Art and birds at Baltic

It’s been a little while since I went to Baltic, so having a friend in town provided the perfect excuse.

They have a range of shows on, as always, and something to appeal to most tastes. Survey was a mix of pieces by early career artists and, as ever in these big shows, some buts were more to my taste than others, but having them all in one space was an interesting experience (runs till 29 Sep).

I had to skip John Akomfrah’s Ballasts to Memory – I was recovering from a migraine and one look at the screens felt like it would set me off again – but it looks worth checking out. I was very taken with Ifeoma U. Anyaeji’s Ezuhu ezu – In(complete). A Nigerian artist heavily influenced by the culture of her country, she combines traditional craft methods and modern materials in witty, clever ways, and though I admit I know little to nothing about contemporary sculpture, the show – her first solo piece in the UK – really charmed me. It runs till Sep 22.

Another show that won me over was Mick Peter’s To Me, To You, a 3D installation that felt like walking through a comic strip, in the best way. (Be sure to peak through the window at the end of the show for the ‘punchline’). This is on till 27 October.

Perhaps best of all though was the sight from the 4th floor viewing platform – the kittiwakes! Newcastle’s kittiwake population is unusual for being so inland, and for nesting on urban structures, and to see a row of them lined up so neatly, preening and sleeping, was a genuine treat that my photos don’t do justice.

Entry to Baltic is free – though donations are suggested and you can even text to support the kittiwakes – though good luck getting out without spending some money in the cafe or their fantastic gift shop.

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Work and Workers at Side Gallery

The Side Gallery is always worth a visit, and I have been meaning to get to see their new show for ages, so was pleased to be able to finally fit it in. Work & Workers is a curated exhibition of photographs from around the work exploring the theme of work, featuring everything from coal miners to call centres.

Spread across the whole gallery, it’s packed with gorgeous pics, including stunning shots of the Tyne Bridge being built, some of Chris Killip’s amazing ship building pictures (I talked about his Last Ships show at the Laing a while back), and some brutal pictures of the miner’s strike and Orgreave.

It’s unflinching and sometimes bleak, but often strangely beautiful, and always humane – it never loses sight of the fact that at the heart of even the darkest and fieriest industrial hellscape there are people living their lives.

Work & Workers is on till 8 Sep and is free. Go check it out!

This is Byker at Northern Stage

Yesterday was a very theatre day: I met someone from Alphabetti for coffee to talk about their exciting new season (somewhat ironically at Northern Stage – though not really, as in my experience all the theatre folk in Newcastle are very supportive of their competitors!). I was then off to Byker to chat to Northern Stage (and Common Wealth) folk about one of their upcoming shows, I have Met the Enemy (And the Enemy is Us) – before dashing off to meet my friend and fellow reviewer T off the train, as she is in town to have a short break from reviewing duty at Edinburgh Fringe! So, a LOT of theatre chat. I also picked up my membership pack – so started getting my drinks discount right away (honestly, I suspect they’ll lose money on this deal…)

I’ll be talking more nearer the time about Enemy, as it sounds a fascinating project – a co-production between Northern Stage and renowned working class theatre company Common Wealth, it examines Britain’s role in the arms trade through the lived experience of a Palestinian man, a former British solider and a female painter still based in the Middle East, as well as looking at how art can be a transformative power in people’s lives. It will be staged in Byker Community Centre, which I’m not familiar with, but, based on my visit yesterday, seems a vibrant community hub (when I was there, there seemed to be lots of activities going on, including arts and crafts activities for kids with it being the school holidays, and a ‘pay what you can’ produce market, that sells donated produce that would be otherwise be going to landfill, thereby cutting down food waste.) The Common Wealth project has been developed with input from local residents and will feature a community cast (and reduced ticket prices of £2 for residents), and is part of Northern Stage’s ongoing engagement with the Byker community. (You can also go along early for some performances for a walking tour of the estate, or a lecture about its history as one of the country’s most famous examples of social housing – you can find details on how to sign up or buy tickets on the Northern Stage website.)

Part of this engagement was on show in the theatre itself, with their new exhibition This is Byker. My photos don’t do it justice – the light downstairs is hard on photos! – but it’s a series of beautifully intricate and delicate drawings of the Byker estate by long-term resident Steve Sheraton. This exhibition (which is on till 24th September) is part of a wider This is Byker project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of what is now an iconic estate, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Suggestibles at the Stand and Newcastle Improv Festival

I must admit my experience of improv begins and ends with Whose Line Is it Anyway, a series I used to watch faithfully, and which now has a second life as a bunch of Tumblr memes that regularly pop up on my dash to remind me of simpler times. So when a friend suggested I check out local improv group The Suggestibles, the driving force behind Newcastle’s upcoming Improv Festival, I decided a trip to the past was overdue.

Comedy venue The Stand on High Bridge Street has been on my list of venues to check out since I moved back to Newcastle. It looks small from the street – like a nice but fairly narrow bar – but there’s a pleasant and fairly large beer garden out back and the venue itself in the basement is nicely laid out and a decent size, with plenty of toilets and clearly visible fire exits (I am of an age when both of those things matter to me: never a fan of subterranean spaces, I always like to see clear paths of egress.) It also does a good range of food, including veggie options, though my friend and I stuck just to wine.

Its no-nonsense approach is spelled out in signs that adorn the walls telling you ‘nee chatting’ during the show, ‘don’t make a tit of yourself’ – and, slightly weirdly, warning you not to move the furniture – a request that was verbally repeated when I collected my tickets. When I asked the very nice young woman on the door if that was a problem they encountered so often that they had to tell people not to do it in advance, she gave a slightly weary sigh and said ‘more than you’d think’. Um… OK.

The show itself, which remained untroubled by errant furniture rearranging, was a riot. As someone prone to social awkwardness and stumbling over my words even in the calmest of situations, I can only marvel at the skill that it takes to think that quickly on your feet, and be funny with it. The Suggestibles have been around a long time and it shows in their slick performances and easy chemistry (two of the group are, indeed, married).

Not everything worked, though in fairness the flaws were mainly of the form, not the performers. Some of the sketches could have ended a little sooner, and though any improv group is at the mercy of its audience, I felt like they should have pushed back a little harder on some of the less appropriate shout outs: a deftly done sketch on accents went from skillful to sour once the Jamaican and Indian accents came out. (It’s 2019, folks: pretty sure it’s not OK for a bunch of white people to put on Jamaican and Indian accents for a room full of other white people, no matter how innocent the intention behind it.) But mostly they handled the crowd with aplomb, even managing to gently tell someone off for checking their phone without being too mean about it (that, uh, was me – the SHAME. I’m sorry, guys, but it’s been a long week and my mind wandered back to work for a moment and I promise I won’t ever do it again.)

But overall, it was an incredibly sharp and funny performance by a tightly-meshed group of genuinely talented people, and I was really pleased I made time to see the show.

Newcastle Improv Festival runs from Saturday 27th July to Sunday 4th August at venues across the city including The Stand, The Cumberland Arms, children’s storytelling centre Seven Stories, Jurys Inn and my old fave, Alphabetti. You can check out the calendar and buy tickets here.

Amazing Space at the Word

Continuing my space theme from Monday’s visit to see Apollo 11, yesterday I was early to see the show I was reviewing, so took the opportunity to pop into The Word in South Shields, The National Centre for the Written Word. It’s somewhere I’ve been meaning to go for a while, as they have an interesting programme of events, but with 15 minutes to kill all I managed this time was a wander around their exhibition on space.

It was a small but fun show that centred as much on space in the imagination as in reality: space as seen in comics, books, film and TV – so an X-Wing pilot uniform is displayed next to an astronaut suit.

It’s not a massive exhibit, but it’s curated with care – and it’s free – so definitely something kids will enjoy (even if that kid is you).

Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool

I’d decided to tie my Liverpool visit into not just theatre but the Keith Haring exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, a gallery I have never been to. The show itself was fantastic – a huge range of material curated with real care. It was of course heart-breaking to revisit his work: an activist in the fight against HIV/Aids, Haring died of the disease at just 31 – but it was great to see such a major retrospective of his work.

Also at the Tate was Constellations, a fascinating collection that included pieces by Warhol, Miro and Kandinsky, though the pop art floor did little for my hangover.

Luckily an avocado and halloumi brioche at Peabody Kitchen sorted that out, allowing me to have a wander around the docks in the sunshine before taking a slow stroll back into town for my train.

All in all, Liverpool quite won me over – can’t wait to go back.

Saltwater Reading at Goldtapped

I moved North to avoid the heat. I’m overweight, pale and Northern, for god’s sake, I don’t do heat. So I was more than a little pissed off when, having spent the morning feeling smug at all the ‘oh god I am melting’ posts from my London and European friends, I stepped outside and realised that, yes, actually, Newcastle was also very hot. (I blame not being used to double glazing: I hadn’t quite twigged it keeps the place cool as well as hot.)

So I admit I wasn’t in the best of moods when I headed into town – which was mobbed, since there was a con on, a university open day and a cruise ship docked – not helped by the fact I managed to get lost on the way to the very event I had dragged my increasingly sweaty arse out of the house for.Still, after a mere handful of wrong turns, I managed to locate Goldtapped Gallery, the place I was supposed to be for a reading (which is actually… um, super easy to find). I admit I was there less because I was interested in the main speaker – author of Saltwater, Jessica Andrews, whose work I wasn’t familiar with – and more to support a fellow theatre bod, reviewer Lauren Vevers, a talented young writer who I have met a few times at various press nights since I moved back. But I’m pleased I went.

Andrews’ book is partially set in the North East, and her descriptions of vintage shops in town and Washington parties felt instantly familiar to me from my college days (I had friends who lived out in Washington, which seemed distant and exotic to me at the time – no, really – despite the fact I spent most of my time there in bus stops). She was joined not just by Vevers, who read a moving essay about her family, but also novelist Carmen Marcus, who read from her novel How Saints Die, and poet Oliver Doe. Despite the venue being a bit crammed – clearly the event was a bit more popular than they anticipated – all the readings were great, the writers all personable, and the space thankfully cooler than I feared. I might even have indulged in a few book purchases… (I know, I know. I’ll stop soon, I promise…)

Vevers will be featured in a forthcoming anthology by 3 of Cups press; you can check out Oliver Doe on his website.

And obviously if you are interested in North East writers feel free to check out MEEEEEEEEE.

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