Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
Developed as part of playwright Ruth Raynor’s PhD in Human Geography, DieHard Gateshead (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) looks at NE women’s experiences of austerity and grew out of collaboration with a women’s group on Tyneside, a group which—ironically, given the play’s plot—now no longer exists because of austerity cuts.
It’s a piece of “applied theatre” similar to the work of other local theatre companies such as Cap-a-Pie, which uses drama/theatre as a means of sharing academic research, and Open Clasp, which focuses on women’s issues. In fact, most of the actresses in the play have also worked for Open Clasp.
It’s set in a women’s group run by Lesley (Judi Earl) who has just learned that the group’s funding has been cut and will have to close but she cannot bring herself to tell the women. The other characters are Rosy (Zoe Lambert), a drama tutor, and group members Sandra (Jessica Johnson), Katy (Christina Berriman Dawson) and Julia (Arabella Arnott).
In some ways, DieHard Gateshead sits firmly in the agit-prop tradition in which the issue takes centre-stage and the characters tend to be drawn in broad strokes: Lesley is the mother figure, concerned most of all for the welfare of her girls; Rosy is arty and slightly fey; Sandra is the aggressive, loud-mouthed and somewhat crude one; Katy is the simmeringly sulky one and Julia the middle class girl.
In fifty minutes, we meet, come to know and like the characters, see their situation and how, between them, they come together to deal with it. In the process we see how much the group means to them, how important it is in their lives and how destructive the cuts are—and we have a good laugh along the way. For there is a lot of comedy in the piece, which, far from distracting from the seriousness of what we are being shown, not only emphasises it but endears the characters to us.
Director Neil Armstrong keeps the piece going at a cracking pace and the cast’s energy—it’s a true ensemble piece—ensures that the audience is with them all the way, as the cheers from the full house in the tiny Alphabetti auditorium showed.
The play is at Arts Centre Washington tonight (15 July) and the Caedmon Hall at Gateshead Central Library on Thursday (16).
Reviewer: Peter Lathan