Alphabetti Newcastle: Bye Bye Basement!

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 12th March, 2017

When I think of Alphabetti, I think of “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line:

Up a steep and very narrow stairway.
To the voice like a metronome.
Up a steep and very narrow stairway.
It wasn't paradise...
It wasn't paradise...
It wasn't paradise...
But it was home.

Except that, at Alphabetti, it’s down a steep and very narrow stairway and the voices are anything but metronomic!

More or less opposite Newcastle Central Library in New Bridge Street West, there’s a multi-storey car park. To its right, there’s a set of blue gates which lead to a rather seedy-looking narrow alley between two buildings. There are a few seats scattered around and a bucket of sand for cigarette ends and, on the right hand side, a door. Going through that door, you turn right to go down that “very steep and narrow staircase” and you enter the basement theatre that is Alphabetti.

It holds about 50 people in varying degrees of comfort—no two seats are alike and some are easier on the bum than others!—and it can be a bit chilly. It’s very reminiscent, in fact, of many an Edinburgh Fringe venue but thankfully, unlike many of the Edfringe underground spaces, it is not damp. And it’s a great place to be, with an equally tiny but very good value bar and a second-hand theatre bookshop.

Its programming includes new writing from both new and established writers, spoken word, comedy and music.

The Basement is now no more. It was understood that its lease would be temporary and that, sooner or later, the whole building would be demolished. That day has now come and the evening of Saturday 11 March 2017 saw the Bye Bye Basement party, a “good old traditional knees up”.

Alphabetti actually began in 2012 in a room above a pub, The Dog and Parrot, in Clayton Street West. Set up by Ali Pritchard, who remains the modest but hugely impressive driving force behind the venture, it followed a similar programme to its later incarnation but didn’t make a huge impression on the Newcastle theatre scene—except among a few cognoscenti (among which, I regret to say, I was not one)—and it left there in September 2014.

Help from Arts Council and Sunday for Sammy, a charity concert running regularly in memory of NE actor Sammy Johnson who died suddenly while out jogging in 1998, and a crowdfunding appeal, which raised £2,500, enabled the conversion of the New Bridge Street basement. It opened its doors on 7 March 2015 with a season which included, just ten days after its opening, its first in-house production, Louise Taylor’s The Frights, which was revived the following year along with another Alphabetti innovation, short plays inspired by—in response to—the original.

That first season included an evening which was to become a staple of Alphabetti’s work—Write Back, new short (about 20 minutes) plays by a range of writers, emerging and (in some cases) long emerged. This first evening featured plays by Sarah Gonnett and Mhairi Ledgerwood who were to feature quite frequently in the venue’s programme.

And I have to admit that Write Back has a special place in my affections as the September event included my play Curtains, a one-woman piece very different from the large cast productions I’d been writing for so long. I went from Monsterist to Minimalist with great encouragement from Alphabetti!

And then there was Alphabetti Soup, a monthly event which includes music, spoken word, comedy and a new, specially written short play—and soup. It’s been an important part of the programme since day one.

The Basement is a warren of tiny rooms and Alphabetti made use of them in another new writing venture that year; The Rooms in October was a triple bill of plays by Nina Berry, David Raynor and Michael Brown. This concept too was revived the following year with The Rooms 2016, plays by Sarah Gonnet, Laura Lindow and Becci Sharrock—the only time I have ever watched a play in a ladies’ toilet!

In October 2016, Alphabetti took another two steps forward with the in-house production of Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers by Gary Kitching and Steve Byron. The first step was that this was the first production for which ticket prices were “Pay What You Feel”—now, because it encourages attendance by the not-so-well-off, a regular part of its seasons—and the second was the invitation to 40 local writers to attend a rehearsed reading and then, in nine days, produce a play in response.

By August 2016, the strains of trying to run a venue with a maximum capacity of 50 were becoming obvious and Pritchard launched another crowdfunding appeal, to meet the £2,500 worth of debt the theatre was facing. That total was reached within hours and continued to increase until over £10,000 was raised.

But Alphabetti is not finished. For months, Ali Pritchard has been hunting for a new base and may well have found somewhere which is fit for purpose and, most importantly, centrally placed. He just won’t say so, not until the contracts are signed.

“When that piece of paper is signed, we’ll announce it,” he told me a couple of weeks ago.

Let’s hope it’s soon because in its short life Alphabetti Theatre has become an important part of the theatre ecology of the North East, not just of Newcastle. It’s a place where exciting new work can be seen and enjoyed, where people can meet and talk theatre in its tiny, crowded and welcoming bar, where ideas can be discussed and tried out, and of course there’s that second hand-theatre book shop!