Despite the best efforts of the Tory Government to starve all but the rich of access to the arts, we are blessed in the North East with a plethora of great cultural venues. I’ve been making an effort to support as many as I can since I moved back, because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that if we don’t use them, we lose them – the recent (hopefully temporary) closure of the Side Gallery has demonstrated how precarious even our most established institutions can be.
One new venue I have been particularly taken with is Laurels, in Whitley Bay. Housed in an old social club just a few minutes’ walk from the Metro station, Laurels is a fringe theatre and nightspot co-founded by local lad and Artistic Director Jamie Eastlake, who like myself is someone who moved back to the region after a stint down south (albeit his tenure was slightly more illustrious than mine, since he won an Olivier award while he was there!).
I’ve been to Laurels a few times now – yesterday I was there to see Jenni Winter’s entertaining musical cabaret about wild swimming and motherhood, La Mere – and I’ve been impressed by the laid-back vibe of the bars and the variety of its programming, particularly its focus on platforming working class voices. While definitely a fringe theatre – so the work should be viewed through that lens – it has an admirable commitment to new writing, and hosts a varied programme of shows, including both touring shows and original work (Eastlake’s Gerry & Sewell – which transfers to Live this autumn – was a highlight of last year, while current production Juggling, by Ian Smith, is less ambitious in scope and style than that show, but an often very funny look at working in the gig economy). Ticket prices are very reasonable – you can snag many of the shows for around a tenner – meaning you can take a punt on something that takes your fancy without too much of a blow to the bank account (often way cheaper that you could see them when they tour to larger venues, too!). The venue also hosts regular club nights, family-friendly events and karaoke, so it’s worth checking out their website to see what’s on offer.
While Whitley Bay isn’t exactly starved of culture – Whitley Bay Playhouse is a great venue, albeit with programming that is heavily reliant on jukebox musicals and tribute bands, and prices that reflect that – Laurels feels like an important addition to the scene. Plus, it’s literally five minutes’ walk from the seafront (get off at Whitley Bay Metro and walk straight down until you see the sea – you can’t miss it!) so you can take a pre-show wander and enjoy some of the country’s most beautiful coastline while you’re at it. Now that’s a selling point most theatres can’t offer you.
You can check out the venue here: https://www.laurelswhitley.co.uk/
Gerry & Sewell at Live: https://www.live.org.uk/whats-on/gerry-sewell
While I am at it, if you want to you can support the Side Gallery’s fundraising page, it’s here: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/saveside
Important access note: Because this is an ‘off-the-cuff’ blog I haven’t researched Laurels’ accessibility, which I suspect, given the age and nature of the building, isn’t fantastic (I could be wrong, but my impression was a lot of narrow stairs!). I strongly suggest calling ahead to check before booking if you have access requirements.