The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil at Live Theatre

It’s slightly ironic that I missed the press night for a big Scottish play because I was actually in Scotland, but despite being utterly knackered from my Glasgow jaunt, I dragged my sorry ass out to review The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil at Live, and wow, am I glad I did. (Link to review here).

I had expected a fiercely political and passionate play – and it was – but I hadn’t expected it to be so much fun. I managed to avoid being dragged up for the pre-show Ceilidh and sing-song (I did enough of that when I lived in Scotland) – those were lively enough, but the show itself was a riot. Raucous, loud, extremely funny and often even silly, it was also at times painfully sombre and unflinching in its look both at the history of the country and the problems it still faces today.

Live was really leaning into the theme so I treated myself to one of the single malts that were being sold in the interval (though served in a plastic glass – for shame! – which makes even less sense because at Live they trust you to take actual glasses in, like grown ups, at least downstairs).

At 2 hrs 30 the play pushes the upper limits of what I normally enjoy sitting through, but for once I didn’t spend the last 15 minutes thinking of all the ways it could have been shorter – it’s fast moving, well-paced and without a wasted moment. It’s also one of the most powerful shows I have seen in a long time. It’s on till June 22 at Live then tours – go see it!

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Biscuit Factory Summer Launch

Last night was The Biscuit Factory’s Summer Launch, and I was delighted to be able to go, having missed their autumn one due to other commitments. I’m a big fan of The Biscuit Factory – they stock an interesting range of artists at a range of price points, with the idea that art shouldn’t just be a luxury purchase (they even do a financing scheme if you want to buy a piece), the staff always seem friendly, and the cafe is great (entry to the galleries is free).

Last night showcased their new exhibitions, which include Simon M Smith’s floral patterened work – a hit with my companion, S – and pieces from the Open Contemporary Young Artist Award (both of which run till August 25). With such an eclectic mix of work on display, you’re likely to find plenty to like – as well as plenty that makes you shake your head and go ‘so that’s what they are calling art these days?’, which is all part of the fun. (I admit I spend a LOT of time going, ‘I can see it’s good, but I wouldn’t want it in my house…’) Of the current artists on display, probably my two favourites were the almost photo-real paintings by Cherylene Dyer and Basia Roszek’s vibrant portraits. Both are Glasgow-based women artists whose subjects tend to be women, so clearly I like a theme…

My favourite part of the evening was discovering that The Biscuit Factory now has a bookshop! Forum Books now has a dedicated space, a cute little cubby papered with pages of books, and of course after a couple of glasses of fizz I abandoned my ‘I must not buy any books!’ and splurged on some hardbacks. But you have to support indie bookstores, right? Our purchases came with a literary fortune cookie, to up the cuteness factor.

There’s lots to check out over the summer at The Biscuit Factory. Unfortunately inclement weather made their outdoor barbeque space a bit of a wash out, but on sunnier days their Artisan Socials (Wednesdays, 4-8pm) look like a good destination: outdoor drinks and a different foodie pop up every week. The Factory Kitchen (the less posh, more cafe space upstairs) is also getting in on the act with Sloe Sundays, where from 16 June you can enjoy a terrace gin bar (there is a covered space, so less dependent on the weather) DJ sets and botanical cocktails with your all-day brunch.

See you there?

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The Town Mouse Ale House

I’ve spent so much time at Northern Stage recently that I had forgotten there are other places to go in that part of the city. So after our jaunt to the Hancock Gallery, my friend S and I decided to have a bit of a wander. First up was a coffee and a scone at Quilliam Brothers, one of my favourite spots in the city, where S had tea, which enabled me to admire their lovely branded tea cups.

We had planned a bit of a walk but the inclement weather gave me an excuse to try a place I had walked past a few times and been keen on: The Town Mouse. Based minutes away from Haymarket in a basement on St Mary’s Place, it’s surprisingly light and airy for an underground space, aided by quirky but uncluttered decor. (As with so many of the spots round there – my old stamping ground – I spent half my time trying to figure out what it used to be. Veggies restaurant, maybe? I definitely recall there being a basement vegetarian restaurant on that street when I worked at Thorne’s – now Blackwells – as my friend C would sometimes meet me from work and we would have lunch there. The chip shop my friend S and I would pop into on our way home from clubbing before walking back to our flat in Jesmond still seems to be going strong, mind…)

It was surprisingly busy – though not crowded – given it wasn’t even 5pm (but hey, we were there, so who am I to judge). I’m not sure how much I would love it on a Saturday night, but then I rarely love anywhere but my sofa on a Saturday night, so that can’t be held against it. Certainly, on our visit it had much to recommend it.

A charming and friendly barman was happy to let us taste a few things before choosing – and struck just the right note for a pub like this, informed and interested (he patiently answered some of my questions about some of the drinks) without making you feel like a loser if you’re not an expert on rare brews. The stock was impressive (not that I’m an expert!) and it looks like the kind of place where ale aficionados will find plenty to love.

S likes IPA, I prefer lager, so I went for Northern Helles and he had a one of the barman’s recs, and we both enjoyed the place’s laid back afternoon vibe so much we could have happily stayed for more…

Meet the Makers at Fenwick’s Food Hall

I have blogged about Fenwick’s Food Hall before, and though I sometimes miss what it was before its super fancy revamp, it remains a parlour of delights. So I should have known I was taking if not my life at least my wallet in my hands when I decided to, ahem, ‘take a short cut’ through only to discover they were running a Meet the Makers event, where you could try the wares of some of the usual stockists – most of whom were local – and meet the people behind the labels. Well, I had to, didn’t I? For research.

North Chocolates

Drawn by the gorgeous packaging, I have been tempted by North Chocolates before. A local brand of small batch gourmet chocolate, made in Newcastle upon Tyne, all of their bars are gluten-free, vegetarian (many vegan) and the cocoa and cocoa butter used are sustainable and ethically sourced. The prices would match what you would expect from that kind of brand – around a fiver a bar – and they do a gorgeously packaged range called Icons, decorated with illustrations of some of the North East’s most recognisable images.

I got chatting to Bev Stephenson, who runs the company, and had a taste of the Milk with Smoked Salt, which I ended up buying, telling myself it’ll make a lovely gift for someone when, let’s be honest, it’ll end up being a gift for Future Me. You can buy the range in Fenwick’s Food Hall, and get more details here.

(Cyberman Angel from the Love of the North, in the Stack or Whitley Bay).

The Winery by Laneberg Wine

Next up was The Winery, where I spoke to Nick Lane, half of the team that run what is billed as Tyneside’s First Urban Winery (his wife Elise being the other half). I tried three of their 2018 wines: a pleasantly dry rose, and two whites: Solaris, an off-dry that was nice but less to my tastes than the Bacchus – which just won a Bronze award in its category, so I’m not alone in my praise. The bottles retail at what you’d expect for an English wine – about the 16-19 quid mark – so unless you are richer than me you won’t be buying them to neck after a bad day at work, but for a more grown up soiree, they would be a nice choice. The rose, especially, might convert those who think of rose as a cringingly sweet drink.

Hexham Gin – The Northumberland Gin Company

Next on my rounds was Peter at the Northumberland Gin company, who offered me a taste of Hexham gin. A nice, dry drink that was pleasant on its own (with a smattering of lemon peel) or with tonic, he also pointed out that those who like sweeter drinks can mix it to Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade to get a pink gin drink that tastes surprisingly like Turkish delight! Retailing at around 30 quid* a bottle – a bargain for small batch gin – this is definitely on my list for next time my gin loving friend T comes to town. (*ish. By this stage, I was starting to blur on prices).

Old Curiosity Gin Club

Also on the gin front, was this Edinburgh-based company which specialises in botanical gins which change colour as you add the tonic! I tried the Rose gin, which was nice but sweeter than I like my spirits, and the Lavender and Echinacea, which was more my speed, and which went from purple to a light pink when the tonic was added. As well as being sold in Fenwick’s, they run a mail order club (now there’s a subscription box I could get behind) and do lovely gift boxes if you are not sure which flavour to choose.

40 Kola

I’m not much of a soft drinks fan anymore – water, coffee or booze is my sacred trifecta – but I’d tasted so much alcohol by this stage I thought a soft drink was a good idea, so stopped off for a try of local cola makers, 40 Kola – two North East lads by the name of Kieran and Dan. A grown up, sophisticated take on cola, this is definitely worth trying. It’s less sweet than commercial brands, but without that ‘glass-of-wet-dirt-with-an-aftertaste-of-worthiness’ that plagues many of the smaller outfits. It’s not something I would personally drink a lot of, but I can imagine a cold glass on a warm day going down very nicely indeed…

Noveltea

The woman at this stand was so lovely I felt bad for not trying it, but I can’t stand the taste of tea. If you don’t share my unBritish aversion, they do a range of drinks that look great.

Hotspur Gin

I didn’t get a chance to try this or really talk to the guy manning the stall, but they do win props for their impressive stand, the gin is made in Alnwick and the bottle is certainly pretty so would make a good gift.

Punchy

I didn’t think to get a picture of these, but worth including because they do a range of drinks that are available with or without alcohol, so would be perfect for a party where you don’t want your non-drinking friends to feel left out.

All of the above are generally available in Fenwick’s – so why not give some smaller makers your support? And a huge thanks to all the makers who took time to talk about their products with me today!

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You can also support my writing by buying me a Kofi. Or hiring me to write stuff. Either’s good.

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Elevator Festival and BalletBoyz

Two shows in two nights for me this week. First off was my first trip to this year’s Elevator Festival at Live Theatre. Offering a mix of “new plays by rising talent” and talks about the state of the industry (including the future of playwrighting, and the role of women and the state working class representation on stage) – most of it very reasonably priced – it unfortunately runs the two weeks I am busiest in the year, so I’ve had to limit my attendance to a couple of shows.

One of these was Matthew Greenhough’s solo show about two young men whose friendship is torn apart by their opposing political beliefs over Brexit, It’ll Be Alt-Right on the Night. A sharp and funny piece, I enjoyed it, though it needed a little more polish in its performance.

Second up was Them/Us at Northern Stage, which was the epitome of polished, and which even I enjoyed, newbie to dance as I am. A performance that was particularly strong on the idea of male-on-male tenderness – something you don’t often see on stage – it was actually very moving even if I only had the vaguest idea of what was going on.

Since I was out with Young People (we met one of my companion’s friends at Northern Stage), we even went for drinks afterwards – at 10pm! on a Friday! Who even am I? – and ended up at a bar that is new to me, Alvinos. Apparently they do good cocktails, though I was sticking to wine as I was already pretty squooshed, and with 3 floors it’s deceptively large. We scored a place on the outside terrace upstairs and enjoyed some serious putting the world to rights before I staggered into a taxi outside and made my way home.

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The Herb Garden

It’s been about a year since I last visited The Herb Garden – that time, as a visitor to the city – so was nice to make a return trip, in the company of my lovely friends L & U. We started off with drinks at Brown’s, which is another place I haven’t been to in ages, then made our way along to the restaurant.

I found it pretty much unchanged (though the titles of the pizza specials were sadly a bit less fun than last time), which is mostly a good thing. A plentiful vegetarian selection (with multiple vegan options), friendly service and tasty food combined with a funky ambience to make for a good evening. (L’s calzone was HUGE). Admittedly, I will never understand restaurants with high tables (who wants to eat feeling like they are perched?) and the slightly warped wood of my table meant my plate felt a bit wonky, but the food makes it worth a visit. And where else can you see a rollerskating horse?

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A day trip to Edinburgh

After three weeks without a day off, I finally had some downtime, and headed up to Edinburgh to meet my friend K, who I haven’t seen in years. Edinburgh is only an hour and a half away from Newcastle – and the East Coast train takes you along some of the country’s most beautiful coastline, so it’s a pleasurable as well as a fast trip. The plan was that we would have lunch, do some culture, then have some cocktails before I headed back. And… we managed most of that. You can probably guess which bit got dropped…

I haven’t been to Edinburgh in years – last time was to do some research for A Vampire in Edinburgh, during my unfortunate homeless stint, when two of my Glasgow friends let me stay there when they were on holiday, so I took advantage to do a day trip to the city. I had forgotten quite how gorgeous it is – all those dramatic cliffs!

We started off with a wee wander round the Old Town. Edinburgh Press Club looked promising but we were too late for breakfast, and none of the sarnies appealed, so we settled for coffee then wandered some more. We had planned to do Mary King’s Close but were put off by the cost (nearly £16!) so had a wander around a nearby church instead. Lunch was a couple of wraps at old-school vegetarian cafe Hendersons, which had been much recommended to me, and after that we felt we could justify a cocktail.

I missed my chance to go to the new Ivy in Brighton – it opened just before I left – so was keen to try the Ivy on the Square. K and I are both fans of espresso martinis so started with them. Well-made by the charming and friendly barman, they were very rich and accompanied by a choice of syrups to choose your own (I plumped for Creme Brulee, K – more wisely – Amaretto). After that I plumped for something lighter – a champagne based drink – and then we decided that some shopping was in order.

A quick wander round Jenners and Harvey Nichols followed – while I love the architecture of Jenners, I found HN a bit bland, though I did buy some fancy pasta and a notebook there, partly cos I wanted to buy something. (K bought a Count Gracula garlic crusher, which looked enormous fun). We rounded off the day with cocktails at The Refinery, then headed back to the Ivy for chips and a last drink before I caught the train home – a fantastic day out, and home before 10? I could get used to this…