It’s been a pretty crazy month in April, but I have also, for most of it, been pretty ill. Last week my usual, ahem, failsafe plan of powering through and ignoring it did what it always does: works until it didn’t, when my body finally said enough and a three-day migraine wiped the feet from under me. So this week, work aside, I plan to take it easy: lots of green veg, lots of rest, lots of naps and nights in.
I did manage to do some fun stuff last week, though. Saw Avengers Endgame, a little movie you might have heard of, and went for cocktails at Beelim House again. Went to another gig in the Cluny – this time Cluny 2, which I liked a lot less, since it seemed to have been set up with no thought to the sightlines, and I’m never that fond of being in a basement. Still, it was to see Simone Felice, who my friend L is mad about (she was right at the front of the stage, while I sat at the back and felt a bit sorry for myself). While I am not totally converted, it was a good gig and we met him afterwards (I shamelessly insisted she took a photo with him), and he seemed very nice.
Yesterday I was back at Northern Stage to see Isle of Brimsker, a lovely wee play by Frozen Lights, a company that specialise in theatre for people with profound and multiple disabilities. It was a really well-done show: thoughtful, clever and performed with bags of charm, and I am pleased that Northern Stage is making such an effort to engage wider audiences.
But now, this week? Just lots and lots of naps.
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?
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.
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…
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.
Another day, another show! This time a trip to see Bizarre Love Triangle, a verbatim play about OCD that is being shown as part of Brain Awareness Week. I must admit OCD is a subject quite close to my heart, as a couple of my friends suffer from it, as did an ex-flatmate, and if you’ve ever seen it up close, you realise fast it’s far more than just ‘being tidy’.
The play was sensitive, often surprisingly funny and handled the subject with care, though the ending came so abruptly I was left a little surprised that it was over. (God knows, it’s not often I think something should be longer, but it definitely could have done with more of an actual ‘ending’.) Read my full review here.
Bravo to Northern Stage for putting on such a small but important show (and hosting a discussion afterwards).
Another theatre trip this week, to a play I have been dying to see – Beth Steel’s mining drama, Wonderland. This is the third ‘heavy industry’ play I have seen at Northern Stage – the others being The Last Ship and The Last Seam: you can guess the theme from the title.
Wonderland covers much the same ground: the miners’ strike, and the effect it had on its community. It took me a while to get into it – the first half was overlong – but it grew into a piece of real power, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it.
Read my full review here.