Friday, December 4, 2015

Turning Pages - #review - Live Theatre Newcastle

Turning Pages – six short plays -Live Theatre

3rd December 2015

Hearing these young writers’ voices – whose six plays have been produced with professional crews, actors - and their boundless imaginations is a treat not to be missed. All of Turning Pages’ plays were written by thirteen to fifteen year-olds from Furrowfield School in Gateshead and Redhouse Academy in Sunderland. The pieces have been developed as part of the Write Stuff project.
I had caught three of them before at a read-through last year but it was wonderful to see how diligently they had been polished.
The set design from Alison Ashton is also tremendous with a white sheet thrust down to reveal a daunting pile of chairs and cabinets towering from above – suitably spooky for what’s to come – while the main stage is ingeniously, fluidly transformed from one play to the next.

The first piece, ‘Memories of the Sea’ by Amy Connor (and directed by Rachel Glover), is a quiet sensitive look at the relationship between a young boy – around fifteen – and his unwell grandmother as they sit at the coast and reminisce about their long-gone grandad. It’s a subtle and slow-burning piece that stands out in its serious portrayal of grief and family bonds. Adam Donaldson and Judi Earl are perfect, their performances harnessing just the right balance of delicacy and humour.
We’re plunged straight into madness next with Reece Weightman’s ‘Scary House’ directed by Tracy Gillman. In this lively and well-orchestrated piece, Chris Foley plays a young lad dared to enter a sinister house only to find the always terrifying Chris Connel – who, this time, is more so as he’s dressed as a clown. He’s a clown with a twisted backstory and a cupboard full of nastiness. Connel goes from frightening to jolly in the flick of a switch and ultimately we end up feeling sorry for him… almost.
Following that lovely dark nonsense is another slice of grim humour, this time with a much more devastating streak. ‘Could It Be A Tuna?’ by Nathan Beckett – director: Jonluke McKie – is the blackest of comedies as a mother (Christina Berriman Dawson) with a five-year-old child (Tom Booth) dying of a brain tumour begins to lose her mind in a flurry of narcissism. Desperate to be the centre of attention, she begins to self-publicise and push her poor son to one side. It all ends with a hysterical act of revenge towards her unseen husband. Dawson and Booth tackle the event’s most challenging piece with aplomb, with Dawson’s hilarious mania balanced against Booth’s gentle naivety. It is stunning that piece this complex, cynical and developed could come from such a young author.
The last act before a brief break was Leonnie Lartey’s ‘Soulless and Goalless’, directed by Rachel Glover. This was an old-fashioned spooky story with a brainless singer, complete with pillows which have her own face printed on them, pitted against a creepy doll ghost found in her new house. The plot is beautifully intricate and the clever staging/lighting/effects also produced some gasps. Leanne Golightly’s haunted ‘star’ and Natalie Jamieson’s pale Victorian ghost – both fully developed characters – work together with eerie precision, leaving us all with a cold chill running up our backs.
The dark tone wasn’t over just yet as Lee Harrison’s ‘Doctor Death’, inventively directed by Paul James, showed from the title alone. Matt Jamie took the humorous star turn here as the mad first-aider working on a building site who entraps Michael Lockhart’s boss into a game of ‘The Walking Dead’, which we know won’t end well. There lies the slight problem because we did know what was going to happen right from the beginning and the piece perhaps could have been improved with a bit more tension and mystery before we found out. As it was, the dialogue was still fine but as Lockhart put together the pieces over missing staff members we were way ahead of him. However that’s often how horror works so it’s not really a problem, and there were many funny lines.
The night drew to a close with a figurative fireworks display in the gorgeously inspired and magically arranged ‘Never Never Land’, written by Lauren Dickson and directed by Tracy Gillman. Chris Foley played his second young lad of the evening, this time even younger, who received a bedtime story from grand-father Donald McBride. And what a story. With the use of a myriad of toys and plenty of creative staging, Foley and McBride bring to life the tale of a future world (which, for those characters, was actually in the past) in which plastic surgery has evolved into a youth pill, which keeps you spry forever; the only problem being you can’t have children. Some people still crave the companionship of children, so the few that are lying about are sold into a sort of adoption where people can enjoy the experience of ‘parenthood’ for an hour. There are very few of these kids left. But what will the future be without any children? A revolution must be mounted. To find out what happens, you’ll have to go see it but this wonderful Peter Pan-inspired fable is enchanting and certainly bears out the importance of embracing young imagination.
Although you may soon forget how young the writers were.

Worthy of note is the Arts Award scheme that is also ongoing at Live with young people exploring all sides of the art world from photography to filmmaking and short stories to song lyrics. Fantastic, valuable work all round. And as for Turning Pages, it is tremendously gratifying and offers hope for the future to see young writers encouraged in such a way, with perfect productions of their work by a top-notch cast on the main Live Theatre stage. The show runs until Saturday; head along there if you’d like a glimpse of the future.

Lewis Cuthbert

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