissable’ shows on at any one time, and unless you are a full-time critic, you can’t possibly catch them all – and I decided a while back I wasn’t giving my money to any venue where I felt so ill-served. So I sadly resigned myself to just not seeing any more Emma Rice shows for a while.

Moving to Newcastle, though, has actually opened up my theatre-going in exciting new ways. Edinburgh is 90 minutes away, York just over an hour – and the economics of regional theatre mean the cost of excellent dress circle tickets (in a theatre small enough where that means I was closer to the stage than I would have been in most London venues) AND return train tickets came to roughly the same as the Old Vic is charging for most stall seats for its current productions.

Unfortunately, the weather gods had used up their benevolence on me with a lovely day on Monday, so I didn’t see York at its best, but even rain and grey it’s a beautiful city. The theatre was a short walk from the station, and it’s a lovely space: a bar / bistro space downstairs that caters to any comers so was a bit rammed for my tastes, though upstairs was a little calmer, and the staff were efficient and friendly. My seat – front row dress circle – was great, and I was seated next to a pleasant couple with whom I had a nice chat in the interval.

And toilets! My god, toilets! I will never stop banging on about the need for good toilets in theatres: it’s an accessibility issue for anyone elderly, pregnant, on their period or with bladder/digestive issues, and too many theatres are bloody terrible. These were plentiful – pretty sure there were more women’s toilets in the dress circle alone than in the Donmar, Old Vic and Almeida added together – and kept clean. I’d go back to the place on that reason alone.

As a fan of the book that both play and company were named after, my expectations were high but the play (mostly) matched them. It balanced the trademark Emma Rice playfulness and theatricality – fourth wall breaking, gender/race-blind casting, bawdy humour, music and physical theatre – with the spirit of Carter’s novel, and when Rice came out at the curtain call (the show was being filmed by the BBC, which is possibly why she was there for an afternoon matinee), many of the audience were on their feet.

My travel wasn’t quite as smooth as I hoped city hopping would be – my train was a bit delayed by a cancelled service – but the trip was my no means onerous, and definitely one I would make again if something that struck my fancy.

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A day trip to Edinburgh

After three weeks without a day off, I finally had some downtime, and headed up to Edinburgh to meet my friend K, who I haven’t seen in years. Edinburgh is only an hour and a half away from Newcastle – and the East Coast train takes you along some of the country’s most beautiful coastline, so it’s a pleasurable as well as a fast trip. The plan was that we would have lunch, do some culture, then have some cocktails before I headed back. And… we managed most of that. You can probably guess which bit got dropped…

I haven’t been to Edinburgh in years – last time was to do some research for A Vampire in Edinburgh, during my unfortunate homeless stint, when two of my Glasgow friends let me stay there when they were on holiday, so I took advantage to do a day trip to the city. I had forgotten quite how gorgeous it is – all those dramatic cliffs!

We started off with a wee wander round the Old Town. Edinburgh Press Club looked promising but we were too late for breakfast, and none of the sarnies appealed, so we settled for coffee then wandered some more. We had planned to do Mary King’s Close but were put off by the cost (nearly £16!) so had a wander around a nearby church instead. Lunch was a couple of wraps at old-school vegetarian cafe Hendersons, which had been much recommended to me, and after that we felt we could justify a cocktail.

I missed my chance to go to the new Ivy in Brighton – it opened just before I left – so was keen to try the Ivy on the Square. K and I are both fans of espresso martinis so started with them. Well-made by the charming and friendly barman, they were very rich and accompanied by a choice of syrups to choose your own (I plumped for Creme Brulee, K – more wisely – Amaretto). After that I plumped for something lighter – a champagne based drink – and then we decided that some shopping was in order.

A quick wander round Jenners and Harvey Nichols followed – while I love the architecture of Jenners, I found HN a bit bland, though I did buy some fancy pasta and a notebook there, partly cos I wanted to buy something. (K bought a Count Gracula garlic crusher, which looked enormous fun). We rounded off the day with cocktails at The Refinery, then headed back to the Ivy for chips and a last drink before I caught the train home – a fantastic day out, and home before 10? I could get used to this…

New Moon Party

One of the things I was determined to do when I moved back to Newcastle was get out of my comfort zone more. I loved living in Brighton, but got so comfy in my little Kemptown Village neighbourhood I became a little insular. When you freelance, it’s easy to use money or work as an excuse not to do stuff – something I am very guilty of. And living in a neightbourhood that has all the necessary amenities right on your doorstep (a grocers’, Co-Op, coffee shops, post office, bookshop and beach were all less than 5 minutes walk, and most of my Brighton friends lived a couple of streets away), convenience often wins out over adventure. Why go anywhere, when I had what I needed right here?

So while I grumble about the lack of handy coffee shops – or, indeed, any shops – where I live now, it does at least force me to go further afield on a regular basis. But what good is that if I still stay stuck in my head?

So when my friend L mentioned a retreat she had gone on, and said the person who hosted it was having a ‘new moon’ party, I signed up with no idea what to expect, only a conviction that I wanted to try something different.

I admit, I was dubious. While a massive sucker for self-help books, I fluctuate between thinking anything new agey is bollocks, or that I should be more open-minded. I have also, as I got older and spent more time alone, become a bit more physically prickly, and this all sounded very touchy feely to me. Nobody really hugs me, since my mum died – yes, thank you, I am aware of how very sad that sounds – and I’ve definitely become more physically withdrawn in recent years. (When I went to review The Art of Cuddling at Alphabetti, which ended with a mass audience group hug, I stayed in my seat, claiming critical distance and that my spiky jewellery might snag on someone’s clothes and we’d be there all night, but really because I didn’t want to get that close a bunch of bloody strangers).

(I only realised after this New Moon party that wearing my Alexander McQueen spiked knuckleduster and my sharp fangs ring might not have been a wise thing when there is hugging and hand-holding to be done, but I also wondered if at one level I did it deliberately – a physical excuse to keep people at bay? Maybe I didn’t go in as open-minded as I thought I was.)

Anyway, come the night, scepticism had turned into a desire for active avoidance. The Metros to Tynemouth, where the event was being held, were off, and I had managed to knack up my back in truly ignoble style (um, standing up from the loo – yay for getting old!), so after an exhausting week I was ready to do nothing more challenging than lie on the sofa and binge watch Ghost Whisperer. Luckily, while I am always happy to bail on stuff I am going to alone – even if I have bought tickets, which explains a lot about my finances – with L going I felt I couldn’t drop out, so, rather nervously, I steeled myself to go and get the damn thing done.

Spoiler alert: I’m glad I did. The party was hosted by Alice Allum of The Be Platform in her gorgeous Tyneside home (I had serious house envy), and about 16 women were in attendance. I won’t give away Alice’s secrets – check out the free resources on her website if you are interested – but the night was a mix of talking, singing and chanting (yes, chanting!), with the goal of using the new moon to set intentions for the coming month, and for life.

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It was a fascinating evening. Listening to a group of women talk honestly – and without interruption – about their fears, hopes and insecurities made me realise how rare it is that any of us have space to do that in our lives. The temptation – and social training – is to jump in and offer consolation, reassurance or contradictions, and it was clear that many of us struggled not to do just that  (“You’re not fat! You are great at your job! You are a wonderful person, no need to be insecure…” etc).

There’s also consolation and inspiration to be had from such sharing. Knowing the woman you think looks gorgeous is struggling with self-esteem reminds you not to judge on appearances; hearing someone unapologetically talk about how much they earn is inspiring if you are feeling bad about putting up your prices. Whatever your take on the more ‘new agey’ aspects, there’s undeniable power just putting a bunch of women in a room and letting them be themselves.

Alice was a charming host, far more down to earth than I thought she would be (she’s not above some well-placed swearing, which I do like in a woman), and the fellow guests were lovely. I was especially grateful for the solicitude of my neighbours, who took pity on my knackered back and kept me well supplied with glasses of water rather than me having to constantly get up!

I left feeling inspired and positive. If nothing else, I got to spend an evening with some great women, and did something new, which I think is a valuable thing in itself. As for the rest of it? I’ll take any bonuses I get!

[I didn’t take any pictures – wanting to be in the moment rather than trying to capture it and all that – but as one of my intentions was to be bolder in owning my talent, I shall sign off with a plug for my books instead…! So…]

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Wonderland at Northern Stage

Another theatre trip this week, to a play I have been dying to see – Beth Steel’s mining drama, Wonderland. This is the third ‘heavy industry’ play I have seen at Northern Stage – the others being The Last Ship and The Last Seam: you can guess the theme from the title.

Wonderland covers much the same ground: the miners’ strike, and the effect it had on its community. It took me a while to get into it – the first half was overlong – but it grew into a piece of real power, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it.

Read my full review here.