Review: Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Wednesday November 23 2016

Three Stars

The life of Harriet Martineau is eventful enough to provide material for several plays. At her peak, in the mid-19th century, the prolific writer, social commentator and proto-feminist outsold Charles Dickens. Queen Victoria was such a fan that she invited Martineau to her coronation. Given that her own mother believed that her daughters should never be seen in public with pens in their hands, Martineau’s success as a writer is all the more remarkable.

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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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