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A Northern Odyssey

Shelagh Stephenson
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2010)

Production photo

In 1881 American painter Winslow Homer came to the fishing village of Cullercoats, a couple of miles up the coast from Tynemouth, and stayed for almost two years, painting local scenes and, most memorably, the fisher girls. Apart from the paintings themselves, he left no record of his stay, leaving locally born playwright Shelagh Stephenson a blank canvas for her latest play, commissioned by Live.

It has to be said that, in the bar before the show, there was much speculation that Live, having had such a success with The Pitmen Painters (which transfers to Broadway in September), was trying to recreate that success by choosing a similar theme for this new production. Two things, however, militate against this idea: director Max Roberts had asked Shelagh Stephenson to write a play for the theatre some years ago and the choice of subject matter was hers, not his, and the finished product itself. The two plays are superficially similar, true, in that they both deal with painters and painting and the reaction of the ordinary folk of the North East to them, but there the similarity ends, for A Northern Odyssey uses art and the North East as a starting point, almost - in some ways - a background, and deals with themes which are universal.

The same can be said, obviously, of The Pitmen Painters but its story is rooted in the situation of the pitmen painters themselves, and the way in which they move from one world into another. It is firmly fixed in Ashington and the individual characters. A Northern Odyssey could conceivably be set in any "artists' colony" where life could be described as rural, even primitive.

On the first day of what was intended to be a short visit to Cullercoats American painter Winslow Homer (Ron Cook) meets fisher girls Maggie (Helen French), Belle (Zita Frith) and Sally (Catherine MacCabe). Inevitably he finds their accent difficult to understand and this provides the almost obligatory amusement for the audience as the girls try to work out what he is: French, perhaps? - while he wonders what language they are speaking. He meets injured fisherman Joe (Philip Correia) and is drawn into the orbit of local lawyer Frank Haddock (Deka Walmsley having a rest from Pitmen Painters), his Dublin-born wife Rosaleen (Lizzie McInnery), a would-be poet who longs for sophisticated, cultured conversation and the chance to speak French) and their daughter Fanny who is "not quite right in the head".

The latter is a wonderful character - in some way almost a Greek chorus - given compelling life by Amy McAllister who has remarkable stage presence and captures the character's girlishness and strangeness.

The play deals with the effects Homer's presence has on those he meets and into whose world he is drawn whilst, at the same time, maintaining his distance. Throughout, his focus is on his art.

The events which unfold, all ordinary enough on the surface, build to a Peter Grimes-like tragedy which left the audience shocked (and drew not a few tears) but, looking back, the inevitability if it all is clear.

It's a fine piece of writing by Shelagh Stephenson and, with the aid of sensitive direction by Max Roberts, the cast do it full justice. The three fisher girls sing a haunting version of the NE song Ma Bonny Lad, arranged by The Unthanks, and the latter also contribute the music for a wild country dance choreographed by Lee Proud which drew spontaneous applause from the audience.

After last year's Jump, which didn't quite hit the mark, and a series of script-in-hand readings and works-in-progress, Live has another palpable hit on its hands.

Running until 22nd May

Reviewer: Peter Lathan