Bicycles and Fish and What Girls Are Made of

I was pleased to see a couple of shows by women on stage this week, although two very different shows. Katie Arnstein’s Bicycles and Fish was a tale of a feminist coming of age, and I liked rather than loved it. Arnstein is an engaging performer, and bits of the show were delightfully sharp, but it also felt a bit too much like a feminism for beginners taster, so I didn’t exactly feel like the target audience.That said, I would be keen to see her most recent show, Sexy Lamp (inspired by comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s (now best known for Captain Marvel) sexy lamp test – The second show was much more my thing – in fact, it’s mix of spikiness, Scottishness, heart and humour felt tailored to my tastes exactly. I had heard good things about Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of at the Fringe, so when I found out it was coming back to the Traverse I thought it might be worth the trip – with the added advantage I got to hang out with my friend A, who relocated back to Scotland a few years back. It’s a fantastic show – raw, funny, and with some sly digs at posh boys in bands. What’s not to love?

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Behind the scenes magic at Northern Stage

As you may have already guessed from this blog, I am a bit of a theatre nerd. No, really! So I was delighted to be offered a chance to see behind the scenes at Northern Stage, on a tour of their Scenic Workshops.

Located in an unprepossessing industrial estate in Walkergate, I admit that come the day and the realisation I would have to cab it out there (at no small cost), I was having second thoughts. (I had of course agreed to go before realising it would be such a hike to get there: I tend to forget everybody drives in Newcastle, so assumes that you do to). But it ended up being really fascinating, and I’m glad I went.

The tour was run by Production Manager Chris Durant, who took our little group of visitors through the various processes a set goes through before it reaches the stage – from the designer’s idea through to scale models through to transporting and assembling the various bits in different theatres throughout the country. We were shown props and drawings from previous shows (including A Christmas Carol), and walked round the set-in-progress for the upcoming A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is one of the most ambitious sets the team have ever produced, but which is currently lying around the warehouse in bits as it’s being finalised. It’s hard to look at a bunch of bland, barely painted props and see how they fit together to create a workable backdrop to a play, and I admit I was left marvelling at the kind of minds that could do so.

An enthusiastic, patient and knowledgeable guide – with an impressive tolerance for stupid questions (from, um, me) – Chris gave us a genuine insight into everything that goes into realising a production, and all the myriad issues that have to be addressed when creating a set – far, far more than the average audience member likely ever realises. Not just, does this look like the designer wants it do, but is it practical for the cast, the audience and the theatre? How heavy is it to lift, how hard to assemble, how easy to fit into the different stage dimensions that might be encountered on a tour? Will it fit on a truck? Everything from making sure a set adheres to fire regulations to keeping things on budget has to be considered, and it really made me appreciate all the work that goes on, literally, behind the scenes.

Thornton Street Cafe

I am always on the look out for coffee spots near the station, since I am usually so paranoid about missing a train I arrive super early. So I was pleased to stumble across this cute little cafe across the road from where my aunt lives, just a few minutes from Central Station. Although I only had coffee, the staff were friendly, it has a menu I would be keen to check out and a relaxed vibe. Definitely worth knowing about…

Dinosaurs abound in the winter gardens

While the reason we were in Sunderland was to see the Da Vinci exhibit, we of course took the opportunity to check out the winter gardens – attached to the Museum and set in the lovely surroundings of the park.Although I am not sure if it’s just for the holidays, they have currently been transformed into ‘Jurassic Gardens’ and dinosaurs were hidden throughout. (One child was so startled he accidentally felled a brontosaurus!) Although it’s not a large space, it certainly seemed popular with families, so worth taking your dino-loving kids to!

Da Vinci drawings at Sunderland Museum

Took a trip to Sunderland today to see the Da Vinci drawings – selections of which are on display around the country. It was the first time I had been to the Museum and I was impressed – there were a number of good exhibits, including some drawings from the archives, some LS Lowry and a series of drawings of local pensioners by Andrew Tift called One Day You’ll be Older Too.

The Da Vinci exhibit was astoundingly good value – £2.50 a ticket! – and showcased some beautiful pieces. We rounded off our trip with coffee and a scone in the cafe (also not bad value) and a wander round the winter gardens. Definitely worth a visit.

The Angel of the North

Unsurprisingly, this has been on my bucket list a long time, but today I finally went to see The Angel up close. The weather was so chilly it was a bit of a pit stop, but the clouds suited the piece’s dramatic beauty, and it really is a stunning piece of artwork in the flesh.

It’s also slightly disorienting to actually be up close to it – it’s become such a symbol that occasionally I forget the symbol is based on something real. So I was also relieved that it didn’t disappoint – that its power loses nothing with proximity.

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!