Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Playing Up

Playing Up/Northern Stage
Stage Three, Northern Stage

Laura Halford-MacLeod and Sara Jo Harrison in And Breathe Credit: Colin Cuthbert

The lower ground floor of the Newcastle Northern Stage building, formerly the bar, now houses Stage Three, an adaptable theatre space for the small, the innovative, the new, the hopeful and occasionally – of course – the turkey.

Under the guidance of Mark Calvert, Stage Three gives shelter to many North-East projects that might otherwise be left to wander the streets and has been a sanctuary for small-scale visiting companies plus a useful stop-off for the Edinburgh Fringe groups.

I doubt many (if any) of the nineteen actors, seven writers and six directors involved in Playing Up will be trousering much loot towards their second Jacuzzi from this show. A full house still only numbers around 90 – divide that up and each participant might just manage a few pints at the bar (which unfortunately wasn’t open).

Various Tyneside theatre organisations are involved in helping get this work seen: Northern Stage itself; Newcastle’s People’s Theatre – possibly the country’s biggest amateur company; Alphabetti, a recent alternative space operating from a much unloved and partially abandoned 60s style office block in nearby Pilgrim Street, and the Live Writing Course run down on the quayside by Live Theatre.

It produces an evening of seven short plays, partially learnt, partially script-in-hand (the choice seems random, often both styles being in one play), minimal set or props, basic light and sound back-up and a creative ‘make-do’ feel which is no bad thing.

Happily there’s no post-nuclear blasted terrain here and no-one gets stuck in a lift. Self-conscious angst barely threatens to sink any of the pieces and while none shatters the theatrical mould, several show interesting talent at work. And there’s a deal of energetic humour.

The opener, John Harrison’s Wayne Looney Plays the Aliens (director Lewis Cuthbert), is a lively animated satire and one of the few plays to combine the Premier League with an extra-terrestrial invasion. I often laughed out loud.

As I did at And Breathe by Sharon Zucker (director Donna Tonkinson) where a pregnant young mum about to give birth is stuck in a traffic jam with her appallingly self-centered and smug mother. Very funny.

Lewis Cuthbert’s Save Our Hedges (director by the author) is a dark, slightly grotesque comedy surrounding an investigation into a school trip that goes horribly wrong. Our laughter to see these flawed blinkered characters is at times uncomfortable.

David Raynor’s Trolley Boy (also directed by the author) has 14 year old Colin escaping into his fantasy world on an Asda trolley in an attempt to deal with his past. Interesting but the subject matter needs a slightly broader canvas.

Jane Pickthall’s Darwin’s Rheas (director Sara Jo Harrison) manages to mix post-retirement, offbeat burgers, strip-tease and feminism in a frantic few minutes. Short but it scores a few points.

Peter Sagar’s The Garden (director James Barton) is interesting but slightly over-conscious of its symbolism as a couple seeking sanctuary from the storm find anything but in a seemingly idyllic garden.

The concluding piece, Pay The Receptionist on the Way Out by Chris Wilkins (director James Ryland), is an intriguing theatrical puzzle, as the worlds of three separate clients at a somewhat offbeat counsellor are slowly brought together. Nicely structured writing.

This is the second Playing Up and by all accounts they’ve learnt from early errors. The evening is pretty well paced. And what it brings is a valuable sense of nurturing of the impulse to write, to act, to direct, to get new work out there, to speak to the world. The evening feeds the green shoots of drama and as such is essential.

A word for an enthusiastic audience too, ready to give these new theatre pieces every chance. It was a response that lifted the casts.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer