From the moment Alphabetti, Newcastle’s Fringe Theatre, reopened its doors to audiences (Pause on 6 July, one of the earliest in the region), it not only streamed its productions online but in the auditorium mask-wearing (with the usual exemptions) was mandatory and all performances were socially distanced. The immediate effect of this, of course, was a 50% cut in already low audience numbers, so to compensate they extended the runs of their own shows—but not of the Newcastle Fringe shows (27 July to 7 August).
Alphabetti is not an Arts Council NPO and only receives occasional funding. Its Artistic Director Ali Pritchard believes that “great art should be for everyone” so all tickets are 'Pay What You Feel'. All box office takings are given to the performers so the theatre is entirely reliant on the bar / café revenue to keep the building and its staff going. I have no doubt that it was with much relief that, in April, it received a £61,000 grant from the Culture Recovery Fund 2nd round.
And then Ali caught COVID! Is it any wonder that, on 18 December, he tweeted, “Stressed, Burnt-out and now with COVID. The new theatre triple threat”?
Worse was to come, however, when, three days later, COVID forced the cancellation of all pre-Christmas performances of the final show of the year, Santa Must Die!.
But Alphabetti is undaunted and has already announced three new productions for the spring season, so I am pleased to announce that, for sheer dogged persistence, care and concern for its audience and the quality of its work, it is my North East Theatre of the Year.
Ray Spencer, director of The Customs House in South Shields, must be wondering, “Why me, Lord? Why me?”
On 24 November, Rapunzel, the panto which he co-writes, co-directs and stars in, opened, thanks to the pandemic, to reduced advance ticket sales but was received with audience and critical enthusiasm and looked set fair to be another successful “little panto with the big heart.”
Then on 27 November, the first cases of the Omicron variant were found in the UK but the panto went ahead until Rapunzel herself tested positive and all shows on 19 December were cancelled to rehearse a replacement. On 20 December, the theatre announced an extra show the following day but then more cast members tested positive and another day’s shows were lost as replacements were rehearsed.
And out of the blue, totally unexpected, just before the evening show was about to start on 22 December, there was a complete power failure and the building had to be evacuated. For the first time, as well as Rapunzel, the show for the youngest children, Cousin Dennis in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, was affected. Power was restored on 23 December.
So they lost cast members, found replacements and rehearsed them, and even though fate had another blow to deal, they still soldiered on.
And all this was after they took every opportunity since the pandemic began to produce shows online and, whenever allowed, rushing to get audiences back into the theatre.
Surely The Customs House deserves a Most Resilient NE Theatre in 2021 accolade? I think so!
And we have a Best Newcomer! Normally that would be a writer or actor but this year it’s a theatre—a new theatre! In 2021! There were actually two new venues in the running for this, Laurels in Whitley Bay and the Fire Station Auditorium in Sunderland. It would be invidious to choose between them for they have very different strengths—Laurels with its focus on comedy, fringe theatre and the professional development of emerging NE artists, and The Fire Station which concentrates on music and established mid-scale theatre and dance—so what else could we do but say “It’s a draw!” so they both share the accolade.