Newcastle is currently hosting the Curious Festival, a celebration of LGBTQ+ art and culture that is being held across multiple venues in the region and runs till July 9th. Unfortunately, I’m away for most of it, so will miss most of the shows – it’s a strong programme, so definitely worth checking out.But I did manage to see *gender not included at Alphabetti the other night, and really enjoyed it. Alphabetti is the perfect venue for such a show: it’s intimate enough that a smaller show doesn’t feel drowned, it attracts a much broader (and queerer) spectrum of audience than your mainstream theatres, and its ramshackle charm never fails to feel welcoming.It felt like a perfect venue for *gender. The show itself was enormous fun – a lip synch look at gender and identity by a young non-binary performer, Melody Sproates. It felt very much what it was, a first-time show by a relatively untested creative, so for all its energy, it lacked polish, but sometimes there’s a joy in that in itself: in seeing something a little rough round the edges at the start of its journey, rather than smoothed out and slick. The fact that it was such a well-disposed audience gave the whole thing a lovely, party atmosphere, and there’s definitely a different vibe in the room when it feels like the audience is coming from a place of recognition and empathy, rather than difference and distance.It was such a hit it’s coming back for another night, and at just an hour long it’s more than worth your time. My full review is here: or you can buy tickets for the next performance (Saturday 13th July) here.
I am peri-menopausal. What does this mean? Well, while I am not yet in the throes of full-blown menopause, it’s certainly in the post.
How do I know? For a start, a year ago, my periods went crazy. Never the most fun – I’ve always struggled with the full range of horrors a uterus can chuck at you – they now threw wild unpredictability into the mix, arriving without notice on a gusset-flooding crimson tide that no euphemistically pretty ‘feminine hygiene’ protection could withstand, disappearing at a whim, or hanging around in an inconvenient balsamic vinegar drizzle that means you’re never completely on or off, your favourite pants are regularly ruined and you always have to carry supplies in your handbag. (You can imagine how this Russian roulette affects me given a chunk of my job is sitting through plays. You can tell most plays, like most films, are written and directed by men*, since few of them take into account the demands of a bladder wrecked by age or childbirth or how hard it is to concentrate on some wordy theatrical masterpiece when you’re more worried about the drama happening in your knickers than what’s onstage.)
Always prone to flushing, my face now goes red at the least change of temperature – external of internal – so I regularly look like I’m three wines in at the start of the night. My bladder is less ‘sensitive’, more occasionally outright hysterical. My moods are unpredictable, my sleep – never great – is utterly wrecked and I am epically tired all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME. Literally, every single moment of my life. It is, I can tell you, enormous fun. It is also enormously common. And yet, it’s so rarely talked about.
[*I should stress, before I go further, that all my comments here relate solely to cisgender men and women. I’m not qualified – nor would I presume – to speak on the trans or NB experience, which I can only imagine throws up even more complicated physical and emotional issues, especially given the current toxic climate, and upon which the harmful curtain of silence is likely even more damaging].
Menopause is having a bit of a moment, it’s true. There’s that speech in Fleabag. One of the morning TV shows did a whole week on it (a whole week! On an issue that will affect half the population. Truly, we live in blessed times.) But when it comes to daily life, we’re remarkably reluctant to talk about it, and that self-imposed ignorance comes with a cost. It’s a bit of a shock when you’ve been promised a period-free post-menopause to discover that your body throws its own closing down sale first, in which everything must go, including, apparently, the entire contents of your uterus. And yet, when I mentioned this to older female friends, they all just nodded sagely and said, oh, yeah, that happens. Well, hello, then, a little heads up might have been nice.
It’s an issue compounded in the arts, where older women are too often invisible or actively erased, and female experience is so often only shown through the lens of a male writer or director. Sure, we have our age icons, those women who seem to move through the process effortlessly and without any impact on their careers – Judi Dench isn’t begging for roles any time soon, I’m guessing – but too often the old First Wives Club quote still stands, that the only three ages for women are babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Theatre is all too ready to explore the myriad messiness of men, but shies away from giving women the equivalent interiority and complexity.
It was exciting, then, to be invited to see a night of women-centred theatre that talked openly about menopause at Alphabetti, which is fast becoming one of my favourite Newcastle haunts. Lizi Patch’s Down to Zero isn’t a play about menopause, per se, but it does centre on a menopausal woman, and is rare in recognising that while menopause can be utterly derailing, life doesn’t get put on pause while it’s happening, so you have to keep dealing with all the other shit as well.
It’s a smartly written, if unadventurous, production – only an hour long, too, which is considerate for all our middle aged bladders (though bold, I thought, to have a play aimed at women of a certain age having a soundtrack of lapping water (it’s set on a boat.) I wanted to pee five minutes in…) (Read my review here.)
In some ways more interesting were the response pieces afterwards, part of a series of works commissioned around the main show. I’m always in two minds about the idea of reaction pieces. I understand the reasoning behind them: they give artists a chance to try out shorter, less structured pieces of work in a low-risk environment, they give audiences a chance to experience things they might not have sought out, and they are a boost for the venue, since they create an interval where people will hopefully buy drinks, which are the lifeblood boost to coffers that venues like Alphabetti needs. But all of that has to be weighed against my pressing desire to be at home on the sofa watching Brooklyn 99 (Because I am TIRED ALL OF THE TIME. Did I mention that?)
But I am glad I stayed, as I really liked the reaction pieces last night, both of which were pleasingly short and compact, so I didn’t feel like my night was unnecessarily dragged out.
Poet Degna Stone’s Probably was a monologue about getting older that smartly addressed what it’s like to feel your chances running out, to doubt your past decisions and worry about your future, as well as what it’s like living as a Black woman in a world where white supremacy seems again in ascendancy, to literally worry yourself sick about politics and the planet.
Beccy Owen’s Fanny Magnet couldn’t have been more different, but both pieces drew audible sounds of recognition from the audience. There was slightly more audience interaction than I’m keen on – please, God, don’t make me sing at these things – but it was a warm and funny look at how openness and communication can lessen the burden of menopause.
The show runs till 29th June at Alphabetti (response pieces Tues-Friday). It’s Pay What You Feel, too, so you can get a night of theatre for a bargain price. Why not pop along?
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Another trip to Alphabetti Theatre last night, to see Floorboards, a play by Steve Byron, who also co-wrote Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, which I reviewed a while back at the same theatre.It’s always a joy to go to Alphabetti, which is such a nice little space, and I dropped off some books for their bookshop, too (get in there if you are a fan of crime or history hardbacks, cos I just replenished their stash with some recent titles!) The play itself was a sharply written and well-performed dark comedy, so worth your time. Check it out! And say hi to Rex the theatre dog while you are there…
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.
Maybe it’s my vegetarianism, but the title of this show really put me off, as did some of the artwork: I loved the ‘minifig’ poster (see below) but pictures of blokes with bacon hanging from their knees made me think this was going to be some absurdist farce, which is very much not my thing. However, I was lined up to review it (see here), so dutifully went along – and am very glad I did, because it’s a corker of a show.
I always like Alphabetti: the bar is friendly, welcoming and lined with books (and they have a dog!). They put on an interesting programme of shows, and seem very committed to nurturing local writers – each week of the Bacon Knees run has a ‘reaction piece’ commissioned to be performed right after it. It’s a shame that my schedule has prevented me from going more since I have got back, and that everything I have wanted to see – and there have been a few shows on my radar – has been some sort of scheduling clash.
Based on this show, I am missing out. It’s a darkly funny and often moving look at the lives of two misfits, with strong performances and sharp, tight writing. At only an hour long it never outstays its welcome, and even with the aftershow I was home by 10 – not bad for a week night! They are also offering Pay What You Feel, making the show accessible to even the most straitened finances: get yourselves along!
One of my oft-stated reasons for relocating was to reconnect with the local arts scene, and one of the venues I was most excited to visit was Alphabetti.
Everything I had read about this little theatre seemed right up my alley – a commitment to community and new writing and a slightly ramshackle ‘let’s do the show right here’ vibe. I admit, I was seeking something to replace my beloved Marlborough in Brighton (and given that an upcoming show is entitled Seymour Mace Gets Sucked Off By God, I had high hopes).
On first visit, I was not disappointed. The location threw me slightly – it’s in a building I used to walk past every day from my mum’s, which triggered one of those unexpected emotional wobbles that seem to constantly ambush me these days. But inside, it’s a delight.
Since bookshelves and fairy lights are basically my core aesthetic, it will come as little surprise I loved it. The bar is compact and cosy (the rain meant the outdoor seating wasn’t getting much love), and the bookshelves offer a range of preloved books for swap or sale, or to browse at your leisure: I get the feeling this is the sort of place you wouldn’t get dirty looks if you hunkered down for the afternoon with a book and a brew.
The staff are friendly: when I asked if I was allowed to take my drink in, the response was ‘we encourage it’, which won them points. The toilets are labelled ‘sitting down’ and ‘standing up’, thereby smartly embracing gender inclusivity while also removing the risk of accidentally walking in on some stranger with their cock out at a urinal (I am looking at you, Marlborough!)
There was also a dog wandering freely, which is very much a Brighton vibe and one I approve of. (Apologies for slightly crappy picture).
The show I saw was by new company Circ Motif. (You can read my review here). Called The Art of Cuddling and other things, it was a pleasing mix of dance and humour by a personable bunch, though my experience was hampered slightly by poor sightlines and a slightly smelly studio (or slightly smelly audience member – there was some debate about this amongst my fellow travellers as we left). But it was exactly the kind of show you want from this sort of venue: unusual, offbeat, a little challenging and blessedly short, and it’s a company I will be keeping an eye on.
I’m already planning my return visit.