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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Shine at Live Theatre

Last week was a quiet one, as I was still ill for most of it and determined to actually spend time recovering, rather than pretending I was fine and going on as normal. I did drag myself from my sick bed on Saturday to see the new show at Live, Kema Sikazwe’s solo show Shine. Energetic and uplifting, it could do with a bit of a polish but it definitely marks out Sikazwe as a talent to watch: he was incredibly charismatic, both likeable and funny but also managing the darker parts of the show – which dealt with racism and isolation – well.

You can read my review here, or a longer and more detailed piece by Lauren Vevers here. The show is touring to Edinburgh and at a mere 70 minutes is worth your time.

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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More from Elevator Festival

Despite this week being insane with deadlines, I did manage to squeeze in a trip to see a double bill as part of Live Theatre’s Exeunt Festival.

I admit, I was more drawn by the idea of the first play, West End Girls, than the second, Wank Buddies – the title had me worried it would be tediously edgy – but in the end though I enjoyed them both, the second actually won me over slightly more. It was sharp, funny and short, which are pretty much my favourite things in a play – though West End Girls, about social housing in Newcastle, did give me an unexpected burst of nostalgia when two of the characters went to the now-demolished Broken Doll, scene of most of my college drinking…

Review here:

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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 Shy Manifesto at Live Theatre

Another week, another show – and last night was off to see one-man show The Shy Manifesto at Live. To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the show – though I suspect, to be fair, I am not the target audience. Young actor Theo Ancient put in a sterling performance, but I felt too old and too working class to be that engrossed in the self-dramatising dilemmas of some (semi)posh white boy, and it seemed a bit of an odd fit for Live. Still, there were a decent amount of laughs, and it was short, which is one of my favourite things for a play to be…

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Live Theatre New Season Launch

Last night’s visit to Live Theatre started with more drama than I would have liked. All the Metros were off, so Heworth Metro was in chaos as people desperately tried to get on a bus or find a taxi (ah, it was like being back in London!). The situation was made worse by the fact that a young man had been taken very ill, and when I arrived was lying on the floor of the station in what looked to be a state of semi-consciousness, so the Metro staff were not only having to contend with lots of commuters trying to figure out how to get home, but the disruption of an ambulance arriving and a medical emergency. (Props to them for managing, and doing so with politeness and sensitivity. At one point I heard one of the staff gently ask the fallen man, “Is there a girlfriend or a boyfriend we could call for you?” No weighted pause between the two options, as if the latter might be some reluctantly acknowledged choice. It occurred to me, fleetingly, that it is in tiny gestures of inclusion and kindness like this that the world is saved.)

Eventually, I managed to get a taxi, and made my way to the New Season Launch at Live Theatre. Drinks and food in the Undercroft were followed by a presentation by AD Joe Douglas on the coming season, which is packed full of goodies.

We were treated to a snippet from one of the plays in the upcoming Elevator festival, W*nk Buddies (asterisk theirs), the title of which caused much hilarity, and some music and discussions. Local lad Kema Sikazwe, a charismatic young performer, did a rap from his upcoming show Shine, about his search to reconcile his sometimes-conflicting heritage (he was born in Zambia, but raised from early childhood in Newcastle). At the other end of the age scale (I’m sure they won’t be offended for me saying that!), two former members of Lindisfarne celebrated the return of last season’s hit Clear White Light with a couple of songs. Live Theatre’s Writer in Residence Chinonyerem Odima read an extract from her new show Princess & The Hustler (a show she winningly described as based not only in politics but “Black Girl Joy – which I don’t see enough of”). She also talked about the project she is doing with Northumbria University students, Land: Beating the Bounds, which comes to the theatre in May, and two terrifyingly confident* members of Live Youth Theatre talked about the programme’s 21st birthday celebration, Turning Point.

(*Young people scare me. I am Officially Old).

Overall, the coming season has much to be excited about. Following Approaching Empty, which comes to Live fresh from the Kiln in February, the ‘big’ shows are a mix of smart revivals – such as The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, a play Douglas had a big hit with when he was working in Scotland – and new writing (Princess, Shine). There are some on-the-pulse political pieces: DUPed, about Ian Paisley and the DUP, is sadly more relevant than you would want it to be; and Locker Room Talk puts a fresh spin on gendered politics.

Douglas said that, alongside politics, which is baked into the bricks of Live Theatre, one of the season’s themes was ‘growing up’. Fitting neatly into this are teen comedy Drip, and feminist piece Ask Me Anything, for which we have been promised the theatre will be transformed into a teenage girl’s bedroom, while #BeMoreMartyn: The Boy with the Deidre Tattoo, by Hope Theatre (who did the well-received Gypsy Queen) looks at a young life cut short, celebrating Manchester Arena bombing victim Martyn Hett.

One of the things I am most keen to see was It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. This got fantastic reviews at the Fringe and when I tweeted about it last night produced a flurry of excitement on Twitter – it’s great to see shows which did well at the Fringe not only get another bite at the cherry, but tour further than the London-Edinburgh nexus which is all too common.

So – all in all, lots to be excited about. You can check it all out here:

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