Miracle! An Opera of Two Halves

While Black Friday raged through the towns and high streets of the north, I spent the dark and stormy evening enjoying a much more positive example of community spirit. Miracle! – two years in the making – is the operatic tale of Angelo (Jonathan Cooke), the seraph propelled down to Earth to help put Sunderland FC at the top of the league. Music was composed by Marcos Fernandez and conducted by Marco Romano while the libretto came from Newcastle-born David Almond, perhaps most famous for the novel Skellig.

The choral arrangements and orchestral music were stirring and exhilarating, accurately pinpointing and expressing the frequent feelings of ‘despair, rising hope and belief against the odds’, to quote the programme, but what came across most impressively was the sense of local pride and unity. With such projects there is always the danger that the result can seem provincial and of no relevance to a wider audience. This was keenly batted away by talk (well, singing) of the universal themes of love and passion. The experience of desperate longing and eventual gratification can be appreciated by anyone, football fan or not. Certainly the booming resonance of Cooke during a piece in which he repeated ‘What can I do?’ was wonderfully moving and evocative.

It is also worth noting soprano Caroline Kennedy whose Veronica, the down-to-earth love interest, was gorgeously quirky and projected a believable frisson with Cooke’s Angelo. Ian Priestley’s character work switching from the part of God to manager Larry Trench was very effective, without having looked at the programme I didn’t know he was playing both, but while his baritone was beautiful sadly I could only make out half of his lyrics from my seat near the back. Considering his twenty years’ experience, fully evident in the voice, this must have been an issue with the acoustics.

Rather samey video footage of football fans was deployed at the back (near a gate to represent The Stadium of Light) to little effect, but this does lead to a nice device involving angelic wings near the end. Director Annie Rigby along with production designer Gayle Playford created an intimate world of fans and players, vying against each other for the same goal within the tight space. At times the action felt repetitive and lost my interest but I’m unsure what else they could have done. The recurring appearances from the excellent and excitable youth choir certainly kept up the energy. Pew seating is never comfortable but thankfully – and cleverly – there were only forty-five minutes’ either side, without extra time. That may have been the extent of the wit as the lyrics themselves often failed to scale the heights of beatific poetry surely expected of opera.

Or perhaps it merely didn’t appeal personally because of my lack of interest in football… But it should have drawn me in, should it not? It is true that you, an audience member, must do a bit of work if you are to enjoy a work of art – that patience and understanding can pay dividends, leaving you with an experience that will follow you for the rest of your life, informing and enriching all your views on future works – but Miracle! did not seem to have that much to offer beneath the surface of gorgeous music, for the sustainment of which Music In The Minster must be praised and I hope they carry on for years to come. Ultimately, despite the fact it didn’t turn me on to opera or supporting Sunderland, the warm feeling left in the hearts of those assembled in church on that cold and dreary night is surely accomplishment enough.

You, Me and Everything Else

In 1977, space probe Voyager was launched into space. Its job was to explore our solar system, all the while taking photographs and readings to send back to NASA on Earth. Although this all sounds quite extraordinary to begin with, Voyager also had another mission – onboard is a golden record, which includes music from various cultures, greetings in different languages and sounds of the earth. The idea was for this to serve as a massive “hello” to whoever – or whatever – finds it.

You, Me and Everything Else is a theatre show based on the true-life story of this mixtape being put together before the launch. It follows the lives of those involved in the project and shows that a great deal of love, support, creativity and infidelity existed within the group. While the initiative brought a huge amount of excitement and positivity into the lives of some of its team members, it also managed to ruin the lives and relationships of others.

The story is certainly a complicated one, but Camisado Club – the theatre group behind the production – told it well. The small, intimate space of The Customs House studio theatre made the show seem quite private and as if, although we were playing witness to the turmoil within the lives of a group of strangers, we weren’t being too intrusive.

A particular notable aspect of the production was the set-up of the stage. The basic but functional set allowed the cast to move from one scene to another without little trouble and well-crafted props, such as a model of Voyager, provided sufficient context throughout.

The performance itself was also incredibly tight, with every actor and actress being exactly aware of what was going on at any one time. Despite the jumps between scenes and the somewhat complicated narrative, not one of them missed a beat, always delivering their lines perfectly on cue and with a great deal of commitment.

Voyager’s story might be a brilliant one in itself, but its the people aspect that makes it worth putting on a stage. Those behind the ‘mixtape of humanity’ had lives, jobs and relationships outside of the project. They all had their own personalities and tales to tell and that’s what You, Me and Everything Else is all about.

You, Me and Everything Else was, all in all, a fantastic show about an amazing venture. Exploring a side of a true story that little has been written about is a brave thing to do. However, Camisado Club stepped up to the challenge rather wonderfully and the show was a feat of their own that deserves much esteem.

Into Thin Air

Formed in 2010, Precious Cargo has been introducing the world to a variety of theatre moods and styles ever since, in an attempt to bridge the gap between the tastes of regular theatre-goers and those new to the form. Having performed Into Thin Air in Eastern Europe earlier this year, the piece proved a hit at the recent Edinburgh Festival, prior to this two-night stint at Newcastle’s Northern Stage.

Written with Alison Davies, Into Thin Air explores modern day pressures and the inevitable conclusion that follows if one refuses to hop off the day-to-day treadmill. Through a series of short, overlapping scenes, the piece follows the story of an ambitious girl, attempting to make her way in the world of work. There are questions behind the motive – is it her ambition or one merely dumped upon her by society, regardless of the consequences?

Overworked, the tightrope she has been balancing on eventually snaps. Her dedication to the cause has all but alienated everyone close to her in the outside world, and when she reaches rock bottom another question comes to the fore – will those she has shut out still be there when she needs them most?

Through its avoidance of lavish stage props, Into Thin Air places the focus right where it should be, on the characters and whatever comes spilling out of their overused minds. There’s a playful tension almost from the first line and it remains poised throughout, with a sense that anything could happen at any given time. At an hour’s duration it’s a whirlwind ride through a chunk of personal chaos, and the swift pace is perfectly measured, reflecting the life-on-a-rollercoaster feeling that comes from simply taking on too much and only stopping when your mind and body force you too.

With all the characters played by two actresses and some clever twists of humour throughout, the piece is easy to relate to and fabulously done. The many moods detailed are always well-timed and surprising, with an underlying sense of unease that matters are heading towards breaking point. The skill and originality of the writing and performance give the play an accessibility for all. Its subject matter is provoking, not only as a lesson to the individual as to what is actually important in life, but as a warning that the life imposed upon us by society is not necessarily the right path to take.

Hamlet

Big black clouds swirled above Roker Park as I joined the audience gathering for this fourth and final alfresco performance of Hamlet by Theatre Space North East.

I looked around at several, shall we say, “optimistically dressed” punters and crossed my fingers inside anorak pockets. I hoped for their sake the rain would hold off for the next two hours.

It didn’t. The heavens opened as the performance commenced and varied between stair rod and medium force power shower, leaving only the final scene rain-free.

Although one third of the audience were unprepared for the weather, the actors and crew knew what to expect after torrential rain soaked their opening night.

But then, Theatre Space North East is used to working with the weather. Its motto is “any space is a theatre space” and the company specialises in utilising Sunderland’s parks as well as churches, hotels and bars. Events are free but audiences are encouraged to donate monetary tokens of appreciation.

Previous summer seasons have included Shakespeare but the company struck gold with this year’s Hamlet. Despite being set in Denmark, the 400 year old play says so much about British culture, with countless phrases still part of our everyday language.

Theatre Space North East writer and actor David Farn adapted the play for Roker Park and ensured the play’s juicy themes: concurrent political and familial unrest, grief, death, love, guilt plus madness versus sanity were laid out for the cast to get their teeth into.

And how. There’s not space to list every actor but the entire cast deserves praise. If I must single out actors then lead Jacob Anderton captured Hamlet’s grief and diamond-sharp intelligence.

Luke Maddison’s Horatio was a touching reminder that loyalty and enduring friendship can still exist, even in a “rotten state” like Denmark. Lynn Lawson, Alex Goodchild and David Farn excelled as various supporting characters.

Dale Jewitt’s dual roles of Claudius and ghost of his dead brother meant we never forgot we were witnessing the tragic consequences of fratricide, incest and deposition rather than a rightful coronation and joyful remarriage.

This open air Hamlet was faithful to the theatre performed in Shakespeare’s time: using natural light and attracting an interactive all-age audience. Children, retired folk and a wheelchair user were led from scene to scene by Theatre Space North East crew in their distinctive orange hoodies.

Following the murder of Polonius, daughter Ophelia walked through the audience dispensing flowers and singing distractedly. As actress Kylie Ann Ford handed me a small bunch and delivered a line, I bit my lip. For a few seconds I was interacting with a grieving daughter and spurned lover.

The final scene was genuinely thrilling given our proximity to the action. I missed Queen Gertrude’s death throes because I was willing Hamlet to win the sword-fight. This shows the power of the performance. I studied Hamlet at school and university. I knew the protagonist was going to die but that didn’t stop me wanting our tragic hero to triumph in front of Roker Park’s bandstand.

I have one gripe. The sound of passing cars diverted my attention during scenes performed near the park’s entrances. The further we walked into Roker Park, the more like Elsinore it became.

Cars aside, this was an engrossing, impressive theatrical experience which highlighted Sunderland’s heritage and talent.

Theatre Space North East will be performing Treasure Island in Mowbray Park and Twelfth Night in Barnes Park this summer. See www.theatrespace.org.uk for more details and don’t forget to take your brolly!

Launch Day

The Late Shows, this region’s annual cultural crawl across Newcastle and Gateshead, has woven a brand new strand into its cultural clippie mat.

FRESH North East is a dance artist-led initiative which gives participants the chance to perform work in progress and receive constructive audience feedback. This year FRESH teamed up for the first time with The Late Shows to produce a double bill of new dance work at Bensham Grove Community Centre.

The first performance, Launch Day was choreographed by local dancer, Kristin Kelly-Abbott. She was inspired to create this piece by visual artist Alexander Millar’s distinctive “Gadgies” paintings. These popular, instantly recognisable images are based on the working men of Miller’s Glasgow childhood and the Geordies he observed when he moved to Tyneside aged 16.

Kelly-Abbot’s research into shipbuilding history also fed into Launch Day and her five dancers brought the Gadgies to life, aided by two instantly recognisable Millaresque props: a set of ladders and a bike.

The Gadgies on canvas, like Reg Smythe’s cartoon anti-hero, Andy Capp, never show their faces. Launch Day’s performers moved from trademark Millar hunched shoulders and flat caps covering eyes to dancing towards the audience with faces in full view.

Launch Day’s narrative was loud and clear and the pace felt natural leading us to a climax recreating Millar’s work, The Angel. This piece is a comic homage to Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North: Gadgie with a set of ladders for wings.

Kelly-Abbott’s very own Gormley Gadgie took flight in front of us. The performance captured Millar’s humour and moved me to tears as I watched what I believe was the long life and death of the Gadgie; the demise of shipbuilding on the Tyne and Clyde and the resurrection of both Working Man and the North.

This powerful and authentic performance was enhanced by the soundtrack: the industrial clang of Kraftwerk and Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler who, like Alexander Millar, was born in Glasgow but moved to the North East.

Launch Day is more than a response to a visual artist. It is a beautiful work and deserves to be performed regionwide and beyond.

The evening’s second piece was Talk to the Waves (how they are beautiful and then gone) by Makros Dance. Choreographed and performed by Rosie Macari and Francesca Willow, it was created in response to the short life of American slam poet and scientist Christian Taylor who died last autumn aged 20.

Talk to the Waves was created in collaboration with Taylor’s friends from the performance poetry scene in Texas and aims to explore “what legacy might be.”

This was an intense performance by the duo which made good use of both floor and wall to express pain, exhilaration and exhaustion.

The soundtrack enhanced the piece, especially the recording of Christian Taylor performing his work, Alfred Nobel.

In the closing moments, one performer sat down and read from a book. I was in the second row of the audience but missed the words. I was frustrated. Was I meant to hear them or not?

This sums up my response to the piece. I felt I missed some of the nuances and therefore lost out on understanding the work as a whole. This is a pity as I wanted to understand everything about Talk to the Waves. I also wanted to hear more of Christian Taylor’s voice and ideas.

Makros Dance plan to take the piece to America and perform it in front of the community it was created with and for. It will be interesting to hear audience feedback from Texas and beyond.

Learning How To Die

Learning How To Die is Luca Rutherford’s debut show, and it’s a raw one. Raw, because the grief which inspires it is intimate, present and recent. But raw also in the sense of ‘underdone’, or in need of further processing.

On one side of the stage, Luca speaks to us about her father’s terminal cancer. She is literally at home here – she has a large wing-back chair to play with, and she slips easily into the furniture-clambering, chair-arm-perching, loose-limbed sprawling of a child. It is a real pleasure to watch her inhabiting her body, playing with the physical opportunities presented by her props. This is also where her dad is, in the form of his recorded voice. His comments are a true source of warmth and humour in the show, and Luca’s wordless facial responses to him are beautiful, unaffected and moving.

On the other side of the stage, Luca tells us about a close friend, who for some reason is introduced anonymously. The story of ‘She’ is constructed from an accumulation of mundane details, a reportage approach that is intended to crescendo into a shocking dénoument when all that normality is suddenly cut short. This is the newest section of the script, written after a real and tragically unexpected bereavement, and this is also where I could most clearly hear the influence of script advisor Chris Thorpe. The structural technique of ramping up a series of factual observations can be a very effective one, especially when delivered with Chris’s own excoriating energy. I felt that Luca strove towards tension but didn’t quite manage it, so the section relied heavily on the heavy beats of the sound design. I came away thinking that with more time and space, her authentic artistic voice may prove to be quite different from what was shown here.

And it is time and space that is most needed. Luca I think needs more time to find herself within this piece, both physically and vocally. The pacing is uniformly fast throughout, and I found myself longing for some pauses in the words, some andante among the allegro. I also ached for some language that was lyrical to act as counterpoint to all the factual descriptions and statements. This is my bias as a poet, of course, but I do believe that spoken word should have some kinship to the poetic, and this show is very much unleavened prose. I honestly think Luca could lose a lot of the script without losing any of her message, or at the very least go slower and pause more, and in the process gain the space for audience and performer alike to feel her truth more deeply.

The Town Meeting

Inspired by Kiruna, a town in Sweden that had to move 3km east in order for mining in the area to continue, The Town Meeting is a performing research piece which explored how people make decisions when the fate of their town is in their hands.

On arrival I’m handed an envelope with some secret information “your brother, an environmental scientist, is very concerned about the impact of mining” along with a Little Rikjord Big Ideas badge to wear. The village of Little Rikjord has a decision to make, do they give the go-ahead for the government to move their village for mining to continue or to put up a fight and lose the main employment avenues within the town.

The performance asked participants to form a representative board of people, which brought up the age old question of whether or not a board can ever be fully representative of the people it is serving. In the North East of England it’s not so difficult for people to get into character when it comes to mining, the heritage of the area seems to swing people in defence of mining communities. This was particularly evident within the post show discussion, however worth noting that these days are in the past for the North East. What modern day issues do we face that have similar local and national implications? Do we let chain supermarkets take over small, local businesses, yes they may provide lots of jobs but what does this mean for the lives of locals?

Cap-a-Pie’s theatrical approach to research is a fun way to engage members of the public in conversations that can often seem one dimensional, futile or boring. However when participants are given a role to fight for this brings about a sense of meaning to the questions posed and the fact that there is something at stake, their fictional town, means something depends on their actions. I personally found that by the end of The Town Meeting I knew what I would and wouldn’t fight for if I was faced with a that type of decision, it’s like when you flip a coin, the moment the coin is in the air is the moment when you know what outcome you actually want.

The Town Meeting is touring to multiple other venues and communities throughout April and May, the performance research piece is well worth participating in as an experience of having a voice heard. It will be interesting to see how different communities with diverse backgrounds respond to the stimulus. If you are interested in participating in a future event the dates are below, alternatively visit the website: http://www.cap-a-pie.co.uk/

29th April – The Cheviot Centre Wooler – 01668 282406

30th April – Theatre Delicatessen North, Sheffield – Tickets Online

6th May – Amble Development Trust – 01665 712929

9th May – Newbiggin Maritime Centre – 01670 811 951

18th May – Customs House, South Shields – 0191 454 1234

THE FRIGHTS

A woman and a man, waiting. They appear to be a couple, but are alone in their thoughts. The silence between them is unbearable.

The Frights by Louise Taylor explores the aftermath of traumatic events: the comedown from extreme experience. What’s it like to live with the memory of being kidnapped and tortured? What’s it like to live with the person remembering it?

Taylor’s first full-length play uses a familiar group of characters, two couples from differing social backgrounds – but unlike many first plays, The Frights commendably sidesteps the familiar flatmates on a sofa scenario. Instead, Taylor disconcertingly places her characters in a waiting area, each couple hoping that their ticket number will be called. It’s a hyper-real place with extraordinary waiting times and a queuing system like a less organised version of Argos. Above all, it’s a room where private, confidential conversations take place in public, because the rest of the queue is conveniently somewhere off-stage; if it is actually there at all.

Taylor intersperses the action with flashbacks. Hanny, a charity worker in an unnamed war-zone, has just been released from imprisonment. She relives brief but brutal details of her ordeal, interludes which unfortunately don’t add very much to our understanding of the people in the play. They seem to more about creating an impact on the audience than the characters.

Perhaps Taylor is emphasising the idea that Hanny is now undergoing a second interrogation by those around her – both loved ones and strangers. Once Hanny sells her story to the papers, she becomes public property. The play seems to be saying that, as hungry consumers of the news, we are just as guilty as Hanny of succumbing to the media dollar.

However, I may be over-interpreting, since the play’s intentions are not always clear. That’s perhaps an indication of how many ideas the writer throws in the air – and perhaps too, of how many of those ideas actually land. For instance, the waiting room is a vague space, its purpose never really explored sufficiently to allow the audience to understand it, either with certainty or ambiguity.

The writer isn’t helped by a production in which many physical aspects are indistinct: for example, the waiting room’s ticket counter display is hidden from half the audience (the kind of sightline issue that more touring experience will no doubt resolve). More crucially, the actors are constantly making unnatural, stagey moves around a space that is supposedly filled with people queuing. Perhaps director Ali Pritchard wanted to give this dialogue-heavy piece some much-needed visual variety. More focused direction would have helped characters to have a stronger relationship with the fictional space they occupy.

A hugely positive and active force on the burgeoning Newcastle fringe scene, Alphabetti Theatre is here producing its first full-length play. There isn’t really enough development of the material to sustain the 70 minute running time. There’s an interval, even though there are no tensions or suspensions to justify a break in the action.

Taylor’s central idea is strong, but the themes tend to get buried beneath meandering dialogue. As a result, the play doesn’t ever really ask the questions that its themes set up. The bafflingly sudden ending leaves the intentions of the play dangling in the air. Leaving questions open can be a good thing, but you have to ask them in the first place.

The play is driven by dialogue. It never pauses for breath or for action. The dialogue is circular in nature, often returning to the same point. Because the conversations don’t develop, the dialogue is overwritten, whilst characters are underwritten.

Alphabetti clearly want to produce ambitiously. And it’s reassuring to see a company led by no less than 4 men commissioning a female playwright. I hope future commissions from promising new voice Taylor will marry this ambition to stronger dramaturgy and more focused direction.

Jumping Puddles

Jumping Puddles is a thoughtful, moving and poignant piece of theatre. It is hard hitting at times, yet at others it is light hearted and funny. The play tells the story of two ordinary sisters, bickering and fighting as only sisters can. Yet below the surface their life is far from ordinary; their mam is ill in hospital and individually the sisters have their own problems that they must deal with.

The play has been created by Open Clasp in collaboration with Frantic Assembly, a physical theatre company. Open Clasp specialise in making theatre from a female perspective. They use collaborative methods to create very real, thought-provoking and inspiring theatre based on true stories and experiences. Jumping Puddles is the result of a project with 162 young women from marginalised communities in the North East and Liverpool; it gives these young women a voice, one that deserves to be heard.

An innovative set design, we meet the sisters as they are unpacking boxes in their home, moving boxes strewn across the set labelled bathroom, Grace’s room, kitchen, shoes. Then as the youngest, Anna, sets off to school we are transported with her as the bedroom is transformed into a classroom with the rolling up of duvets, the moving of chairs and the appearance of a projected clock. Here we see her struggles at home replaced with struggles with bullies, her sexuality and the pains of growing up. We see how social media both helps and hinders these struggles, informing Anna about topics such as waxing, yet leaving her open to attack at all times.

From the older sister Grace’s perspective we learn about the pressures of growing up, of having a boyfriend in prison, of going out clubbing underage using fake ID, getting drunk and being put in a vulnerable position which leads to being felt up by a guy in the club. We watch her struggle with the responsibility of looking after her sister whilst trying to maintain her freedom.

Throughout the story the portrayal of the individual characters is very strong and convincing. The cast of four play all the characters believably and we share their emotions as the story around the sisters develops. Drama is interspersed with choreographed movement, spoken dialogue with silence. Musical interludes enforce emotions where words are not needed, through expression and movement. The synchronicity of movements in some of the sequences is very strong and hypnotic, giving intensity and depth, particularly in the scenes involving the school bullies.

Jumping Puddles is a brilliant dramatisation which gives the audience an insight into the unseen fears, hardships and insecurities that are hidden from sight by many young women, even from those closest to them. It highlights strength of character and growth, and makes us think again about the people around us. Open Clasp theatre have given an important voice to the marginalised communities, successfully opening our eyes to the realities and hardships of life.

Northern Platforms

On March 5, Dance City once again played host to an annual showcase of the best dance talent that the North East, Yorkshire, North West and Scotland have to offer.

Northern Platforms is an event that focuses a spotlight on new dance works and the next big ideas in performance across the North. Made up of 10 to 15-minute-long pieces, it offers up-and-coming performers the chance to show off their skills in front of a supportive audience.

Among the five short performances were two that were created by people working within the North East.

Neville Campbell, a choreographer based in the region, brought an excerpt of his new work to the stage. Entitled S…m…other, the piece looked closely at the relationship between a mother and a family of sisters. The House of Bernard Alba, a play by Garcia Lorca, was the starting point and a short period of research informed the work.

Combining beautiful choreography with thought-provoking dialogue produced a powerful piece, which is especially important considering the topics that were covered. Campbell worked alongside poet Michelle Sally Clarke and used poetry as a choreographic influence. The aim was to explore some of the complex issues that those of dual or bi heritage may face while growing up in a multicultural society.

The talent of the young dancers who played the sisters was undeniable. The eight girls worked wonderfully together to create the impression of a family unit. The routine began with a section that saw them perform a short sequence alone, one after the other. All dressed quite formally in black and white, they’re clearly a team. Although, the individual strength and brilliance of each dancer remains quite clear throughout.

The majority of the dialogue in the piece comes in the form of a poem recited by the mother of the girls. It effectively added to the drama of the piece and told a story that would have been difficult to convey through dance alone. The excerpt of S…m…other was beautiful and emotive and it’s almost guaranteed that Campbell’s entire work is just as fantastic.

Also born in the North East was a second performance called Land. Produced by dance company Fertile Ground, it’s a playful piece performed by a young duet from the dance company.

Not only was the routine created in the region, but it also serves as a celebration of what the Tyne and Wear area has to offer.

Having drawn inspiration from landscapes and the like, it paints a fantastic picture of what it’s like to live in the area and make memories along the way. And, although it was the shortest piece of the night, Land was full of heart.

Both of the pieces from North East choreographers were enough to make an audience proud of the area. With some startling talent on display and a routine that was created in celebration of Tyne and Wear, Northern Platforms was an event that gave the North the recognition it deserves.