Alien Invasion at the Centre for Life

Saturday my friend D and I went to The Centre for Life to see the exhibition of costumes and props from alien-related movies and TV shows. Despite the fact I have walked past this place literally hundred of times – my mum lived just up the road – I have never been in, so felt this was a perfect excuse to visit.

The centre isn’t massive, and is obviously geared towards families, so a lot of it I was happy to ignore (a crowded talk on the science of chocolate, featuring experiments on Easter Eggs, was proving popular as we passed). The exhibition itself wasn’t massive – you could walk the whole thing in a few minutes – but both D and I were happy to freak out over the Aliens props, and both of us got a thrill from standing next to a surprisingly louche Stormtrooper.

We also took a trip to the Planetarium to see a short film about the moon, and marvelled at the giant version of the same suspended just outside it (a touring artwork by Luke Jerram). Although not a cheap experience – our tickets, which gave access to the whole centre, were £11 – it’s definitely worth a visit if you have kids, as they put on lots of activities.

Bonus points for having a cafe that doesn’t gouge a captive audience on prices (the nice staff even gave me another token for the coffee machine when I wasted my first by not being able to figure out how it worked – what can I say, I really needed that coffee!) and for having disabled toilets clearly labelled with the message ‘not all disabilities are visible’ – which I think is a tactic more places should employ.

And I got to see a Stormtrooper!

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Moving Parts Puppetry Festival

So despite a long week, headed off to try the delights of the Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival on Friday. Founded in 2017 and running every two years (at present), the festival runs for nine days and offers a range of shows across the city, from city centre parades to workshops and events, including an all-day free event in Ouseburn. Unfortunately, while I would have loved to have seen more of it, a slew of prior commitments meant I only managed to squeeze in a couple of shows. (Review here.)

The Seed Carriers by Stephen Mottram was probably what most people think of when they think of traditional puppetry: traditional jointed marionettes, a dark stage, the puppeteer mostly half hidden. It was beautiful to look at, intricately designed and oddly moving – it’s amazing how fast people humanise inanimate objects, and when bad things befell the poor puppets, there were proper groans from the audience. I was also excited to be trying out another new venue – Dance City – which so far I haven’t managed to visit. I’m no expert on dance, as you may have guessed, but it seems to have an interesting mix of shows, as well as hosting classes (there’s a barre pilates class I am keen to try), so I am betting I will be back.

Just round the corner at Alphabetti was Seaside Terror. As one of the main venues, Alphabetti was properly tricked out for the festival: the bar was full of puppets, there was a puppet caravan parked outside (and an outdoor, large scale puppet show was held as a taster before the main event), and I must admit I was easily tempted into buying a notebook at the cute little merch stall inside, manned by Kerrin, who I later discover is the artistic director of the festival (and who agreed to let me take his photo). (I also donated a ton of books to the theatre’s bookshop, so was pleased to clear some space on my groaning shelves).

I enjoyed this show more – I enjoyed the atmospherics and cleverness of Seed Carriers, but there is only so much I can handle without dialogue – though weirdly its seaside bawdiness made me oddly homesick for Brighton. I did end up chatting merrily to both some of the audience and, afterwards, some of the volunteers, which was a fascinating way to find out more not just about the festival but about the kind of shows people in Newcastle go to, and how they feel about the various theatres – that stuff always interests me.

Plus: I went home with a notebook. So – always a win.

A day trip to London to see Emilia the Play

My timeline has been full of praise for Emilia for a while now – its initial run at the Globe had all my theatre friends aglow, so when it transferred to the West End, I decided to take advantage of both reasonable ticket prices (£32 for a row C stalls seat!) and the fact that London is do-able in a day, and book myself a trip.

I’m glad I did. While I am not sure I would rave about it quite as strongly as some of its fans – the first half felt a little flabby to me, and the pacing felt a little off in the second (and this is after it’s been cut from its initial running time), it’s certainly a play worth anyone’s attention.

Although a treatise on women’s anger, it also manages to be funny, clever and playful – the furious ending had the audience on their feet, but there were plenty of laughs to be had. A more diverse (all-female) cast than I can recall seeing ever before in the West End were a delight (the show has an all-female creative team, too – even rarer), and it was refreshing to be in an audience that was predominantly women.

London, too, was delicious. Like a lover putting on its best face to impress its ex – it doesn’t want me back, but it wants me to miss it – the city was shining and bustling with energy, and I admit I had a pang. (At least until I met my friend for pre-train drinks in the German Gymnasium, and was reacquainted with the worst side of London, stuck next to a couple of braying posh girls with paint-scraping accents who complained at an ear-splitting decibel level and with zero irony about Americans being loud and stupid, before going on at length about what ‘good comic relief’ their Polish cleaner provided. There are some things about London I definitely don’t miss).

Emilia runs till mid-June – if you possible can, it’s worth seeing.

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Flip flops and a family wedding

Although my schedule has been pretty packed since I moved back home last year, one thing I haven’t managed to do is see as much of my family as I’d like. In part, this is because, having been absent so long, my presence limited to flying visits for occasions such as funerals, I have simply fallen out of the rhythm of family life. I don’t have the phone numbers of most of my relations; I don’t know how or where they spend their time. I see my cousin L most Sundays, and when I can I drop into visit her mum, my Aunty A, but other than at Christmas I haven’t seen that much of anyone else.

Yesterday was a chance, then, to see the wider family en masse. L’s daughter Z was getting married out in Durham and everyone would be in attendance. I haven’t had much time to think about the wedding: my deadlines have been hectic, and then I was ill, which meant that my preparations amounted to hastily buying a dress and shoes online (shoes I decided against wearing, in the end, opting for the comfort of boots. But shiny boots – I was making an effort, honest). So come the day, I rather tumbled into it. And it turned out to be just lovely.

The Old Barn at the South Causey Inn was a beautiful venue: rustic and elegantly decorated without feeling too full on or kitchy, and Z and the family had apparently designed many of the flourishes themselves. (The speeches were full of many jokes about Z’s fondness for organising, but the girl deserves her props, as the wedding was full of thoughtful touches, including providing flip flops for the women at the evening do, so that many of the guests could change out of the perilously high heels Geordie women are so fond of: one woman came up to me before the dancing started and said, ‘we’re all smiling and six inches shorter’. Honestly, this should be a widely adopted trend). (I mentioned this on Twitter and someone said ‘this is the best wedding idea I ever heard’).

The glamour quotient was of course high. Northern women like to dress up, and many of my extended family are total lookers, so the combination was a potent one and I spent much of my time cooing compliments at the glossy haired, glammed up women I was surrounded by. Z was a stunning bride, and I admit I had a tear in my eye when her uncle walked her down the aisle (usually a dry and laconic sort, he gave such a funny, moving speech at the reception that a stranger cornered me in the loos and said, ‘I have no idea who he is but he made me cry!’, which has to be the sign of a successful wedding. Though maybe if she didn’t know who he was, she was at the wrong wedding…).

The food was great – I’ve been to so many weddings where the vegetarian option was a few artfully arranged carrots, leaving me starving while all around me guests are tucking into a Sunday roast – but here I was so stuffed I was tempted to find a corner to have a little nap before the dancing.

But while the day was obviously about the young couple at its centre – it was a delight to see them both so happy – for me, it was also a great chance to catch up with the family. And also to be reminded of something I tend to forget, having been away so long: and that’s that I really, genuinely like these people. Oh, sure, they are my family, I love them, I’ve always known that – but I had sort of forgotten just how good company they are. One of the things I am loving about seeing L so often is being reminded how funny she is – we often spend our Sunday evenings laughing ourselves silly at some story from her work or about some craziness she encountered out with her beloved dog, since our neighbourhood isn’t light on the crazy quotient – and it was great to get a chance to reconnect with so many people and to rediscover that they, too, are actually just enormous fun to hang out with.

And to do so knowing I’ll likely see them all soon, rather than be getting on a train the next day to the other end of the country and vanishing for another couple of years, made the day all that more special for me.

If you want to read about a very different wedding, why not check out my book, The Bridesmaid Blues?

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Holy Moly and the Crackers at the Cluny

Despite the fact that I was still feeling super shonky, dragged my sorry ass off the sofa for a gig last night and as usual, ended up glad I made the effort. After dinner at The Ship (where I tried their ‘fish’ and chips again, in the hope of finding it a little more exciting than last time, and still thought it was a little bland, so lesson learned) L and I went to see Holy Moly and the Crackers at their sold out Cluny gig.

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Since L is the gig maven – most of the bands I have seen so far since moving back have been at her suggestion – it was nice that this time it was my idea, and luckily the band didn’t let me down, putting on an absolutely barnstorming performance. They really are a great act live – personable, energetic and with a real connection to the crowd.

I also couldn’t help being a little pleased that the tour – named after their new album, Take a Bite, had some merch that was pretty much designed for me, so while I usually never buy merch at gigs, I thought this lip balm would make a nice prop for my bookstagram posts. So that’s almost like a work expense, right?*

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*Dear HMRC: I have not charged this as a work expense.

A week of theatre

Despite still not being able to shake off my hacking cough and a wave of migraines that have made this week *super* fun, I have managed to drag myself out a couple of times, well-stocked with Strepsils so I’m not too annoying in public.

First up was DUPed, a short (yay!) one-man play at Live Theatre about Northern Irish politics. Although it didn’t blow me away – it lacked momentum in a way that I found hard to put my finger on, but which made it slightly less engaging than I wanted it to be. But it was also fascinating and informative both on NI politics and seamed through with justifiable anger at the fact the rest of the UK seems to only notice what is happening when it affects them.

Second up was a show I actually bought tickets for – Imitating the Dog’s Heart of Darkness at Northern Stage. I’d been really keen to see this: I studied Heart of Darkness at university, and despite the fact it’s a problematic book even with the most generous of readings, it’s one that I am always compelled by.

The show, unfortunately, was a real disappointment. Few books are more rife for reinterpretation than Heart of Darkness, and the show highlighted that – just as in Northern Ireland – there’s a tradition of willful ignorance in this country about the misdeeds of Empire (both our own, and other people’s) that have serious repercussions to this day. Certainly, there were some great ideas in there, and it wasn’t afraid to tackle the text, but the show was overlong, heavy handed and was padded with clunky exposition (like, I get why you’ve transposed the action to Europe and the main character to a Black woman – I don’t need half a dozen scenes explaining it in detail). The fact that much of the action was projected onto giant screens where the images and audio were noticeably out of synch didn’t help – having worked in subtitling where I was trained to notice things being a frame out, I’m probably over sensitive to such things, but it distracted me to the point of irritation.

Still, my run of shows this year has been pretty good, I suppose I was due a let down sooner or later…

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Baltic, cocktails and Us

After a busy and slightly frustrating week, where I had my biggest deadline of the year and, not coincidentally, my immune system finally gave in after several months of pretty much non-stop work, I was both delighted and slightly wary to play host to my friend T this weekend. Delighted, because she is always good company, wary because I had developed a hacking cough, almost lost my voice and wanted nothing more than to lie in bed with the covers over my head, so feared I wouldn’t exactly be the hostess with the mostess.

Luckily, T is both very low maintenance and very good company, so we actually had a fab weekend. Our plans were thwarted on more than one occasion – I’d wanted to do cocktails at Six in Baltic on early evening Saturday, but when we turned up the venue was booked for a private party, and the weather scuppered some of our more ambitious plans.

In the end, though, our weekend turned out pleasantly laid back. Having been to the Backyard Bike Shop several times for food, I finally got to try their cocktails, which were very nice. We had a delicious veggie brunch at the Tyneside downstairs cafe, and some seriously good Indian food at Dabbawal. And though the Baltic was a no for cocktails, we did see some art. I admit a lot of it went a bit over my head – art isn’t an area I am particularly knowledgeable about – but it’s always a space worth visiting. I was particularly taken with a couple of the shows in the Artists’ Award exhibitions: Ingrid Pollard’s examination of the figure of the ‘black boy’ in English architecture and culture – primarily through pub signs which use black figures – was fascinating, and Aaron Hughes piece on war was moving.

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We also watched a lot of films – it was a bit of a feminist film fest! T hadn’t seen Fury Road or the new Halloween so we watched those, then went to the Tyneside to see Us, where it was also nice to introduce her to the beauties of the classic screen, and rounding off our Strong Women weekend, we watched Widows, which I hadn’t seen either.

I thought both Us and Widows were flawed but fascinating, powered by smart ideas and strong performances. Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis were both incredible. I am also *very* here for Winston Duke playing a dorky dad, which was such a difference from his usual roles.

So, all in all – just the tonic I needed!

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