Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal

Yesterday I did another day trip to London to see a Betrayal in the West End (Yup, it’s insane that I can live here, and can afford to make two (advance booked, obvs) first class trips to London to the theatre a month and STILL save money on what I was paying in Brighton for rent.) I admit I booked the ticket as much out of FOMO as anything else: several of my theatre friends had seen it and seeing Tom Hiddleston seemed like the year’s ‘hot ticket’. But in truth, once I booked the ticket, the excitement started to wane: I’m ambivalent about both director Jamie Lloyd and about Pinter, and I’ve already see the play Betrayal (in the same theatre!) and I don’t love it as a play.

So I felt a bit of a fake, sitting in the theatre beside all the superfans in a ‘I guess I bought the ticket so I might as well’ way. (I’m not kidding: the woman next to me was an American who had flown over just to see the play, and had also been at the previous evening’s performance: the two German girls in front of me had done the same). Besides, the ticket had been expensive, so I might as well get the most out of it – nearly 100 quid, although admittedly for a very good seat in the stalls.

In the end, though, I was completely won over by the production. The sparse, stripped back staging really worked, and although the cast all felt too slightly young for the roles of jaded old marrieds who’ve been friends for decades, you could forgive that for strong performances (the tired old trope of comedy foreigner can get in the bin, but at least that was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene). Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton were both great, but it was Tom Hiddleston who stole the show: he delivered a beautifully nuanced performance that wrung both the humour and the heartbreak out of the piece, and the audience hung on every tiny gesture. (In fact, my main criticism would be that his charisma over-balanced the production: since the three main actors were on stage pretty much non-stop throughout, even when they had no part in a scene, all too often the eye was drawn to Hiddleston, standing stoically in the background, rather than what was happening between the other characters.

On top of it all it was a glorious London day – sunny and bright and full of character. (I popped into the Waterstones on Jermyn Street on the way, being passed by a man strolling through the sunshine yelling into his phone ‘I’m working from home today!’. Are you, my dude? Are you really?). I then strolled up to Liberty and spent far too much money in the stationery department before meeting my friends for drinks at the German Gymnasium.

London is always that dodgy ex who tries to charm you and make you forget all its bad points, and every time I go back it very nearly succeeds, but like your dodgy ex there’s always the warning sign: so my ‘I love London and why did I ever move?’ lasted only until I got to Oxford Circus and the Victoria Line was suspended and so I found myself crammed on a packed tube literally pressed bum-to-bum with a fellow commuter who had strangely and intensely warm buttocks. I mean, seeing Tom Hiddleston on stage was worth that – but only just…

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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 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.

Moving Parts Puppetry Festival

So despite a long week, headed off to try the delights of the Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival on Friday. Founded in 2017 and running every two years (at present), the festival runs for nine days and offers a range of shows across the city, from city centre parades to workshops and events, including an all-day free event in Ouseburn. Unfortunately, while I would have loved to have seen more of it, a slew of prior commitments meant I only managed to squeeze in a couple of shows. (Review here.)

The Seed Carriers by Stephen Mottram was probably what most people think of when they think of traditional puppetry: traditional jointed marionettes, a dark stage, the puppeteer mostly half hidden. It was beautiful to look at, intricately designed and oddly moving – it’s amazing how fast people humanise inanimate objects, and when bad things befell the poor puppets, there were proper groans from the audience. I was also excited to be trying out another new venue – Dance City – which so far I haven’t managed to visit. I’m no expert on dance, as you may have guessed, but it seems to have an interesting mix of shows, as well as hosting classes (there’s a barre pilates class I am keen to try), so I am betting I will be back.

Just round the corner at Alphabetti was Seaside Terror. As one of the main venues, Alphabetti was properly tricked out for the festival: the bar was full of puppets, there was a puppet caravan parked outside (and an outdoor, large scale puppet show was held as a taster before the main event), and I must admit I was easily tempted into buying a notebook at the cute little merch stall inside, manned by Kerrin, who I later discover is the artistic director of the festival (and who agreed to let me take his photo). (I also donated a ton of books to the theatre’s bookshop, so was pleased to clear some space on my groaning shelves).

I enjoyed this show more – I enjoyed the atmospherics and cleverness of Seed Carriers, but there is only so much I can handle without dialogue – though weirdly its seaside bawdiness made me oddly homesick for Brighton. I did end up chatting merrily to both some of the audience and, afterwards, some of the volunteers, which was a fascinating way to find out more not just about the festival but about the kind of shows people in Newcastle go to, and how they feel about the various theatres – that stuff always interests me.

Plus: I went home with a notebook. So – always a win.

A day trip to London to see Emilia the Play

My timeline has been full of praise for Emilia for a while now – its initial run at the Globe had all my theatre friends aglow, so when it transferred to the West End, I decided to take advantage of both reasonable ticket prices (£32 for a row C stalls seat!) and the fact that London is do-able in a day, and book myself a trip.

I’m glad I did. While I am not sure I would rave about it quite as strongly as some of its fans – the first half felt a little flabby to me, and the pacing felt a little off in the second (and this is after it’s been cut from its initial running time), it’s certainly a play worth anyone’s attention.

Although a treatise on women’s anger, it also manages to be funny, clever and playful – the furious ending had the audience on their feet, but there were plenty of laughs to be had. A more diverse (all-female) cast than I can recall seeing ever before in the West End were a delight (the show has an all-female creative team, too – even rarer), and it was refreshing to be in an audience that was predominantly women.

London, too, was delicious. Like a lover putting on its best face to impress its ex – it doesn’t want me back, but it wants me to miss it – the city was shining and bustling with energy, and I admit I had a pang. (At least until I met my friend for pre-train drinks in the German Gymnasium, and was reacquainted with the worst side of London, stuck next to a couple of braying posh girls with paint-scraping accents who complained at an ear-splitting decibel level and with zero irony about Americans being loud and stupid, before going on at length about what ‘good comic relief’ their Polish cleaner provided. There are some things about London I definitely don’t miss).

Emilia runs till mid-June – if you possible can, it’s worth seeing.

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