The Productions

Best New Play

There is no better indicator of the health of a region’s theatre than the quality of new plays being written and produced, and this year there have been some which were really superb. In April, there was Cloud Nine’s production of Peter Mortimer’s Rainbird – The Tragedy of an Artist at The Exchange in North Shields, followed in June by Cap-a-Pie’s production of Laura Lindow’s Woven Bones at Alphabetti. Then there was Peter Mitchell’s stage adaptation of his father’s TV series When the Boat Comes In at the Customs House (which commissioned the piece) in August and Gordon Steel’s The Fulstow Boys which premièred at ARC in Stockton and played at the Customs House in September.

However for me the best of them all was Clear White Light, written by Paul Sirett, inspired by the songs of Alan Hull and The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, which was commissioned by and performed at Live Theatre. A complex and riveting piece which I described as “hugely satisfying and insightful,” with a fine cast. It really is the clear winner.

Best New Production

This category takes into account all aspects of a show: scenery, props, technology, script, performances, direction, movement, music—everything. For the last few years, Northern Stage’s Christmas show has either won or been in contention in this category, and so it is this year, for Mark Calvert’s A Christmas Carol was exciting, enjoyable, very different and yet and remarkably true to Dickens’s original.

However, there was another Northern Stage show this year which was eagerly anticipated but in a slightly ambiguous way. After all, it flopped in the USA on its first outing—and why on earth première a play about the death of shipbuilding in a Tyneside town in Chicago and on Broadway? Then as the production date came closer it was announced that the star—Jimmy Nail—was leaving. Expectations began to take a tumble!

But in the event The Last Ship, with a new book by Northern Stage’s artistic director Lorne Campbell who directed the show, was a massive success, not just in Newcastle but everywhere it toured, and I, who had been one of the doubters, had to eat my words! And, I have to say, I am pleased I got it so wrong at the outset. There is no doubt; it was definitely the production of the year!

Best New Adaptation

For quite some time I was, I have to say, in two minds about this category. In a year in which there was a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol in Newcastle Castle Keep by Theatre Space NE, a stage adaptation of his own Radio 4 series My Uncle Freddie by Alex Ferguson at the Customs House and a one-woman adaptation of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders by Mike Alfreds and Jane Arnfield, who were director and performer respectively, at Alphabetti, it was never going to be easy to make a choice, but in the end it was the combination of Brooks’ story and Arnfield’s stunning performance that gave Year of Wonders, a co-production between The Forge and CarolW Productions, the crown.

Best Revival

Although Northern Stage’s production of Terrance McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Durham’s Gala Theatre’s Two provided very strong competition, there was never any doubt in my mind that, in the best revival of the year category, Live Theatre’s production of D C Jackson’s My Romantic History, relocated from Glasgow to Newcastle, was a clear winner.

Best Solo Show

There were many one-person shows during the year (one of which was Year of Wonders, which was obviously in the running), many coming from outside the region, but two other local productions stood out. Cloud Nine’s production of Peter Mortimer’s A Parcel for Mr Smith, seen in a pub in Monkseaton in North Tyneside, was surreal, absurd and totally hilarious, whilst Jade Byrne’s Pricks, seen at Alphabetti, told the story of one woman’s life as someone suffering from type 1 diabetes. Far from being a worthy but dull lecture, it was entertaining, amusing, poignant, infuriating and informative, often at the same time, and it’s the picture I got of a little girl of 4, clutching her Dennis the Menace doll and wondering what beetees are and why she’s dying of them, which still remains in my mind six months later, that made me realise that Pricks is the best solo show of 2018.

Best Children’s Show

At the moment, Kitchen Zoo is setting the standard for shows for the under-7s and although I loved their Christmas show, The Three Bears at Christmas, at Northern Stage, I still cannot get over the total involvement of their young audience for The Tin Foil Astronaut which toured at the beginning of the year—and which, incidentally, will be touring again in the New Year. It really is a lovely piece of children’s theatre.

Best Visiting Production

It’s always a problem, this one. There are always so many contenders: this year the RSC’s version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, Opera North’s gloriously melodramatic Tosca, or the same company’s comic, light, frothy, romantic but also a bit debauched The Merry Widow, both at Newcastle Theatre Royal. These are gorgeous, big, impressive, expensive shows, but in the end I settled for something on a much smaller scale, The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, production of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints at Live Theatre. Why? Because it’s a play which has so much to tell us of the human condition and our own lives, our feelings and relationships, leaving us not uplifted as the others did, but sadder and wiser people than we were before.

Special Mentions

This is the category which I use to focus attention on productions which are a bit out-of-the-ordinary, a bit off-the-wall and well worth seeing. There are two this year which are not only different from everything else but very different from each other.

This World Here... Nomhlaba Le is a co-production between Newcastle-based Curious Monkey and NADO SA, also Newcastle-based but this time in Newcastle in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The company—three men and one woman from South Africa, two women and one man from England—came together in three international exchanges to create the piece which uses direct addressing of the audience, music, dialogue and physical theatre to talk about selfhood, home, and what happens when you travel thousands of miles to meet a new culture. The mixture of Geordie and South African culture was fascinating as, for example, when the NE folk song “The Watter o’ Tyne” morphs into something very South African.

don’t forget the birds is a new piece by the region’s most well-established women’s theatre company, Open Clasp. It’s a follow-up to their most successful production, 2014’s Key Change, and it could almost be a normal verbatim piece about a woman leaving prison and she and her daughter learning how to get to know each other and live together again, except that the two women are not played by any of the region’s top female actors, all of whom are more than happy to work for Open Clasp, but by the mother and daughter themselves—the ultimate in verbatim theatre—and a very powerful and moving piece.