A Thousand Splendid Suns

Back at Northern Stage last night – yes, I live there now – to see their production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. A powerful adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s book (which I hadn’t read), it certainly packed an emotional punch – the women sat next to me were openly weeping by the end – and as ever I enjoy seeing a story built around the lives of women. (Link to review here).

 

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However, the real treat for me was after the show, when Production Manager Chris Durant kindly gave me a tour of the set. I met Chris when I did the fantastic workshop tour a few weeks back, where I saw the set of Suns being constructed. Impressed by his knowledge and passion, I interviewed him for a feature – I’ll post the link when it’s live – which gave me a fascinating insight into all the work that goes into what we see on stage.

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Seeing the completed set in situ – first as an audience member then from backstage – was an education. Having seen it in scattered pieces of plywood, the transformation into fully blown set was impressive. It also really brought home how important lighting is creating a mood. Lit by Lighting Director Simon Bond, the set had a warmth and vitality that made it look alive – without it, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s epic construction is almost eerie, pale as a moonscape. (It also made me, a Lifelong Clumsy Person, admire the actors even more, as they had to negotiate getting on and off and moving around such a bulky set, sometimes in burkas. I’d have fallen off a ladder or down a trapdoor or something before I even made it onto stage. That said, given my acting abilities, any audience would be grateful for such a mishap.)

As a lifelong theatre lover, I’ve always appreciated the nebulous magic of the stage – to get a peak behind the curtain at all the nuts and bolts that make that magic possible was really enlightening.

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Northern Stage New Season Launch

Back at Northern Stage for the second time in two days, this time for their New Season Launch party. A presentation hosted by BBC’s Newcastle Alfie Joey showcased some of the season’s upcoming shows, with some ‘turns’ (as they say up north) from some of the performers, video clips and on-stage interviews with some of the creatives, then a chance to mingle over drinks in the bar.

It was a fun evening, though I thought the format of the evening could have been improved. Joey was a personable host, but the line up of interviewees skewed very heavily to white and male, which isn’t really representative of the season (which could definitely do better in terms of racial diversity, but certainly isn’t as pale and pasty as this made it appear). (In fairness, when I mentioned this afterwards, they did say some of the women they had planned to have on to speak had had to cancel. But still – it’s 2019, folks. Do better.)

 

The shows themselves are a great mix, and lots to look forward to (and, mercifully, involve a lot more female creatives than was evident from the launch).

Tentpole shows include the Christmas special The Snow Queen, which Newcastle folk are already excited about (I was chatting to a couple of women in Alphabetti the other week who were already planning their trip!) It’s directed by Mark Calvert, who did last year’s A Christmas Carol and written by Laura Lindow (who couldn’t attend the evening but gave Calvert a statement to read). Lindow directed one of my shows of last year, don’t forget the birds, so I am properly excited to see what she can do on a large stage. (EDIT: an earlier post mistakenly credited Laura with writing rather than directing birds, and she graciously pointed out that was actually Catrina McHugh. Apologies to both for the error!)

Other big shows include Toast, based on the Nigel Slater book, which is already successfully touring to great reviews, and a fresh take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, done apparently in the same style as the theatre’s hit War of the Worlds (which I didn’t see as it was before my Grand Return).

 

A music-infused version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also looks like a good night out, and though I can’t say I’m much of a Matt Haig fan, if you are you’ll probably go for the show based on his book How to Stay Alive.

There are also a lot of exciting shorter runs. My old faves Frisky and Mannish are back in town (they are a RIOT. Go see them!) and Split Britches, who I saw in Brighton and was hugely impressed by, bring Unexploded Ordnanaces (UXO) in September. A Friendsical musical keeps things light, and getting Travis Alabanza’s acclaimed show Burgerz is a real coup for the theatre. Daniel Kitson and Jason Byrne are on the schedule, and Umar Butt’s Alex and Eliza looks fascinating. There’s also of course a huge amount of fun kids shows, including a Merchant of Venice aimed at children and a Christmas show for very young children (4 and under – who tend to be an under-catered for group) Wolf.

Dance is also well-represented. Gary Clarke Company’s Wasteland looks at the impact of industrial decline and its surprising inter-relation with rave culture, while at the other end of the scale, balletLorent returns with a fairy tale show (with an original story by Carol Ann Duffy), The Lost Happy Endings.

My personal standouts:

Although there’s an awful lot of the above I am keen to see, big standouts for me were I Have Met the Enemy (And the Enemy is Us), which will be premiering at Byker Community Centre and has been co-created by Common Wealth, with the input of local residents, with whom Northern Stage has been doing extensive outreach work (I am hazy on the exact details, but watch this space). Importantly, this will be cheap – two quid – for Byker residents to attend, so it’s not just about shipping in a Northern Stage audience so they can feel good about getting out of their comfort zone.

There’s some quality LGBTQIA+ content. Curious Festival is hosting some work there in July (link here to the festival programme) and the House of Ghetto: Black Pride photos which were already in situ in the gallery downstairs were stunning. A Spectacular Drag Storytime is aimed at younger audience members and their families, while Rent Party is inspired by the New York tradition of throwing fabulous parties to make rent, and looks a hoot. (Hoot is a thing we say now. I watch Brooklyn 99.)

 

I have been trying to catch Bonnie and the Bonnettes on stage for a while now. They’ve done many shows at Alphabetti, but they always seem to clash with some major deadline or something else I have booked, so I’m excited to see their show And She, and liked the preview song they did at the performance.

And I SIMPLY HAVE to see Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of), an all-female retelling of the famous novel from the servants point of view. Not only are writer and director Isobel McArthur and Paul Brotherson Glaswegian, so I already love them (I spoke to McArthur, who was a delight, in the bar afterwards and we bonded over the fact we went to the same uni), but also the things McArthur was saying about how she approached the show made it clear it was a smart, feminist production, and one that looks like it pushes all the right buttons for me. (Plus, it’s already been a smash in Glasgow, and if you can take Jane Austen to a Glasgow audience, you’re doing something right.)

Tickets are on sale today. What are you waiting for?

(Below: one of the stunning pieces in the Black Pride exhibition.)

Deeds Not Words

I was at Northern Stage last night to see Deeds Not Words, a show commissioned to commemorate the 2018 centenary of (some) women getting the right to vote in the UK. It was a dance production, so not massively my thing: I’m not that informed about dance (though I’m always impressed by it, having no coordination myself) and I often find myself struggling to figure out what’s going on, or wishing there was a more obvious narrative.But it was an impressively hard-hitting piece about the indignities and damage women suffered in their struggle to gain the vote – and a reminder that it’s our duty not to squander those rights.

A busy week and then a wall

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.

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Bicycles and Fish and What Girls Are Made of

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?

Behind the scenes magic at Northern Stage

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.

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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