North East Theatre Round Up 2022

As 2022 draws to a close, it’s increasing hard to be optimistic. The country feels on the brink, with the divide between the haves and have nots ever bigger, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the arts, including theatre. Recent polls have shown the proportion of working class people in the industry is falling, and that the work that reaches the stage is still predominantly written and directed by men. I haven’t seen recent figures on how that breaks down by race or disability, but I have eyes, so I would make an educated guess that those stats aren’t any better.

Theatre writing in the North East also suffered a blow this year, with the death of Peter Lathan, a stalwart of the NE theatre scene who put me (and most other critics) to shame by how many shows he managed to go see, and his unwavering support for the sector. He was also very welcoming to me when I moved back to Newcastle and didn’t know anyone on the theatre scene and found it all a bit intimidating. So I’m respectfully dedicating this round up to him.

But there have been things to celebrate. There is a wealth of talent in the North East, producing work that stands up on a national stage – Northern Stage’s Natalie Ibu was nominated for a slew of awards for her powerful production of The White Card, a European premiere, while writer / actor Kemi-Bo Jacobs was nominated for a Stage Debut Award for her show All White Everything But Me, and those are just two I can think of off the top of my head. Several NE companies and performers braved Edinburgh Fringe and came back with a raft of nice reviews. There are good things happening.

In that spirit, I present my totally unofficial and unaffiliated awards for the year. These are idiosyncratic, and dictated by my own schedule, budget and tastes – there were plenty of things I didn’t manage to see – but hopefully they provide a fun insight into the sector. So, let’s raise a glass, put on some sequins (they are warm, after all) – and welcome to the Traceys!

Debuts of the Year

I nearly missed seeing Kemi-Bo Jacobs’ writing debut, All White Everything But Me, as I was in Scotland when it premiered, but a confluence of circumstance saw me come back to Newcastle in the middle of my trip so I was able to leg it up the road from the train to get there in time. (Thank goodness Alphabetti is near Central Station – this wouldn’t be the only time I raced up that hill off a train this year). I’m glad I did. The story of Wimbledon winner Althea Gibson – whose record-breaking career and legacy were marred by racism – was powerful (and well-performed by Jacobs, who also starred) and fascinating even to those of us with zero interest in sport.

An equally accomplished playwriting debut was Anna Robinson’s No.9, also at Alphabetti, which tackled the difficult subject of sexual assault with a rare lightness and grace, aided by a stunning performance from Lauren Waine, and nimble direction from Paula Penman.

The standout acting debut for me was Abiola Owokoniran, whose performance in Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s Importance of Being Earnest (which I saw when it came to Northern Stage) was so accomplished and charismatic I had to double check it actually was a debut. A star to watch, for sure.

In terms of companies that made an impression, I was also very taken with the first production of new North East company Peachplant, which premiered its charming and slightly surreal show A Whale of a Time at Alphabetti, promising great things for the future.

Directors of the Year

I mentioned last year I hadn’t had much of a chance to gauge the impact of new AD Jack McNamara at Live, so it was nice to get a chance to rectify. His debut at Live, We Are the Best! was joyfully irreverent (featuring an enormously talented young cast) while One Off was a hard-hitting look at life in Durham prison. I was particularly excited by how willing he is to change the space at Live – it’s a great theatre, but the stage set up can often be quite basic and confining, so it’s great to see someone use the space so boldly.

My other standout was Paula Penman. I greatly enjoyed her as a performer in last year’s Pause, but this year it was as a director she shone, bringing an enviable lightness of touch to both Whale of a Time and No.9.

Performance of the Year

This year has been blessed by plenty of strong performances, but special mention must go to Bettrys Jones’ tour-de-force as Ellen Wilkinson in Red Ellen at Northern Stage. Onstage for the show’s whole near-three-hour runtime, she brought exceptional energy and passion to this powerhouse performance.

Sly dig of the year

Curious Monkey’s Here by Lindsay Rodden (also at Northern Stage) might have tackled the subject of immigration with sensitivity and humanity, but it alsocontained one of my favourite jokes of the year – people using a library copy of Margaret Thatcher’s biography to swap secret messages in, secure in the knowledge that no one in Newcastle would ever check it out.

Beyond the toon

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the North East is blessed with a wealth of great venues outside Newcastle itself. I still didn’t manage to get everywhere I wanted to – alas I suffer the same money and time pressures as everyone else, and I don’t drive, which means I am always at the mercy of public transport. But where I did get to, I liked.

Whitley Bay’s Laurels impressed the hell out of me with AD Jamie Eastlake’s adaptation of The Season Ticket, Gerry & Sewell, which used the compact space of the theatre to great effect.

While the quality of work at The Central in Gateshead is as variable as you’d expect fringe and scratch theatre to be, it throws up some real treats and remains one of the most affordable places to take a punt on a show. Squiggle Productions new plays nights are always worth checking out and a great showcase for North East talent.

I didn’t get to The Customs House in South Shields as much as I’d like – the Metro was off for months – but it continues to be a gem, and at least I got to see its riotously funny panto. (I was particularly disappointed to miss its production of The Wasp, which sounded great). While again dictated by the limitations of public transport, I did manage a trip to the fantastic ARC Stockton to see Umar Butt’s Welcome to the Jungle, which was worth braving the vagaries of the trains.

New-to-me was The Exchange, in North Shields, a gorgeous wee venue, and I also got to go back to Washington Arts Centre, which is a bit of a hidden gem, for the one-woman show by Dyad Productions, I, Elizabeth.

Land of promise

One of the most exciting things about being able to see so much theatre on the cheap in the North East is it allows the chance to ‘try out’ shows that you otherwise might not see. Obviously, I am very lucky in that I get to see a lot of stuff for free, but I also make an effort to buy tickets to smaller shows so I can check out talent on the rise, and put some actual cash towards supporting local artists. This year I saw a lot of shows with promise – Rachel Stockdale’s Fat Chance and new company Girl Next Door’s Head Girl – both of which went onto Edinburgh Fringe – and Alison Scurfield’s Intergalactic (Petals and Constellations) being three that stood out, and made me keen to see what these artists would do next.

Didn’t we do this last year?

Weirdly, two of my awards are the same as last year. I was thrilled to see Lewis Jobson’s high energy delightRedcoat again – it got my only 5-star review of the year, and I recommended it to a ton of people who also loved it, so it once again takes the crown for Best Night Out of the Year.

I also saw an updated version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Northern Stage, which remains a magical production with super catchy songs, with the Best Baddie in Town once again gleefully stolen by Jessica Johnson.

Venue of the Year

Finally, the toughest one to call every year – it’s like picking a favourite child – but again it’s a repeat winner. I didn’t love everything I saw this year at Alphabetti, but it remains a hub for new, sometimes risky, writing. But what really edges it ahead this year isn’t the work it produces, but the actions it takes to recognise a theatre is more than a building. Extending its opening hours to effectively become a ‘warm bank’, with affordable drinks and food, it once again shows that theatres are part of the communities they are based in, and for that it deserves all the praise.

Well – did I feature your show? Feel free to post recommendations for shows and venues in the comments! (For the inevitable typos and mistakes, drop me a private message and spare my shame…)

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2 comments

  1. Excellent summary but I think you need one of your artistic designer chums to actually create a “Tracey Award”. Who knows? it might be up there with the BAFTA’s one day!

    Like

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