A trip to Liverpool

It’s been decades since I last set foot in Liverpool, so was delighted to have an excuse to visit when one of my friends relocated there recently.

Certainly, the city decided to show off its wares at its finest. It gorgeously sunny for my trip, and I managed to squeeze an awful lot into a short visit (aided by the fact the city is both very friendly and well sign-posted, so my usual ‘getting lost’ time was significantly reduced.

Day one I had a wander round the Walker gallery, which is just across from Lime Street station and was hosting a small but interesting exhibition called As Seen on Screen, besides housing an impressive array of art and sculpture.

I then wandered towards the Everyman Theatre, where my friend works, stopping for some much-needed food at the café next to the cathedral and a sit in the sunshine looking at the impressive structure and reading my book.

(This was also one of my favourite Liverpool exchanges: I went in as the café had finished its post-lunch rush so was winding down. Not wanting to hassle the man, I said he needn’t bother giving me a side salad to go with my lunch. “Oh, have a Tunnock’s tea cake instead, then,” he said, which is the kind of substitution I can get behind…)

A quick drink in the pleasant (though slightly dated) surroundings of the Everyman bar (all that black wood makes it look a bit 80s), my friend and I went along to another theatre – The Unity – to see a show she’d suggested, Wild Card Theatre’s Electrolyte.

Although it was well-performed and energetic, neither of us *loved* it – the story felt disjointed and unconvincing, and though it was clearly well-meaning in its efforts to highlight mental health issues, it could have done with a much tighter hand on the script. Still, the Unity is a great space, the staff were lovely and the drinks cheap – I’ll definitely return.

It was such a lovely evening that we decided to drink outside, so went to Kazimier for wine and chips, which we polished off in no short order before heading back to my friend’s place for… um, more wine and whisky. Day 2 was gonna be fun…

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Words Weekend – new festival coming to Gateshead

If you follow this blog, you may remember that I went to the Archive Symposium for Open Clasp recently, a local theatre group dedicated to the stories of marginalised women and girls, whose play don’t forget the birds was one of my theatrical highlights last year. (I was also lucky enough to chat to the company’s Artistic Director Catrina McHugh for an upcoming feature, which made me even more interested in what they do).So I was excited to hear that they will be screening their filmed play Rattle Snake at a new festival coming to the North East this December. Words Weekend is a spoken word festival that’s being held at Sage Gateshead 6-8 December.

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Although, to be honest the phrase ‘spoken word festival’ would normally be enough to have me jumping in the Tyne (don’t @ me – I’ve sat through a LOT of bad poetry by posh boys in my time), this actually looks great. Guests include Grayson Perry, Ben Okri and Kerry Hudson, whose book Lowborn I am currently enjoying, as well as Candice Carty-Williams, whose novel Queenie is on my wishlist (not least because it has one of the best covers I have seen in ages!)

Local talent is represented not just by Open Clasp, who’ll be doing a Q&A with the film, but also by Kema Kay, the charismatic young rapper/actor whose play Shine I enjoyed when it was at Live and who I think is a genuine talent to watch.

Even better, the festival has a strong focus on accessibility: of more than 50 events, 25% are free, and all are accessible and BSL interpreted. See you there?

Details here:

Down to Zero at Alphabetti and menopause and me

I am peri-menopausal. What does this mean? Well, while I am not yet in the throes of full-blown menopause, it’s certainly in the post.

How do I know? For a start, a year ago, my periods went crazy. Never the most fun – I’ve always struggled with the full range of horrors a uterus can chuck at you – they now threw wild unpredictability into the mix, arriving without notice on a gusset-flooding crimson tide that no euphemistically pretty ‘feminine hygiene’ protection could withstand, disappearing at a whim, or hanging around in an inconvenient balsamic vinegar drizzle that means you’re never completely on or off, your favourite pants are regularly ruined and you always have to carry supplies in your handbag. (You can imagine how this Russian roulette affects me given a chunk of my job is sitting through plays. You can tell most plays, like most films, are written and directed by men*, since few of them take into account the demands of a bladder wrecked by age or childbirth or how hard it is to concentrate on some wordy theatrical masterpiece when you’re more worried about the drama happening in your knickers than what’s onstage.)

Always prone to flushing, my face now goes red at the least change of temperature – external of internal – so I regularly look like I’m three wines in at the start of the night. My bladder is less ‘sensitive’, more occasionally outright hysterical. My moods are unpredictable, my sleep – never great – is utterly wrecked and I am epically tired all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME. Literally, every single moment of my life. It is, I can tell you, enormous fun. It is also enormously common. And yet, it’s so rarely talked about.

[*I should stress, before I go further, that all my comments here relate solely to cisgender men and women. I’m not qualified – nor would I presume – to speak on the trans or NB experience, which I can only imagine throws up even more complicated physical and emotional issues, especially given the current toxic climate, and upon which the harmful curtain of silence is likely even more damaging].

Menopause is having a bit of a moment, it’s true. There’s that speech in Fleabag. One of the morning TV shows did a whole week on it (a whole week! On an issue that will affect half the population. Truly, we live in blessed times.) But when it comes to daily life, we’re remarkably reluctant to talk about it, and that self-imposed ignorance comes with a cost. It’s a bit of a shock when you’ve been promised a period-free post-menopause to discover that your body throws its own closing down sale first, in which everything must go, including, apparently, the entire contents of your uterus. And yet, when I mentioned this to older female friends, they all just nodded sagely and said, oh, yeah, that happens. Well, hello, then, a little heads up might have been nice.

It’s an issue compounded in the arts, where older women are too often invisible or actively erased, and female experience is so often only shown through the lens of a male writer or director. Sure, we have our age icons, those women who seem to move through the process effortlessly and without any impact on their careers – Judi Dench isn’t begging for roles any time soon, I’m guessing – but too often the old First Wives Club quote still stands, that the only three ages for women are babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Theatre is all too ready to explore the myriad messiness of men, but shies away from giving women the equivalent interiority and complexity.

It was exciting, then, to be invited to see a night of women-centred theatre that talked openly about menopause at Alphabetti, which is fast becoming one of my favourite Newcastle haunts. Lizi Patch’s Down to Zero isn’t a play about menopause, per se, but it does centre on a menopausal woman, and is rare in recognising that while menopause can be utterly derailing, life doesn’t get put on pause while it’s happening, so you have to keep dealing with all the other shit as well.

It’s a smartly written, if unadventurous, production – only an hour long, too, which is considerate for all our middle aged bladders (though bold, I thought, to have a play aimed at women of a certain age having a soundtrack of lapping water (it’s set on a boat.) I wanted to pee five minutes in…) (Read my review here.)

In some ways more interesting were the response pieces afterwards, part of a series of works commissioned around the main show. I’m always in two minds about the idea of reaction pieces. I understand the reasoning behind them: they give artists a chance to try out shorter, less structured pieces of work in a low-risk environment, they give audiences a chance to experience things they might not have sought out, and they are a boost for the venue, since they create an interval where people will hopefully buy drinks, which are the lifeblood boost to coffers that venues like Alphabetti needs. But all of that has to be weighed against my pressing desire to be at home on the sofa watching Brooklyn 99 (Because I am TIRED ALL OF THE TIME. Did I mention that?)

But I am glad I stayed, as I really liked the reaction pieces last night, both of which were pleasingly short and compact, so I didn’t feel like my night was unnecessarily dragged out.

Poet Degna Stone’s Probably was a monologue about getting older that smartly addressed what it’s like to feel your chances running out, to doubt your past decisions and worry about your future, as well as what it’s like living as a Black woman in a world where white supremacy seems again in ascendancy, to literally worry yourself sick about politics and the planet.

Beccy Owen’s Fanny Magnet couldn’t have been more different, but both pieces drew audible sounds of recognition from the audience. There was slightly more audience interaction than I’m keen on – please, God, don’t make me sing at these things – but it was a warm and funny look at how openness and communication can lessen the burden of menopause.

The show runs till 29th June at Alphabetti (response pieces Tues-Friday). It’s Pay What You Feel, too, so you can get a night of theatre for a bargain price. Why not pop along?

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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!

An afternoon with Open Clasp Theatre

Although I had heard of Open Clasp in that vague sort of way working in theatre writing means you’ve sort of heard of everyone, I wasn’t that familiar with their work until I went to see their most recent play, don’t forget the birds – upon which, I was instantly converted.

A North East company whose motto is ‘changing the world one play at a time’, Open Clasp makes woman-focused work that aims to centre theatre in the lives of disadvantaged women and girls, doing so in a collaborative way. (…birds came about because one of the performers, Cheryl Bryon, had worked with the company on an earlier, prison-set piece Key Change, and the company both wanted to continue working with her and to explore life after prison, and how her incarceration and release affected her family, particularly her daughter. It’s a gorgeous piece – if it comes back, see it!)

The company is now celebrating an impressive 20 years, during which they’ve won a slew of awards and an MBE for Artistic Director and writer Catrina McHugh. Reflecting their ethos of openness and collaboration, they are now working with the university to archive their material in a way that means it can be shared more widely.

Yesterday was their Archive Symposium, a day of celebrating the company and allowing people to get better insight into what they do, which included mini-workshops, screenings and exhibitions. Held in the informal setting of the West End Women and Girl’s Centre, where the company has an office, when I arrived in the afternoon – work commitments prevented me from attending the whole day – it was in full swing.

Although the prevalence of post-its and felt pens gave it the worrying vibe of a team-building exercise, the variety of fabulous women – many of whom sported glorious amounts of ink and gorgeously vibrant dyed hair – looked thankfully unlike any corporate away-day I’ve ever seen. Friendly as they all were – I was welcomed by Catrina as I came in, who impressively remembered we’d sat next to one another at … birds – I admit I found myself suddenly a bit anxious about inserting myself into one of the little groups, who had clearly got to know one another during earlier sessions (gobby as I can be, I actually find it pretty stressful being among – and, oh god, talking to – groups of people I don’t know.)

So I decided to let myself settle in by checking out the multi-media exhibition Songlines that was playing in another room. At least then I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone straight away! I’m not usually a fan of multi-media – I’m the one who goes to a gallery, pops my head into any video installation, goes ‘hell no’ and wanders off to find real pictures. But though I went in merely as an anxiety-prevention measure, I was quickly drawn in to the stories of immigrant and refugee women who had relocated into the North East, talking about what the sea meant to them, how it featured in their lives, against a backdrop of a film of waves breaking on the shore that became oddly meditative. (You can read more about it and watch the trailer here.)

Revived – and also schooled a little, since what is a pinch of social anxiety when you’ve been listening to stories of women rebuilding lives in cities where they don’t even speak the language – I headed back to the main event. I talked to some of the women involved in the various projects (I was too nervous to go over and say hello to Cheryl and Abigail, who were talking to people about ...birds, though I did manage to at the end, as I really wanted to tell them how great I thought they were in the show. They were of course lovely.)

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A fascinating short film, Traces in the Script, looked at the physical process of working on a show – down to the notes and reminders scribbled onto printed scripts. Since I am both a nerd about pen on paper – I write all my own books longhand first – and it focused on the one show I’d seen, I loved it, but even if you weren’t familiar with the show, it was a great insight into the thought processes of the performers. A cake and a glass of fizz later we were all mingling and chatting, and I got to talk to some of the women involved both in the theatre company and the archiving project – something I am hoping to follow up with a feature at a later date. All in all, it was a really interesting day with a company that is doing things that are both creatively compelling but also socially important – reminding us that stories and the theatre are for everyone, not just a privileged few. Here’s to the next 20 years.

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.

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.)