A Wondrous Place

By Alison Carr, Sarah McDonald Hughes, Luke Barnes and Matt Hartley

Northern Spirit in association with New Writing North, Northern Stage, the Royal Exchange Theatre, Sheffield Theatres, and the Unity Theatre

Northern Stage, Newcastle

From 04 June 2013 to 06 June 2013

Review by Peter Mortimer

One thing’s for sure; the North does need to fight back. Culturally, socially and economically the Metropolis is slowly bleeding dry us far-flung tribes as it gathers increasing power, influence and wealth to its more than ample bosom.

So here’s a good idea. Four young writers from four Northern cities commissioned by theatres from those same cities to create plays in celebration of their home towns, which are then toured to all four venues.

The project is overseen as Northern Spirit by New Writing North, the Tyneside based agency whose influence is now spreading to the North at large, and the production has already played Liverpool and Sheffield.

There’s an understandable ‘feel good’ motivation to this, a kind of cultural pep talk, a need to affirm the importance and individuality of place. And it’s underlined by much of the writing, which at its best boasts an easy intimacy with its own hinterland.

You could argue that, by being staged only in the North, the production is preaching to the already converted. How about sticking it in the West End to replace one of those insufferable formulaic musicals?

But it’s still an important venture. Reminding us of what we already know shouldn’t be underestimated. Theatre can lead us to the top of the hill and point out the wonders beneath (which a character in one of these plays actually does).

Alison Carr’s What Space Between (Northern Stage) focuses on the recent demolition of ‘The Rocket’, which is/was a spectacularly ugly and infamous high-rise in Dunston - a gritty part of Tyneside celebrated only as the home of Gazza.  Kathryn Beaumont’s  character rides the 97 bus ride back to this unromantic childhood district, allowing some vivid, evocative writing that reminds us that no small detail of life is unimportant.

Sarah McDonald Hughes’ Electricity sees Sally Hodgkiss in the wake of a relationship break-up finding inspiration in her native Manchester – and again a writer needs to know and feel a place intimately to make this kind of response work.

Luke Barnes’s Dog for the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, is the darkest piece, as an angst-ridden Adam Search finally reveals the terrible secret haunting him, while he stumbles around among the people and places of his native city.

My own favourite is Matt Hartley’s Porter’s Brook for Sheffield Theatres, probably the least iconic of the four cities featured here. Following a road accident, Joshua Hayes’s memory is wiped clean; friends and family, in an attempt at reconnection, take him to all the Sheffield places and memories that formed him. The writing has such an infectious, colourful and totally transparent enthusiasm for its Northern steel town that only the cynic could fail to be won over.

All four actors work their socks off in their own play, but the mainly monologue style means all three are underused elsewhere and the style is a mite repetitious. Chris Meads directs on Lois Maskell’s light beige set, half abstracted, half domestic on which the occasional token video is projected.

There’s a hint that the production’s agenda at times obliges the authors to overpraise their cities – how could they not with the evening’s title? This obligation may limit invention.

Against which we have the novel stage experience of being led intimately through four great Northern cities, cities than can inspire an energy and passion in writers probably different to the cool urbanity manifested by the scribblers residing in the likes of Surbiton. Such home counties writers are unlikely ever to have heard of The Dunston Rocket!