Review: Ask Me Anything – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Thursday February 6 2019

Three Stars

Back in the pre-internet age it was de rigueur for teenagers seeking advice on everything from medical matters to sex and relationships to write letters to the agony pages of magazines such as Just Seventeen. If this process sounds quaint and unwieldy, it at least raised the prospect of a single, authoritative reply rather than the myriad provided by any Google search.

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Review: The Shy Manifesto – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Friday February 1 2019

Three Stars

It is fitting that Callum, the protagonist of Michael Ross’s new solo play, cites Alan Bennett as one of his literary and lifestyle role models. The 17-year-old sixth form student is the post-millennial descendant of one of the loner narrators of Bennett’s Talking Heads series of monologues. What he tells us during his 80-minute torrent is far less significant than what he leaves out.

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Review: Clear White Light – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Friday October 26 2018

Three Stars

The elevator pitch for Clear White Light is certainly attention-grabbing: a contemporary retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher set in a psychiatric unit and featuring the songs of Alan Hull of Lindisfarne.

 

The production — the first to be mounted by the new artistic director of Live, Joe Douglas — is an odd hybrid of enjoyable, if hackneyed, gothic drama, scripted by Paul Sirett, interspersed with dynamically staged musical numbers performed by a live band alongside members of the acting ensemble. The idiosyncratic premise makes sense in the light of Hull’s experiences of working at St Nicholas Hospital in Newcastle as a trainee psychiatric nurse in the Sixties. He escaped into Poe’s short stories during quiet night shifts.

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Review: Broken Biscuits – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Thursday October 13 2016

Three Stars

A lack of musical talent or training has never prevented the young from dreaming of (and, in certain cases, achieving) rock stardom. An inability to play or write music in no way deters Megan (Faye Christall), the spirited protagonist of this new comedy-drama from playwright Tom Wells.

 

Overweight and at times overbearing, Megan is the leader of a trio of teenage misfits that also includes shy computer geek Holly (Grace Hogg-Robinson) and sweet gay pal, Ben (Andrew Reed), the only boy ever apply to study textiles at the local sixth form college. With the three friends on the cusp of leaving school, and tired of languishing at the bottom of the social pecking order, Megan spots a chance to transform their uncool image when she notices a drum kit for sale in the window of a charity shop.

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Review: The Savage – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Friday July 8 2016

Four Stars

As Mary Shelley would testify were she here today, some fictional ideas are so strong that they take on a life of their own that even their creator can’t control. A case in point is David Almond’s story, The Savage. Initially conceived as a short monologue for television, the poignant tale of a teenage boy grieving for his dead father kept tugging at its author’s sleeve, demanding that he expand the original idea, first into a novel, and now into a compelling piece of drama.

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Review: What Falls Apart – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Tuesday 28 April 2015

Two Stars

Torben Betts’s new political drama begins promisingly enough with an encounter between a former Labour minister (Nigel Hastings) and the young barman of a smart but deserted Newcastle hotel (Kevin Wathen). Once considered a firebrand of the political left, Tom Savage lost his seat after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has now been parachuted into his party’s northeast heartland. But his campaign isn’t going to plan. As the reaction on the doorsteps has veered between indifference and downright hostility, Tom has increasingly sought solace in the bottom of a wine glass.

His late-night conversation with the barman gradually exposes the rift between the career politician and the people he professes to represent. Oxbridge-educated and metropolitan in world view, Tom is patronising in his response to the self-educated, Blake-quoting northerner. “I admire more than anyone the articulate, intelligent working class,” he tells his companion at one point, unaware that the barman has an unflattering selfie on his phone, taken with a drunken Tom the night before.

Betts’s play, like its protagonist, runs into trouble with the arrival of a mysterious fellow hotel guest (Zannah Hodson), who claims to be the politician’s biggest fan. As the night wears on and both of Tom’s drinking companions are revealed to be not quite what they seem, the recriminations fly and the characters start to feel more like mouthpieces for contrasting political ideologies than real people.

Hodson’s character, a right-winger whose views would make Katie Hopkins blush, seems particularly sketchily drawn. Meanwhile, though Max Roberts’s production features some dynamic moments, particularly towards the end, it struggles to find a coherent tone, abruptly shifting from gentle satire to black comedy and melodrama.

The script is so up-to-the-minute that you imagine the playwright was still tinkering with it on opening night. The play contains references to the prospect of an ultra-hung parliament and the arrival of the SNP and Ukip as significant players on the British party-political scene. Yet Betts takes far too long to arrive at his central theme – the long shadow cast by the Blair government’s role in the Iraq war – leaving a nagging feeling that the scenario would have been more effectively realised with some judicious editing.
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