2021 – North East Theatre Round-up

Those who follow me will know this blog has been dormant for most of this year, as my focus has – like for many people – been on rebuilding my income (and my life) after a disastrous 2020. The stop-start nature of the year, with uncertainty over Covid and the Government’s ineptitude adding to the confusion, made me reluctant to start blogging again only to have to stop. There’s not much point in a blog about going out written by someone who rarely leaves the house.

But if 2021 hasn’t been quite the recovery we hoped for, there have been bright spots, and as someone who prides herself on being vocal about the enormous reservoirs of talent in the region, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate some of the good things that happened in the theatre scene over the past year. The following list is obviously pretty arbitrary – dictated not just by my personal taste but also my schedule: there have been loads of great shows this year that other demands meant I simply couldn’t get to see. So, without further ado, my list of my favourite things – the Traceys, if you will* – from the past year.

*OK, you probably won’t.

Reasons to be cheerful: While I was a big fan of what Lorne Campbell did at Northern Stage – I’ve said many times I probably wouldn’t have moved back to Newcastle had I not seen The Last Ship – I’m excited by what new Artistic Director Natalie Ibu has brought to the venue. While the first ‘big’ mainstage show Road wasn’t to my taste, the theatre seems to be embracing a new sense of openness and accessibility that builds on an already strong community presence, and next year’s season is full of goodies. And while I’ve had less to do with Live than I would normally have had (pesky schedules again!), I’m also keen to see what new AD Jack McNamara will be doing there next year, and early signs are promising.

Most exciting new venue(s): The North East is blessed not just with big name theatres but lots of fantastic smaller spaces, and newer names on the scene include Whitley Bay’s Laurels (which is already establishing a strong stand up line up, as well as some theatre programming). I was also excited to see Gateshead pub The Central branch out into theatre with an enormously promising scratch night that will hopefully become a regular feature.

Baddiest baddie to ever baddie: The bad guys in festive shows are usually more comic than credible, but Jessica Johnson’s sharp-suited slinkstress Canopus Sly totally stole the show in Northern Stage’s delightful Christmas show The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Simply the best baddie I’ve seen on stage in years. A total show-stealer.

Standout Performance of the Year: In a year when I’ve been consistently impressed by performances, the absolute standout for me was Shereener Browne in Alphabetti’s taut production of hang. Exquisitely reined in but simmering with emotion beneath the surface, it was a performance that stayed with me long after the show.

The ‘finally a show even I can’t say is too long’ Short and Sweet Award: It’s well-known I think most shows could benefit from being at least 15 minutes shorter (sorry, but it’s true), but even my pandemic-frayed attention span could find little to complain about in Izaak Gledhill’s 39 Horses. A solo show performed to small-group audiences (in my case, an audience of one) in the back of a taxi, it crammed a huge amount of inventiveness into barely 15 minutes.

Sharp words on Coming of Age: Ironically in a year when I felt more of an old curmudgeon than ever (especially every time I got stuck on a Metro with a carriage full of mask-less youths),I saw a lot of great shows about early lives. From the sharply written Olivia Hannah / Tamsin Daisy Rees double bill Braids / Cheer Up Slug at Live (which I had been scheduled to see before the pandemic), to Hannah Sowerby’s hilarious 10 Things to Do in a Small Cumbrian Town and Laura Lindow’s warm and nerdy Pause (both at Alphabetti), affecting tales of young people’s lives abounded.

Believe in Magic: This was another theme of the year in theatre, perhaps because it felt in such short supply in real life. At opposite ends of the production scale but both charming in their own ways were Wendy Errington’s one-woman show Meggie Magicia at Alphabetti, which rung an awful lot out of an almost-bare stage and a few props, and the aforementioned Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Northern Stage, which boasted sets straight out of a movie and stellar production values. (Disclaimer: I am biased as Wendy is a friend – but I also don’t like kids that much so if it won me over, it could probably win over anybody).

Best night out by a mile: So much theatre has felt like angst this year, driven by the understandable need to process the events of the past two years. But, God, I have missed theatre as simply a fun night out. So I am eternally grateful to the Lewis Jobson solo show Redcoat at Live for reminding me of just how joyous theatre can be. Jobson puts so much energy into the show that I was worn out just watching, but the feeling of leaving a theatre with my face aching from laughter is one I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed.

Venue of the year: Tough one this, as I spend my time bouncing around the major venues and have high affection for them all – sometimes I can’t believe how lucky we are to have easy access in the same city (or, at least, all along the same Metro line) to such venues as the Theatre Royal, Northern Stage, Live and Alphabetti and South Shields’ Customs House, to name but a few. But while it feels slightly like picking a favourite child, this year I’m going for Alphabetti. It’s offered a consistently strong programme this year – I haven’t *loved* everything, but I haven’t seen a single dud, and even the shows that didn’t work for me failed in interesting and ambitious ways. Perhaps more importantly, a clear and consistent safety policy in place from reopening has made for comfortable visits, while a long-overdue refurb has improved the toilets (it now has more than many larger venues, an accessibility issue that is not to be undervalued) and transformed the bar into a much more welcoming space (while keeping the slightly tatty charm of the earlier incarnations). Plus, it has Rex the Theatre Dog, which might just be the thing that tips it into the winning margin in my books…

Onwards and Upwards: This year I finally managed to go to venues that have been on my wishlist for ages (including Stockton’s ARC, of which I am now a big fan), so my plans for 2022 are to hopefully branch out even further and visit so many of the great spaces we are so lucky to have. Global disaster notwithstanding – and who knew that was a disclaimer we’d have to start using – Prodigal Geordie will be back in 2022. So watch this space!

Finally –  huge congratulations to everyone who managed to create any art or theatre this year. It’s not been easy, and you deserve all the festive treats.

As ever if you wish to support my writing, or at least pay for some of my drinks on all these nights out, you can do so by buying me a Ko-fi!

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