So, it’s been another busy year of theatre for me. While I can’t match the ‘out every night’ stats of my younger, London-based theatre critic chums (I’m too old, too fond of my sofa and too busy with my other job(s) to manage that level of commitment), I’ve managed to see a fair amount – approx. 50 plays in 13 venues across 5 different cities. I’ve seen slick West End productions and on-a-shoestring shows, sat in 100 quid seats and in tiny little theatres where the average ticket costs under a tenner. So, what – I know you’re just dying to know – have been the highlights?
My shows of the year
The quality of shows I have seen has been almost universally high. In part, this is self-selection: I don’t agree to review shows that I suspect I won’t like – it seems unfair on the company – and obviously when I am buying tickets, I have a fairly sound idea of what I will enjoy. But some of my favourite shows were complete surprises.
One of these was, admittedly, one of the most hyped productions of the year. Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal at the Pinter was one of the hottest tickets in town – but it was almost a show I didn’t bother with. I’m a fan of the Hiddles and have been dying to see him on stage again, but I’m not particularly enamoured of Jamie Lloyd as a director, Pinter as a playwright, or Betrayal as a play. But based on a stellar review by a friend of mine whose judgement I tend to trust, I shelled out a kidney for the ticket and was glad I did. Hiddleston is utterly compelling – so charismatic, in fact, he slightly unbalances the production, as neither Zawe Ashton nor Charlie Cox can quite keep up. Getting to chat with international Hiddles stans who had flown over to see the show and were at the matinee after seeing it the night before was also part of the fun, though the price of a glass of wine in the venue reminded me why I left London.
Something I did expect to like but which far exceeded my expectations – and which is probably my favourite show of the year – was Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort of) at Northern Stage. I was lucky enough to chat to playwright and actor Isobel McArthur at the Northern Stage season launch and was impressed by her informed approach to the material – no French & Saunders style parody, this – but the show itself just blew me away. Riotously funny, smart and sexy – with McArthur giving a smouldering turn as Mr Darcy – it was the most fun I have had in a theatre for a long time.
Another show that was on my wishlist but delivered more than I even hoped was It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (at Live Theatre), Breach Theatre’s astonishing account of the trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Powerful performances, a seam of dark wit and inventive staging made this one of the best things I have seen in a while. Also at Live, the revival of Artistic Director Joe Douglas’ take on classic Scottish play The Cheviot, The Stage and the Black, Black Oil was a kinetic, stripped back staging, smartly updated to encompass Trumpian politics.
A show that came to Live, but while I was away, was Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of, which I caught when it was at The Traverse. A hit at the Fringe, it got a second life touring and came warmly recommended by several friends. Sharply written, funny and deeply moving, it was definitely worth the trip to Edinburgh.
Admission that will probably get me thrown out of feminist club: I didn’t love Emilia as much as everyone else seemed to. In part this was probably because everyone else loved it so much: by the time I got to see it (in the West End, after its transfer), my expectations were so high that it likely would have been impossible to meet them. I still think it has its flaws – it’s too long (even after being cut for the transfer) and I thought some more judicious cutting would have made for a sleeker, faster moving play. BUT what a delight to see a cast made up of all kinds of women, to see bodies that are usually side-lined centred without comment, and to see a show that is so outspoken and unapologetic about women’s talents and ambitions (as well as very funny). It hopefully has plans to tour, so if it does, check it out.
Proof though that sometimes it’s the most unexpected shows that blindside you, my final fave was a show I expected almost nothing from, as I barely read more than the blurb before agreeing to review it. But Camasido Club’s feminist, contemporary Bluebeard at Alphabetti got under my skin in ways I found quite hard to express, merging Angela Carteresque fantasy with sharp social commentary. It was also proof that you don’t have to pay big bucks for a great night out – the price of a ticket wouldn’t have bought me a small glass of white wine at the Pinter.
An abundance of local talent (damn those pesky kids!)
My first full year of North East theatre-going made me remarkably optimistic about the local scene. Despite operating under punishing financial burdens (thanks, Tory arts cuts!), it continues to be inventive and exciting, and offers a well-balanced mix between outward-facing work – there were plenty of touring productions of national and international work on offer – and locally focused productions.
I saw a lot of work produced by North East artists, and plenty of plays set squarely in the region. The gorgeous venue South Shields Customs House continues to have a strong local focus – this year’s programme included a sequel to When the Boat Comes In, the uplifting musical The Dolly Mixtures, and Bobby Robson Saved My Life (which totally made me cry.) It also offered a raucous, funny panto (Snow White) that was probably my festive hit of the season, and I don’t even like panto that much.
Alphabetti had a strong programme of Northern work, both short showcases and longer runs, including Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, Floorboards, *Gender Not Included, Ticker, Down to Zero, Where Do All The Dead Pigeons Go? and a moving Christmas show by the theatre’s AD Ali Pritchard, Present. Isolation, a play by talented young playwright Elijah Young, had a run here, too, after premiering at The Customs House – a nice example of synergy between theatres. (Should you fancy it, *Gender Not Included is going to be at the Vaults next year as part of a Northern Stage takeover, which includes another show I reviewed at Alphabetti, The Art of Cuddling).
Live unsurprisingly also showcased plenty of local talent – young rapper/actor/ writer Kema Sikazwe proved himself a triple threat to watch with his self-penned show Shine, and while I still can’t bring myself to like the title Wank Buddies – it sounds more juvenile than the production itself is, and I really detest that false coyness of titles that make theatres use asterisks in their promo – the piece itself was an effective showcase for its young creators Jake Jarratt and Cameron Sharp (who also starred in Isolation). (Should you fancy it, Wank Buddies – or W*nk Buddies, as the website has it – is coming back to Live as part of the Queer and Now programme in February).
(I admit bright young things often make me a bit grumpy – do you know how easy you have it, with your internet and your laptops and your online promo opportunities, I mutter like Lady Methuselah, remembering my own youth, when I had to type out stories and applications on an actual old school typewriter and my phone was at the end of my street – but it’s hard for even a curmudgeon like me not to be optimistic when you see the wealth of young talent the region is producing.) (Also, while I grew up fearing a possible nuclear apocalypse, they have actual climate change, so I guess I don’t envy them that much.)
While Northern Stage of course gets lots of touring work and co-productions, it also creates plenty of shows. I was quite taken with the Geordie Sherlock in Hound of the Baskervilles – and though its Byker-staged I Have Met The Enemy (a co-production with Common Wealth) didn’t do it for me, I admired what it was trying to do, and its annual festive show (this year is was The Snow Queen) is always a sumptuously designed treat. Smaller productions that impressed me were Letter Room’s No Miracles Here, Umar Butt’s family story Alex and Eliza (an ARC Stockton production) and Rosa Postlethwaite’s accomplished and unsettling solo show Composed.
So – did I mention your favourite? Did I miss anything? Anything I should watch out for next year? Let me know in the comments!
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