Friday, October 18, 2019

I have met the enemy (and the enemy is us) - Review - Byker Community Centre

I have met the enemy (and the enemy is us)
Byker Community Centre
17th Oct 2019

A Common Wealth/Northern Stage production

Staged in the upper room of Byker Community Centre, this is a theatre experience with a difference. There is no stage, and no seats, we are invited to move around the space, interact with the actors and each other, but not to touch anything -unless specifically asked to do so... I enter the room, soft music is playing and there are structures with lights dotted around. "Hello, I'm Alex, how are you? Have you been to an arms fair before?" Within minutes I have been greeted by four people, and given advice on personal security by two of them, invited to look around, sample the refreshments and enjoy... Audience participation is not my thing - unless you count booing at the baddie in Panto, but I go with the flow as best I can. I hope I won't be called on to do more than make small talk.

This is not going to be your average theatre show.

In the prologue of the Arms Fair, we are introduced to the latest technological killing machines by a series of salesmen with slick sales patter where names such BAE and Rolls Royce are dropped into the conversation. And then the narrative moves to the more personal stories - of Alex, a British soldier, veteran of the Afghan conflict, Mo'min, a Palestinian from the West Bank, an actor, now living in London, and Shatha, an artist in Yemen, who appears via a pre-recorded video. They tell of their own experiences of war, of air strikes, of guns and bombs. Each one told from a different perspective, each one very personal. Each one painful. And each one the direct result of British arms deals.

Their stories are enhanced ad illustrated with the strange ticking light box props. These it transpires are metronomes. There are seventy two of them, representing the seventy two Eurofighter jets sold to Saudi Arabia and used in Yemen. The ticking of the metronomes echoes the Domesday Clock, ticking down to the destruction of mankind.

I Have Met The Enemy is hard -hitting, political theatre. It does not pull punches. But it is also compassionate and human, even as it highlights the inhumanity of the arms trade. These are real people, and their experiences are real. Their losses are real. Their fears are real. Their stories draw you in, you are delighted by the thought of Alex's mother walking her dog in Wales, of Mo'min out with the sheep and the horse, and of Shatha dancing at a wedding. But, they pull no punches - just as you settle into the stories, a gun is levelled, or a grenade is thrown, or an airstrike hits. Blood mixes with jasmine flowers.

It raises so many issues, asks so many questions, and leaves us uncomfortable, thinking about the consequences of war, and our part in it.

You can meet the enemy at Byker Community Centre until Saturday 26th Oct.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Vicar of Dibley - Review - People's Theatre

The Vicar of Dibley
People's Theatre 
2nd Oct 2019

The People's Theatre have chosen a crowd-pulling TV favourite for the first show in the main theatre this season. This stage adaptation of the Vicar of Dibley offers some key moments from the original series, while the developing romance between Alice Tinker and Hugo Horton provides the thread hat holds it all together. This makes it into a cohesive play rather than a series of funny sketches.

As always with an television adaptation, the cast are faced with the dilemma of reproducing beloved characters on stage. There is little room to put their own stamp on the characters for fear of alienating the audience, so it seems to me it must take a different approach to the acting and directing. Luckily, the original writers of the Vicar of Dibley created a set of the most eccentric characters. Each one has a foible which essentially defines their character. This eccentric band of villagers are more like caricatures and if the actor gets that foible right, then the rest is plain sailing. Happily, People's team have this spot on. All the favourites are there, quite lovingly recreated, from unconventional vicar Geraldine Granger right through to the dippy Alice Tinker and hilariously stuttering Jim Trott.

The large People's Theatre stage is perfect for the zoned staging which allows characters to move seamlessly from the Vicar's house, to Horton Manor, to the Church (for those all important Parish Council Meetings!). Each set area is lit individually, to ensure we focus on the scene in hand while some very funny freeze framing lets us know that a change is on the way...full marks for holding the pose!

It's impossible to pick out one performance over another -  each one is hilariously accurate in the portrayal, but I did love the trio of Tony Seghal as Jim Trott, Mike Smith as Frank Pickle and John MacDonald as Owen Newitt.   There were plenty of guffaws and giggles from the audience throughout - and obviously the knock out scene is Alice's Wedding. No spoilers - you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate its beauty!

It's fun, it's silly and it is an hour and a half of escapism - which is heartily needed at the moment. The full auditorium is testament to the love we have of our sitcoms. The laughter during and the chatter afterwards are testament to another great production at the People's Theatre.

The Vicar of Dibley runs until Sarurday 5th October. I recommend booking tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. It will tickle your funny bone.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Wasteland - Review - Northern Stage


Northern Stage 

25th Sept 2019

Wasteland is Gary Clarke's interpretation in music and dance of the rise of the rave music scene in the 90s. In aftermath of pit closures we are given a glimpse into the lives of a father - the last miner - and his son as they each try to cope with the empty prospects left to them by the destruction of the mining industry. 

The Last Miner sinks into alcoholic despair while his son finds an escape in the euphoria of the illegal rave scene - losing himself in music, dance and drugs. The father and son don't always see eye to eye, they fight often, but all they have is each other. there is conflict, but there is also affection - and this is movingly illustrated in the final scene.

This is more than dance piece, it is a piece of social history. The contrast between the miners with
their male voice choirs and brass bands, clutching their UB40s and the manic energy of the youth with their manic, bass beat music is stark and telling. Yet the hypnotic, trance-like dancing is just a different form of escape from reality to that of the miners.

The historical context of the story is explained with projected newsreel scenes showing the closure and destruction of a pit, the men leaving and the iconic pithead building being destroyed, and later footage of the break-up of an illegal rave by the police, and the supercilious voice of a newsreader describing the scenes. I was stuck by the similarity between these scenes of police intervention and the those from the picket lines during the miner's strike.

The dancing is energetic, manic - as it should be - and at times painful - Alistair Goldsmith as the
Last Miner contorts his body into shapes that echo the agonising heartbreak of the losses that pit closures brought - not personal but national. A way of life, was destroyed, but also the livelihoods of the following generations.  The beat of the music is relentless, a form of escape, but perhaps one with no real exit.

I found the show incredibly moving. Though I lived through the rave scene era I was not part of it - too conservative (with a small "c" and timid) but I do remember it - and I remember the miner's strike and the sense of desolation that followed. The rave culture was a reaction against that desolation and depression. I don't think we have found a way out of either state yet.

Emotional and emotive stuff. Find out more here

*Photographs by Joe Armitage

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Blackadder Goes Forth - Review - Royalty Theatre

Blackadder Goes Forth
Royalty Theatre 
23rd Sept 2019

Kicking off this year's season with Matthew Hope's adaptation of Blackadder  Goes Forth, the team at the Royalty have chosen a play that packs a punch in more ways than one. This satirical look at the first world war rattles through a season of Blackadder in just under two hours, presenting key scenes in a series of vignettes. It has elements of just about every type of comedy, from slapstick and bawdy farce, through to high end intellectual wit. It is at once very funny, and heartbreakingly dark.

The roles are demanding for the cast - quickfire repartee and tongue twisting wordplay, combined with physical humour mean that delivery and timing have to be spot on for it to work. And of course, these are well known and much loved characters for the British public; portraying them on successfully stage is a whole other challenge. Thee is always the danger of mimicking the TV characters rather than bringing them to life in their own way. Would the cast and directors be up to such a challenge? There was quite a bit of speculation in the foyer as to whether it would be achieved.

First impressions as we entered the auditorium were encouraging - a selection of war time songs played us in, and the curtain raised to reveal the set - the typical trench dugout was perfect.

And the cast did rise to the challenge. Jacob Hughes as Blackadder, had just the right level of crippling disdain for his fellow soldiers, who were - with exception of Capt. Darling, and Lord Flasheart -  completely oblivious to both his disdain and his cutting sarcasm. Alex Parkin-Goodchild was suitably ingenuous as George. His scene as Georgina, describing his date with General Melchett is a classic and almost stole the show from Private Baldrick, however Lee Wilkins recitation of "War's a funny thing" and "German Guns" may just have edged the balance back in his favour and his treatment at the hands (and foot) of Capt. Blackadder elicited sympathetic gasps from the audience.
James Errington explodes onto the stage as Lord Flasheart and successfully lowers the tone with his rampant libido and huge personality.

John Appleton and Andrew Barella both gave excellent supporting performances as  General Melchett and Capt Darling. The General typically bombastic upper class military and completely insane and Darling, obsequious, self-serving and underhand and yet still in the final scenes we felt sympathy for him, ironically double crossed by his eccentric superior officer. Of all the roles Capt Darling is the most understated - the humour of this character is much more sublte, conveyed through body language and facial expressions, and could easily be lost among the mayhem of rest of the crew.

Newcomer to the Royalty, Michael Alexander was able to try out his German accent as Baron von Richthoven - arch enemy of Lord Flasheart and as Brigadier Smith the undercover spy. I actually liked him best as the Brigadier - quietly funny as he spied on the hospital inmates.

I did feel for the two female characters - Emma Thomson as Bob and Olivia Bowern as Nurse Mary - as they did seem to be there purely to provide the eye candy in a very "blokey" scenario, which is a shame because other Blackadder females have been stronger characters.

Lorna Breeze's direction has produced a play worthy of the fourth incarnation of Edmund Blackadder. The cast were clearly enjoying the experience on stage (we did note Baldrick's near corpsing in the second act, he held it together well!). Lots of laughter from the audience throughout and we were suitably subdued in the final scenes which were emotional, and very well executed.

The general consensus after the curtain came down was that the team had indeed risen to the challenge. A great start to the new season at Royalty Theatre.

Blackadder goes forth until Saturday 28th September. Book a ticket.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Toast - Review - Northern Stage

Northern Stage
Tuesday 17th September

Starting with an intentional pun, I certainly felt as warm as the titular foodstuff as we all waited in the foyer having being delayed from entering the auditorium for nearly half an hour due to what I overheard was down to technical problems.
On entering the room I was greeted with the welcoming, comforting smell of slightly burnt toast which was nice and just the right start to a show which was filled with multi sensory evocations.

The stage adaptation of Toast, written by Henry Filloux-Bennett, is based on chef and food writer Nigel Slater's best selling memoir. (Slater layedw played superbly by Giles Cooper.) It spans the years of Slater's life from a nine year old, up to a teenager before he moves to London and begins to fulfill his dream.
I will admit that I am certainly not a foodie or someone who particularly enjoys cooking so as the young Nigel tells his story in the first half of the play, set in the kitchen where he and his mam make food, and where there is a lot of talk about recipes, and descriptions of food, I did start to wonder whether it was beginning to be a bit lost on me.

This was obviously very important though, to show his relationship with food from helping his mam at a young age and was used as the main setting throughout. In doing this we are told of events in Nigel's life - the loss of a parent, a change in family dynamics, moving houses and schools, first jobs and sexual awakenings.

Set in the 60's the stage was stunning in its colours and design. Added to this were the bright costumes, the "of the time" hairstyles and the kitsch singing and dancing which all brought the show lavishly to life. The soundtrack including the brilliantly over the top comical scene where Talking Heads Psycho Killer was played were all perfectly chosen.

What I enjoyed the most was the inclusion of smells and taste. As well as the aforementioned toast smell we were treated to others during the show including a scene where the actor cooks on stage. Also passing out sweets to the audience at times throughout the show was a great touch allowing us to taste some of the things that were being mentioned.

The noise of lots of rustling of sweet wrappers was different but fun and inclusive.

There was a lot of humour in the show including Nigel's various lists of things, his father's opinion on gender appropriate sweets and the first time trying the exotic spaghetti bolognese for a family meal. It is also very moving and touching and beautifully told, without dwelling too long and becoming over sentimental.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Toast (even as a non foodie) and I will certainly never look at a Walnut Whip the same way after that one particularly saucy and funny scene.

The show is at Northern Stage until 21st September.

Belinda Bekki-Winter

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Iris - Review - The People's Theatre

People's Theatre
10th Sept 2019

I saw Iris when it was first performed at Live Theatre and I remember it as a darkly funny, emotional and tragic piece of theatre. Going along to see it again this week, I did wonder if it would have the same impact - after all, I already knew the plot with all its twists and turns, so there would be no surprises. But, written by Alison Carr one of the stalwarts of  The People's Theatre, this is a play that was coming home. It was bound to be something special.

A play that explores family and relationships, the nature of motherhood, love and hate, responsibility, abandonment, guilt, success and failure, it covers a huge spectrum. And performed in the studio, with a cast of just three, and with some of the action taking place within arm's length of the audience it was always going to be intense.

Two sisters have just buried their mother - Iris. Julie the elder has been away for many years, and had a difficult relationship with Iris, while Ruby, the youngest has been very close to Iris; perhaps too close. On the day of the funeral Julie disappears from the wake and returns later, drunk, with a man in tow.

Emma Weetch plays the older sister Julie - a mess of contradictions, desperate for some human contact yet rejecting any show of affection or sense of connection when it is offered. She is scratchy and awkward and at times downright abusive. But there are cracks in her armour that begin to spread and widen as the play progresses.

Stephen Sharkey gives a deceptively understated performance as Gerry, the unfortunate man caught up in the middle as the two sisters fight and spit a each other like cats. Equally desperate for human contact but in a completely different way to Julie, he hides behind an array of bad jokes and astonishing facts on almost any subject - like a walking encyclopaedia. He offers advice for every situation sounding as Ruby puts it "like a self help book". Of the three characters, he is the most likable and yet also the saddest and perhaps most tragic with his doggedly optimistic veneer hiding a lonely and sorrowful life.

Sarah Mulgrew plays the younger, damaged teenager, Ruby. Like Julie , she is damaged emotionally and psychologically, but Ruby is also physically damaged - having lost an eye in a childhood accident. From her first appearance on stage Sarah Mulgrew exudes a mix of angst and apathy and teenage antipathy. Though all three actors gave brilliant performances, Sarah was the outstanding performance of the night for me - she was completely convincing in her role.

Though I knew what was coming I was still entirely engaged throughout the play - anticipating some of the events and recognising and remembering others as they happened. The second act almost had me in tears as the truth of the sisters situation began to be revealed. it was a highly charged, emotional experience.

An excellent start to the new season, Iris plays until Saturday, and is sold out.  If you have a ticket, you are in for a rare treat - take your tissues. If you don't have a ticket, get your name down on the waiting list and hope someone else cancels!

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Three Shorts -review- Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle

Three Shorts
Alphabetti Theatre

Three writers. Three directors. Three short plays. A triple bill of short plays by writers Elijah Young, Sam Neale and Allison Davies, presented as part of the Just Write artist development scheme. Directed by Karen Traynor, Natasha Haws and Stan Hodgson these selected scripts have journeyed from rough drafts to fully formed pieces, and are now brought to life by a talented cast and creative team.
Containing sensitive issues and themes these plays kicked off with a simple two hander a bitter sweet relationship between a straight couple spanning over twenty years, we see the ups the downs and the various complexities of their somewhat abusive relationship, starting at the end and working backwards via flashbacks. Set in a bedroom throughout the dressing feels realistic without being too cluttered. The acting is strong and we'll emoted throughout.

 The second play was set after a shift in a local strip club with bouncer Sharon and stripper Amy. The two drunk co workers are seeking a taxi home after a rather boozy post shift session. Sharon is older and has problems at home, Amy is struggling at work and believes in conspiracy theories, maybe as a coping mechanism. The chemistry between the two is good and there are many funny moments where I actually laughed out loud , yes the combination of drama and comedy is a fine fit and the dialogue seems realistic and not something dis similar to things I've witnessed on nights out , yet interesting all the same. My favourite of the night.

The final play is an emotive story between a father and daughter and her struggles at work in a job she clearly doesn't really want. Three characters with two actors Tess (Miss Barnes) her father and a concerned police officer. Showing very much the struggles of juggling being a carer and a worker and what happens when it all gets too much and things go wrong. Dementia / alzheimer's is highlighted quite well and there's a bit of misdirection here and there, but it's a solid enough piece. All in all an interesting set of short plays.

On till Saturday the 7th September.
Pay what you feel.

Frank Cromartie Murphy