The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil at Live Theatre

It’s slightly ironic that I missed the press night for a big Scottish play because I was actually in Scotland, but despite being utterly knackered from my Glasgow jaunt, I dragged my sorry ass out to review The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil at Live, and wow, am I glad I did. (Link to review here).

I had expected a fiercely political and passionate play – and it was – but I hadn’t expected it to be so much fun. I managed to avoid being dragged up for the pre-show Ceilidh and sing-song (I did enough of that when I lived in Scotland) – those were lively enough, but the show itself was a riot. Raucous, loud, extremely funny and often even silly, it was also at times painfully sombre and unflinching in its look both at the history of the country and the problems it still faces today.

Live was really leaning into the theme so I treated myself to one of the single malts that were being sold in the interval (though served in a plastic glass – for shame! – which makes even less sense because at Live they trust you to take actual glasses in, like grown ups, at least downstairs).

At 2 hrs 30 the play pushes the upper limits of what I normally enjoy sitting through, but for once I didn’t spend the last 15 minutes thinking of all the ways it could have been shorter – it’s fast moving, well-paced and without a wasted moment. It’s also one of the most powerful shows I have seen in a long time. It’s on till June 22 at Live then tours – go see it!

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June Birchbox

I arrived back from Scotland to find my new Birchbox had arrived. As my trip fuelled my desire to travel more – which has been on hold lately due to work, moving, life and all the usual suspects – I’m keener than ever to get some cute travel sizes, so was excited to receive it.As tends to be the case with subscription boxes, it was a mixed bag of usefulness. A lip pencil and brow brush will be going straight in the ‘stocking fillers’ box, and though the body lotion looks great, I have a massive excess of body moisturiser at the moment, so am unlikely to use it for a while. An exfoliating cloth will get more immediate use, and a travel size bottle of shampoo is already in my toiletries bag for next week’s weekend jaunt.

Glasgow jaunt – West End

When I lived in Glasgow, it was the West End I called home: over the years I lived in a good half dozen places, ranging from just off Great Western Road to along in a then-pre-gentrified Partick. I studied at Glasgow University, and also worked in the University bookshop, so if any part of the city is etched into my memories, it’s the West End in particular.

Generally that is where I spend most of my visits – in part because that’s where a chunk of my friends live – but this time it was a bit more of a fleeting visit, though enough to encounter that mix of change and stability that is so disorienting.

Still, it’s never a visit to the West End without a mix of eating and shopping, and I did manage that, at least. Lunch one day at the Hyndland Fox, which used to be a Peckham’s, I believe, but now does a very line in breakfasts, and where I indulged my love of a potato scone.

On a different day I also had lunch at Bread Meats Bread – which obviously favours burgers and sandwiches, but which did a very tasty grilled cheese sandwich (which came with FREE CHIPS!), which excited me so much I randomly texted someone a photo of it by accident.

Although I’d blown my shopping budget at Vivienne Westwood, my friend and I did have a mooch around some of the vintage shops on Great Western Road, and Waterstones on Byres Road (a nice addition to the street that wasn’t there in my day), and Papyrus, a stationery and kitchenware store that in my youth seemed impossibly glamourous and expensive, and remains a little treasure trove today.

I did get some serious nostalgia walking past my old flats on Otago Street and Barrington Drive, and seeing some of my old local pubs (particularly Hubbards) so changed, though was glad to see some stalwarts still going strong, not least Caledonia Books – where I bought and sold half my college textbooks – and Ian Mellis cheesemonger, who opened just as I was moving (probably for the best, given my love of cheese and the fact it was just across the road from my house), but whose redolent whiff of cheese hit my like my very own madeleine when we went into the shop…

Glasgow jaunt – city centre and Merchant City

This week saw me back in Glasgow for the first time in 6 years. I love Glasgow, it’s a city that will always own a piece of my heart. It’s where I went to university, where I lived, on and off, for almost 10 years – where I studied, worked, loved (and lost). Like Newcastle, it’s a city that has a memory around almost every corner, and coming back after such a long break felt both familiar and strange. At times it felt like I’d never left, at others, memories leapt out as me, vivid as hallucinations, but they felt oddly distant, like clips of a film and I could begin to doubt I’d ever been there at all.Luckily, I still have plenty of friends in the city, and even more with roots there – part of the reason I was visiting was because an old friend was over from Japan, and I managed to catch up with a Brighton friend who was in town for family matters.Day 1 saw me revisiting the shopping delights of Princes Square and Buchanan Street, where I succumbed to the Vivienne Westwood sale (justifying it because there is no longer a Westwood shop in Newcastle – with terrible timing, it closed just as I moved!) and bought the shiniest purse in the world.Having met my friend R for coffee in the station as she waited for her train back to Brighton, I then went for drinks in Tabac in Mitchell Lane with our mutual friend D. It’s a nice if not stellar bar down a lane that has seen better days (even the presence of art gallery The Lighthouse doesn’t stop it from looking a bit run down). The bar gets surprisingly busy – I returned on Thursday to meet a theatre bod I know online, and it quickly became rammed – but is a convenient place for a quick drink.Dinner was with a bunch of old uni friends in a friendly and laid back tapas bar towards the Merchant City part of town, Brutti Campadres, which accommodated a large group of us – all arriving at different times – with good grace and was surprisingly affordable.I was back in that part of town the next day, meeting my friend E for cake and coffee in Singl End, which I have heard very good things about and which didn’t disappoint. We had a drink in Stereo, in Renfield Lane – another slightly scruffy lane not far from the station, and a surprisingly busy bar that strikes me as better enjoyed by night, as the unforgiving early evening light made it look a bit careworn.Slightly more glam were cocktails in The Citizen, based in the old headquarters of the newspaper of the same name. A bar / restaurant that also apparently does a nice line in afternoon teas (in the Editors’ Suite, which name alone makes me want to try it), they did a very tasty espresso martini, while my friend opted for a gin-based Clydeside St Clements. Definitely a place I’d go back to…

Reading in Heels Subscription Box

As I mentioned in my earlier post about trying Birchbox, as few weeks ago an insomnia-fuelled shopping spree led me to sign up to a couple of subscription boxes. I love the idea of subscription boxes – a present to yourself in the post every month – even if the reality of them tends to pall quickly (a lot of useless tat included, excessive packaging, money that could be better spent on things I actually choose). So as a result I have a habit of signing up for them for a few months then getting bored and cancelling. It’s a trend which, if I am honest, I don’t see changing anytime soon, but at least I am committed to enjoying those I have bought while I am paying for them.

I admit I was slightly disinclined towards Reading in Heels. Their earlier ‘strictly no chicklit’ tagline felt a bit sniffy to me (maybe I’m over sensitive, being, y’know, a chicklit author, but genre snobbery is a real turn off) And, I dunno, the whole thing felt a bit ‘middle-class-white-lady idea of sophistication’ to my tastes. But, hey, it came up on my Instagram at 3am when I couldn’t sleep, so I thought what the hell and signed up to a three month package.

My first box arrived this week, and I was (mostly) pleasantly surprised. The contents included a book I didn’t own and hadn’t even heard of (given how many books I buy, duplication is always a concern when I sign up to book boxes), Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton, which looks interesting. A herbal tea sample was given away quickly (as I detest tea, but that’s hardly their fault), and some bookmarks went onto my ever-increasing pile of bookmarks, but the cookies were tasty, if somewhat crumbled in delivery.

The surprise treat for me was a cuticle oil pen which I would have said was something I would never, ever use but actually smells divine and makes my nails feel great and I have become mildly addicted to.

So, the overall verdict: pretty good value, and a nice way to try an author and a product I wasn’t familiar with. Win!

Biscuit Factory Summer Launch

Last night was The Biscuit Factory’s Summer Launch, and I was delighted to be able to go, having missed their autumn one due to other commitments. I’m a big fan of The Biscuit Factory – they stock an interesting range of artists at a range of price points, with the idea that art shouldn’t just be a luxury purchase (they even do a financing scheme if you want to buy a piece), the staff always seem friendly, and the cafe is great (entry to the galleries is free).

Last night showcased their new exhibitions, which include Simon M Smith’s floral patterened work – a hit with my companion, S – and pieces from the Open Contemporary Young Artist Award (both of which run till August 25). With such an eclectic mix of work on display, you’re likely to find plenty to like – as well as plenty that makes you shake your head and go ‘so that’s what they are calling art these days?’, which is all part of the fun. (I admit I spend a LOT of time going, ‘I can see it’s good, but I wouldn’t want it in my house…’) Of the current artists on display, probably my two favourites were the almost photo-real paintings by Cherylene Dyer and Basia Roszek’s vibrant portraits. Both are Glasgow-based women artists whose subjects tend to be women, so clearly I like a theme…

My favourite part of the evening was discovering that The Biscuit Factory now has a bookshop! Forum Books now has a dedicated space, a cute little cubby papered with pages of books, and of course after a couple of glasses of fizz I abandoned my ‘I must not buy any books!’ and splurged on some hardbacks. But you have to support indie bookstores, right? Our purchases came with a literary fortune cookie, to up the cuteness factor.

There’s lots to check out over the summer at The Biscuit Factory. Unfortunately inclement weather made their outdoor barbeque space a bit of a wash out, but on sunnier days their Artisan Socials (Wednesdays, 4-8pm) look like a good destination: outdoor drinks and a different foodie pop up every week. The Factory Kitchen (the less posh, more cafe space upstairs) is also getting in on the act with Sloe Sundays, where from 16 June you can enjoy a terrace gin bar (there is a covered space, so less dependent on the weather) DJ sets and botanical cocktails with your all-day brunch.

See you there?

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.

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An afternoon with Open Clasp Theatre

Although I had heard of Open Clasp in that vague sort of way working in theatre writing means you’ve sort of heard of everyone, I wasn’t that familiar with their work until I went to see their most recent play, don’t forget the birds – upon which, I was instantly converted.

A North East company whose motto is ‘changing the world one play at a time’, Open Clasp makes woman-focused work that aims to centre theatre in the lives of disadvantaged women and girls, doing so in a collaborative way. (…birds came about because one of the performers, Cheryl Bryon, had worked with the company on an earlier, prison-set piece Key Change, and the company both wanted to continue working with her and to explore life after prison, and how her incarceration and release affected her family, particularly her daughter. It’s a gorgeous piece – if it comes back, see it!)

The company is now celebrating an impressive 20 years, during which they’ve won a slew of awards and an MBE for Artistic Director and writer Catrina McHugh. Reflecting their ethos of openness and collaboration, they are now working with the university to archive their material in a way that means it can be shared more widely.

Yesterday was their Archive Symposium, a day of celebrating the company and allowing people to get better insight into what they do, which included mini-workshops, screenings and exhibitions. Held in the informal setting of the West End Women and Girl’s Centre, where the company has an office, when I arrived in the afternoon – work commitments prevented me from attending the whole day – it was in full swing.

Although the prevalence of post-its and felt pens gave it the worrying vibe of a team-building exercise, the variety of fabulous women – many of whom sported glorious amounts of ink and gorgeously vibrant dyed hair – looked thankfully unlike any corporate away-day I’ve ever seen. Friendly as they all were – I was welcomed by Catrina as I came in, who impressively remembered we’d sat next to one another at … birds – I admit I found myself suddenly a bit anxious about inserting myself into one of the little groups, who had clearly got to know one another during earlier sessions (gobby as I can be, I actually find it pretty stressful being among – and, oh god, talking to – groups of people I don’t know.)

So I decided to let myself settle in by checking out the multi-media exhibition Songlines that was playing in another room. At least then I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone straight away! I’m not usually a fan of multi-media – I’m the one who goes to a gallery, pops my head into any video installation, goes ‘hell no’ and wanders off to find real pictures. But though I went in merely as an anxiety-prevention measure, I was quickly drawn in to the stories of immigrant and refugee women who had relocated into the North East, talking about what the sea meant to them, how it featured in their lives, against a backdrop of a film of waves breaking on the shore that became oddly meditative. (You can read more about it and watch the trailer here.)

Revived – and also schooled a little, since what is a pinch of social anxiety when you’ve been listening to stories of women rebuilding lives in cities where they don’t even speak the language – I headed back to the main event. I talked to some of the women involved in the various projects (I was too nervous to go over and say hello to Cheryl and Abigail, who were talking to people about ...birds, though I did manage to at the end, as I really wanted to tell them how great I thought they were in the show. They were of course lovely.)

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A fascinating short film, Traces in the Script, looked at the physical process of working on a show – down to the notes and reminders scribbled onto printed scripts. Since I am both a nerd about pen on paper – I write all my own books longhand first – and it focused on the one show I’d seen, I loved it, but even if you weren’t familiar with the show, it was a great insight into the thought processes of the performers. A cake and a glass of fizz later we were all mingling and chatting, and I got to talk to some of the women involved both in the theatre company and the archiving project – something I am hoping to follow up with a feature at a later date. All in all, it was a really interesting day with a company that is doing things that are both creatively compelling but also socially important – reminding us that stories and the theatre are for everyone, not just a privileged few. Here’s to the next 20 years.