A Thousand Splendid Suns

Back at Northern Stage last night – yes, I live there now – to see their production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. A powerful adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s book (which I hadn’t read), it certainly packed an emotional punch – the women sat next to me were openly weeping by the end – and as ever I enjoy seeing a story built around the lives of women. (Link to review here).

 

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However, the real treat for me was after the show, when Production Manager Chris Durant kindly gave me a tour of the set. I met Chris when I did the fantastic workshop tour a few weeks back, where I saw the set of Suns being constructed. Impressed by his knowledge and passion, I interviewed him for a feature – I’ll post the link when it’s live – which gave me a fascinating insight into all the work that goes into what we see on stage.

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Seeing the completed set in situ – first as an audience member then from backstage – was an education. Having seen it in scattered pieces of plywood, the transformation into fully blown set was impressive. It also really brought home how important lighting is creating a mood. Lit by Lighting Director Simon Bond, the set had a warmth and vitality that made it look alive – without it, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s epic construction is almost eerie, pale as a moonscape. (It also made me, a Lifelong Clumsy Person, admire the actors even more, as they had to negotiate getting on and off and moving around such a bulky set, sometimes in burkas. I’d have fallen off a ladder or down a trapdoor or something before I even made it onto stage. That said, given my acting abilities, any audience would be grateful for such a mishap.)

As a lifelong theatre lover, I’ve always appreciated the nebulous magic of the stage – to get a peak behind the curtain at all the nuts and bolts that make that magic possible was really enlightening.

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The Town Mouse Ale House

I’ve spent so much time at Northern Stage recently that I had forgotten there are other places to go in that part of the city. So after our jaunt to the Hancock Gallery, my friend S and I decided to have a bit of a wander. First up was a coffee and a scone at Quilliam Brothers, one of my favourite spots in the city, where S had tea, which enabled me to admire their lovely branded tea cups.

We had planned a bit of a walk but the inclement weather gave me an excuse to try a place I had walked past a few times and been keen on: The Town Mouse. Based minutes away from Haymarket in a basement on St Mary’s Place, it’s surprisingly light and airy for an underground space, aided by quirky but uncluttered decor. (As with so many of the spots round there – my old stamping ground – I spent half my time trying to figure out what it used to be. Veggies restaurant, maybe? I definitely recall there being a basement vegetarian restaurant on that street when I worked at Thorne’s – now Blackwells – as my friend C would sometimes meet me from work and we would have lunch there. The chip shop my friend S and I would pop into on our way home from clubbing before walking back to our flat in Jesmond still seems to be going strong, mind…)

It was surprisingly busy – though not crowded – given it wasn’t even 5pm (but hey, we were there, so who am I to judge). I’m not sure how much I would love it on a Saturday night, but then I rarely love anywhere but my sofa on a Saturday night, so that can’t be held against it. Certainly, on our visit it had much to recommend it.

A charming and friendly barman was happy to let us taste a few things before choosing – and struck just the right note for a pub like this, informed and interested (he patiently answered some of my questions about some of the drinks) without making you feel like a loser if you’re not an expert on rare brews. The stock was impressive (not that I’m an expert!) and it looks like the kind of place where ale aficionados will find plenty to love.

S likes IPA, I prefer lager, so I went for Northern Helles and he had a one of the barman’s recs, and we both enjoyed the place’s laid back afternoon vibe so much we could have happily stayed for more…

Alexander Millar at the Hancock Gallery

Yesterday I took a trip to the recently opened Hancock Gallery. A gorgeously converted Georgian townhouse on Jesmond Road West (minutes away from the university, the museum of the same name – where we had planned to go see Dippy on tour, before realising it was half term – and Haymarket metro), it opened in April with an Alexander Millar retrospective.

Free to enter, it’s a pleasing new addition to the city’s art scene. I admit the Millar work was hit and miss for me. I find his work overly sentimental, though some of the landscapes were striking – I liked the images of a lone figure coming to or from work under a Northern sky – and Peaky Blinders fans will find much to love in the room dedicated to the show. The exhibit also featured some of Millar’s newer pieces, striking portraits of figures such as Quentin Crisp and Leigh Bowery.

There was also a guest collection from the Balman Gallery, which was more to my taste – I was particularly taken by the Milt Kobayashi pieces.

Chatting to a woman who worked there, she told me they plan to host 4-5 exhibitions a year, so add this to your art map of the city. It’s certainly a great place to have a quiet and contemplative wander just moments from the noise and bustle of the city.

Meet the Makers at Fenwick’s Food Hall

I have blogged about Fenwick’s Food Hall before, and though I sometimes miss what it was before its super fancy revamp, it remains a parlour of delights. So I should have known I was taking if not my life at least my wallet in my hands when I decided to, ahem, ‘take a short cut’ through only to discover they were running a Meet the Makers event, where you could try the wares of some of the usual stockists – most of whom were local – and meet the people behind the labels. Well, I had to, didn’t I? For research.

North Chocolates

Drawn by the gorgeous packaging, I have been tempted by North Chocolates before. A local brand of small batch gourmet chocolate, made in Newcastle upon Tyne, all of their bars are gluten-free, vegetarian (many vegan) and the cocoa and cocoa butter used are sustainable and ethically sourced. The prices would match what you would expect from that kind of brand – around a fiver a bar – and they do a gorgeously packaged range called Icons, decorated with illustrations of some of the North East’s most recognisable images.

I got chatting to Bev Stephenson, who runs the company, and had a taste of the Milk with Smoked Salt, which I ended up buying, telling myself it’ll make a lovely gift for someone when, let’s be honest, it’ll end up being a gift for Future Me. You can buy the range in Fenwick’s Food Hall, and get more details here.

(Cyberman Angel from the Love of the North, in the Stack or Whitley Bay).

The Winery by Laneberg Wine

Next up was The Winery, where I spoke to Nick Lane, half of the team that run what is billed as Tyneside’s First Urban Winery (his wife Elise being the other half). I tried three of their 2018 wines: a pleasantly dry rose, and two whites: Solaris, an off-dry that was nice but less to my tastes than the Bacchus – which just won a Bronze award in its category, so I’m not alone in my praise. The bottles retail at what you’d expect for an English wine – about the 16-19 quid mark – so unless you are richer than me you won’t be buying them to neck after a bad day at work, but for a more grown up soiree, they would be a nice choice. The rose, especially, might convert those who think of rose as a cringingly sweet drink.

Hexham Gin – The Northumberland Gin Company

Next on my rounds was Peter at the Northumberland Gin company, who offered me a taste of Hexham gin. A nice, dry drink that was pleasant on its own (with a smattering of lemon peel) or with tonic, he also pointed out that those who like sweeter drinks can mix it to Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade to get a pink gin drink that tastes surprisingly like Turkish delight! Retailing at around 30 quid* a bottle – a bargain for small batch gin – this is definitely on my list for next time my gin loving friend T comes to town. (*ish. By this stage, I was starting to blur on prices).

Old Curiosity Gin Club

Also on the gin front, was this Edinburgh-based company which specialises in botanical gins which change colour as you add the tonic! I tried the Rose gin, which was nice but sweeter than I like my spirits, and the Lavender and Echinacea, which was more my speed, and which went from purple to a light pink when the tonic was added. As well as being sold in Fenwick’s, they run a mail order club (now there’s a subscription box I could get behind) and do lovely gift boxes if you are not sure which flavour to choose.

40 Kola

I’m not much of a soft drinks fan anymore – water, coffee or booze is my sacred trifecta – but I’d tasted so much alcohol by this stage I thought a soft drink was a good idea, so stopped off for a try of local cola makers, 40 Kola – two North East lads by the name of Kieran and Dan. A grown up, sophisticated take on cola, this is definitely worth trying. It’s less sweet than commercial brands, but without that ‘glass-of-wet-dirt-with-an-aftertaste-of-worthiness’ that plagues many of the smaller outfits. It’s not something I would personally drink a lot of, but I can imagine a cold glass on a warm day going down very nicely indeed…

Noveltea

The woman at this stand was so lovely I felt bad for not trying it, but I can’t stand the taste of tea. If you don’t share my unBritish aversion, they do a range of drinks that look great.

Hotspur Gin

I didn’t get a chance to try this or really talk to the guy manning the stall, but they do win props for their impressive stand, the gin is made in Alnwick and the bottle is certainly pretty so would make a good gift.

Punchy

I didn’t think to get a picture of these, but worth including because they do a range of drinks that are available with or without alcohol, so would be perfect for a party where you don’t want your non-drinking friends to feel left out.

All of the above are generally available in Fenwick’s – so why not give some smaller makers your support? And a huge thanks to all the makers who took time to talk about their products with me today!

Like how I write about Newcastle? Why don’t you check out my book.

You can also support my writing by buying me a Kofi. Or hiring me to write stuff. Either’s good.

DxBu-VMWwAADxTA

Forest and Ex-Voto at Side Gallery

Yesterday my friend Simon and I went to see the latest exhibitions at Side Gallery, which is always an interesting excursion. There were actually three shows on (all free, as usual), and although they were very different, they were all interesting in their own way.On the ground floor was Jason & Victoria: Disability and Partnership, an observation by Josefin Bengtsson which featured pictures of the titular couple, highlighting their experiences in a world where disabled people are still marginalised, and relationships between them are often erased, ignored or sneered at.Upstairs there was Forest by Yan Wang Preston, which was a fascinating though quite depressing look at ‘new build’ forests in urban China, and how trees are being transported and transplanted into new cities, with varying success (the story of Frank, a 300 year old tree that was uprooted only to die after being transplanted somewhere else, properly upset me, because apparently I am a person who cries over trees now.) Preston, a British Chinese photographer, spent eight years on the project, and it won first prize in the Syngenta Photography Awards in 2017, so it’s definitely worth your time.Probably my favourite of the three was Ex-Voto, by Alys Tomlinson (who won the Sony World Photographer of the Year in 2018), a series of landscape and portrait photos taken at religious (Christian) shrines in Ireland, Poland and France. I’d have liked more information about the subjects, but Tomlinson’s style – shot on large format film – made for luminous prints, with the portraits being particularly compelling. Lucky for me, Simon is a photographer (you can see his amazing work here) and was happy to explain the process that Tomlinson used and why it worked the way it did, and the challenges it involved, which made me even more impressed. I could get used to having an expert in tow…The exhibition finishes on the 9th June, so get yourselves along. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday 11-5 and is free. (You can find more details here.)

Northern Stage New Season Launch

Back at Northern Stage for the second time in two days, this time for their New Season Launch party. A presentation hosted by BBC’s Newcastle Alfie Joey showcased some of the season’s upcoming shows, with some ‘turns’ (as they say up north) from some of the performers, video clips and on-stage interviews with some of the creatives, then a chance to mingle over drinks in the bar.

It was a fun evening, though I thought the format of the evening could have been improved. Joey was a personable host, but the line up of interviewees skewed very heavily to white and male, which isn’t really representative of the season (which could definitely do better in terms of racial diversity, but certainly isn’t as pale and pasty as this made it appear). (In fairness, when I mentioned this afterwards, they did say some of the women they had planned to have on to speak had had to cancel. But still – it’s 2019, folks. Do better.)

 

The shows themselves are a great mix, and lots to look forward to (and, mercifully, involve a lot more female creatives than was evident from the launch).

Tentpole shows include the Christmas special The Snow Queen, which Newcastle folk are already excited about (I was chatting to a couple of women in Alphabetti the other week who were already planning their trip!) It’s directed by Mark Calvert, who did last year’s A Christmas Carol and written by Laura Lindow (who couldn’t attend the evening but gave Calvert a statement to read). Lindow directed one of my shows of last year, don’t forget the birds, so I am properly excited to see what she can do on a large stage. (EDIT: an earlier post mistakenly credited Laura with writing rather than directing birds, and she graciously pointed out that was actually Catrina McHugh. Apologies to both for the error!)

Other big shows include Toast, based on the Nigel Slater book, which is already successfully touring to great reviews, and a fresh take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, done apparently in the same style as the theatre’s hit War of the Worlds (which I didn’t see as it was before my Grand Return).

 

A music-infused version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also looks like a good night out, and though I can’t say I’m much of a Matt Haig fan, if you are you’ll probably go for the show based on his book How to Stay Alive.

There are also a lot of exciting shorter runs. My old faves Frisky and Mannish are back in town (they are a RIOT. Go see them!) and Split Britches, who I saw in Brighton and was hugely impressed by, bring Unexploded Ordnanaces (UXO) in September. A Friendsical musical keeps things light, and getting Travis Alabanza’s acclaimed show Burgerz is a real coup for the theatre. Daniel Kitson and Jason Byrne are on the schedule, and Umar Butt’s Alex and Eliza looks fascinating. There’s also of course a huge amount of fun kids shows, including a Merchant of Venice aimed at children and a Christmas show for very young children (4 and under – who tend to be an under-catered for group) Wolf.

Dance is also well-represented. Gary Clarke Company’s Wasteland looks at the impact of industrial decline and its surprising inter-relation with rave culture, while at the other end of the scale, balletLorent returns with a fairy tale show (with an original story by Carol Ann Duffy), The Lost Happy Endings.

My personal standouts:

Although there’s an awful lot of the above I am keen to see, big standouts for me were I Have Met the Enemy (And the Enemy is Us), which will be premiering at Byker Community Centre and has been co-created by Common Wealth, with the input of local residents, with whom Northern Stage has been doing extensive outreach work (I am hazy on the exact details, but watch this space). Importantly, this will be cheap – two quid – for Byker residents to attend, so it’s not just about shipping in a Northern Stage audience so they can feel good about getting out of their comfort zone.

There’s some quality LGBTQIA+ content. Curious Festival is hosting some work there in July (link here to the festival programme) and the House of Ghetto: Black Pride photos which were already in situ in the gallery downstairs were stunning. A Spectacular Drag Storytime is aimed at younger audience members and their families, while Rent Party is inspired by the New York tradition of throwing fabulous parties to make rent, and looks a hoot. (Hoot is a thing we say now. I watch Brooklyn 99.)

 

I have been trying to catch Bonnie and the Bonnettes on stage for a while now. They’ve done many shows at Alphabetti, but they always seem to clash with some major deadline or something else I have booked, so I’m excited to see their show And She, and liked the preview song they did at the performance.

And I SIMPLY HAVE to see Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of), an all-female retelling of the famous novel from the servants point of view. Not only are writer and director Isobel McArthur and Paul Brotherson Glaswegian, so I already love them (I spoke to McArthur, who was a delight, in the bar afterwards and we bonded over the fact we went to the same uni), but also the things McArthur was saying about how she approached the show made it clear it was a smart, feminist production, and one that looks like it pushes all the right buttons for me. (Plus, it’s already been a smash in Glasgow, and if you can take Jane Austen to a Glasgow audience, you’re doing something right.)

Tickets are on sale today. What are you waiting for?

(Below: one of the stunning pieces in the Black Pride exhibition.)

Happy book anniversary to me!

Nudged by my Facebook timeline, I realise it’s a year since I relaunched my Newcastle-set romcom, The Bridesmaid Blues. It’s a story that’s very close to my heart, not least because the heroine bears plenty of similarities to me, at various times of my life: I’ve been lonely, unhappy and stuck in a job that’s going nowhere. Hell, the book’s central plot – where heroine Luce has to be bridesmaid at a wedding where the ex who dumped her is best man – was literally something that happened to me!

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So I’ve always been slightly disappointed that the book never did quite as well as I wanted it to. Most people who read it seemed to really love it – hell, I even got a cover quote from award-winning author Caroline Green – but it never found the traction I think it deserved.

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In part, this was because launching the book was a bit of a steep learning curve for me. The initial cover was pretty, but it was designed when both me and my designer Caroline Goldsmith were starting out on our freelancing journeys, so both just feeling our way. I’d made some useful contacts in the blogging world, but mostly they were bloggers who focused on paranormal and urban fantasy, who’d liked my book Dark Dates. So while I managed to sell some copies and get some nice reviews, I felt stalled.

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Last year, then, I decided to be proactive. I contacted Newcastle-based designer Britt Coxon, whose work I have long admired (she created a Wonder Woman card for me a while back, which my friends loved, and I own a couple of her pictures). She agreed to do a new design for me, delivering a beautiful paper cut cover that was simple and striking and captured the lighter, contemporary tone of the novel – while also looking gloriously almost like 3D.

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Caroline Green had gone from being an award-winning children’s author to Cass Green, best-selling thriller writer, and was gracious enough to let me still use her quote, changed to reflect her status. The other Caroline helped me create a new cover and update the internal contents, and I relaunched the book with the help of book blogging maven Anne Cater, who I had met briefly then connected with through the Book Connectors Facebook page, and whose Random Things company organised a blog tour for the book.

Did I suddenly become an overnight best-seller? Alas, no. But I got a slew of great reviews, some increased sales, and I felt I reached a new audience with a book that I feared had run out of steam. (I was particularly proud that I gained new fans in the US – where I introduced a reader to the meaning of the word Geordie, so I can die happy – and, slightly randomly, Nigeria, where a book blogger pronounced Luce one of her heroines of the year!) Best of all, several of my family – who never read my stuff – actually read it, and loved it (one then went on to read the whole Dark Dates series – in just over a week!) and it’s nice that after all this time, they have a bit more understanding of what I do.

Of course the one thing I hadn’t anticipated was that my life would become even more like Luce’s – that, like my heroine, I would tire of life down south and find myself back home, for many of the same reasons she did. Did revisiting Luce and her life here make me miss the things I’d left behind? Or was it just a coincidence, a quirk of timing? Or maybe a pinch of both.

One thing’s for certain: moving back to Newcastle has made me love the book even more. Yes, I recognise Luce can be frustrating and annoying (as… um, so can I?), but I’ve always been more drawn to flawed people, and writing someone working through and owning up to her fears and insecurities – and still getting her happily ever after – made me think maybe I could too. And if I do so back in the city I can’t but adore – well, so much the better.

DxBu-VMWwAADxTA

Some of the lovely praise I received (bold mine, for bragging purposes):

“After a couple of pages, I knew that Bridesmaid Blues was one of the funniest books I would ever read. I was laughing 98.9% of the time… here are the reasons why Luce totally rocks. a). She’s funny. Sorry, huge understatement. She’s downright so-funny-I-laughed-so-hard-while-reading-this-book-thereby-earning-me-looks-that-were-laden-with-concerns-about-my-sanity-from-strangers funny” – Up Close and Literal

I absolutely adored it.  A perfect read for fans of Bridget Jones and Lindsey Kelk.  A smart, sassy, funny romcom with lots of northern charm.” – Kraftireader

a quick and fantastic read that leaves you feeling good and optimistic about love and finding Mr. Right. Tracey Sinclair’s writing flows perfectly

“I’ve read so many wedding, wedding planning or proposal books lately that I did not expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did. “The Bridesmaid Blues” completely surprised me with the light, romantic comedy and the great characters.” 

Dandelions Inspired

“I enjoyed this read and felt like I was having chat with a friend…would recommend it for a fun and enjoyable summer read”  – Books and Lovely Things

An absolute must read, it made me laugh and I would have no problem in reading it again!” – Lacy Ace

a hilarious, honest, relatable read” – Katie’s Book Cave

Wanna see what the fuss is about? You can buy it here.