Live Theatre Company
Live Theatre, Newcastle
For reasons that could stretch to a thesis, too few North East writers achieve international status. And this, despite the NE being an incredibly fertile region for literature.
Fine playwrights such as Tom Hadaway or novelists such as Sid Chaplin or Jack Common, rightly much celebrated in their own patch, failed to make much impact on the bigger stage. Many of the current crop of best known authors such as Tony Harrison are imports. Lee Hall is the happy exception.
David Almond though is a unique case. He has his lived his entire life thus far in the North East. Virtually all of his books are firmly rooted in the place of his upbringing, Leam Lane Council Estate, Gateshead.
Yet an extraordinary imagination means their genuine sense of authenticity and evocation of a working-class life are matched by the injection of the fantastical; a strange winged being lives in the battered garden shed, a rough piece of clay is moulded into life, subterranean creatures emerge from the dark workings of abandoned mines. The everyday is merged with the allegorical and the imaginary.
This dark and powerful imagination has seen Almond's Tyneside novels scoop up prestigious prizes world-wide and globally be adapted for stage and screen, since his explosive debut with Skellig in l998. Sometimes the books are misleadingly described as children's literature. How about Geordie magic realism?
Yet, dramawise, the prophet thus far has been little celebrated in his own territory (though it's worth a mention that the Hexham-based Theatre Sans Frontieres did a fine version of Heaven’s Eyes a few years ago).
It seems fitting that Newcastle's Live Theatre, which for more than 40 years has nurtured the region's playwriting talent, should finally take up the author (a Northern Stage Almond production also follows before long) and the audience's rapturous reception last night to he author's own adaptation of The Savage in many ways spoke for itself.
It is "a book within a book", as the young lad, Blue, (Dean Bone), haunted by the recent death of his father and the bullying from the local young toughie Hopper (Adam Welsh), finds unexpected refuge in writing and the imagination, conjuring up the wild and destructive character of the title who kills people, eats them and tosses their bones down the well. This story is set, not in some remote fairytale land, but right here on the author's estate.
Slowly, fact and fiction begin to merge. Blue enters the newly-written story as does his sister Jess (Kate Okello) while The Savage turns his ferocity onto Hopper himself before the redemptive power of the resolution. Dani Arlington plays Blue's mum, but all the four cast take multiple roles so effectively it's a surprise to see such a small number of actors at the curtain call.
In the original, Blue's inner book is written phonetically as a graphic novel, illustrated with moody malevolence by Dave MacKean. Here those phonetic words are writ large and projected onto Alison Ashton's atmospheric, multi-tiered, multi-layered set of seasoned wood, though the new graphics (unattributed) can't quite capture the disturbing power of MacKean's originals.
Lee Proud's choreography at times suggests the primitive rawness of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Beth Brennan's music in the main has a similar intensity, though using the sentimental song "When the Boat Comes In" seems inappropriate to Almond's vision of North East culture.
Max Roberts's highly energetic, highly visual production uses a fresh young cast in an important piece of regional theatre that could make its impact anywhere in the world.
I have two caveats. Roberts chooses to have the same actor play both Blue and The Savage, the former switching quickly to the latter. Though the two do eventually merge in the book, and Dean Bones's physicality is highly impressive, the stage device gives too much of a Jeckyll and Hyde slant.
I wanted that disturbing sense of the imagination's frightening power initially to create something entirely new, not imprisoned within an existing body. We deserve to see the savage himself. It also distorts matters by making the book's eventual meeting between the two impossible to show on stage.
And towards the end there is a tendency to explain rather than show, which dilutes the dramatic energy and momentum apparent elsewhere.
Almond has always celebrated the power of the imagination to flower in the least likely of places and this belief (somewhat against current government policy to kill dead all non-functional parts of the school syllabus) runs through The Savage. That and a fierce sense of where the author belongs. Not a bad coupling.