If the shows in the current season at Northern Stage are coming under sharper critical scrutiny, there’s a good reason for that.
A group of budding arts reviewers are sitting in on every one of them as they hone their skills.
The group, all aged 18 to 23, are benefiting from a new scheme set up by Northern Stage and New Writing North to help new and aspiring arts journalists in the North East.
You might be surprised to hear that a theatre is encouraging critics. Many times actors and directors must have gnashed their teeth over a bad review.
But Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage, said at the launch: “A healthy theatre requires a healthy critical dialogue around its work.
“In this digital age it is increasingly vital that this critical dialogue is not only local but engaged with all areas of our operations.”
His theatre was delighted, he added, to be supporting the development of such an excellent initiative.
He looked forward to helping the writers develop their critical skills and understanding of how and why a modern producing theatre does what it does.
New Writing North’s programme of work for young people is called Cuckoo Young Writers (which might cause established arts writers to wonder in moments of unease: who are these cuckoos looking to push out of the nest?).
The new wave of reviews will be published in Cuckoo Review – www.cuckooreview.com – with the blessing of Anna Disley, New Writing North’s programme director, who said: “We are thrilled to be encouraging a new generation of arts critics from the North East.”
Under the scheme, the eight young writers will get tickets to all the spring season productions and also the chance to meet theatre staff, watch rehearsals, attend masterclasses and interview actors.
Peter Cumiskey, who is 22 and from Durham, is one of those who gained a place on the scheme.
“As a recent journalism graduate, I’m always looking for new ways to develop my portfolio and help me properly launch my career as a writer,” he said.
Lucy Jones, 23, from Stockton-on-Tees, is currently working towards an MA in creative writing.
She said: “I hope to nurture my review writing skills by immersing myself in the rehearsal, performance and wider aspects of the creative productions at Northern Stage.”
Below are some of the first reviews written by members of the new scheme:
Birdsong: reviewed by Lucy Amelia Jones (until Saturday, February 28)
The sound of rain and distant gunfire welcome the audience to the opening night of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong at Northern Stage.
The set brings Faulks’ detailed description of war-time France beautifully to life.
Beneath a smoky sky, sandbags, duckboards, wire and ladders clearly portray the trenches. Cathedral-like archways stand tall and a broken wooden cross looms over the trench, perhaps signifying the broken religion of the men as a result of the conflict.
Faulks writes that at war ‘non-believers find faith in fear’. Jack Firebrace describes the priest throwing his cross away from him after witnessing the atrocities of The Somme and Stephen Wraysford talks of “a room where everything is understood” rather than a Christian heaven.
Even glimpses of merriment on leave are played out against the backdrop of the twisted wires of trenches, reminding us of the constant presence of war. As well as the set, the sudden sound of a bomb blast punctures the merriment and shakes the audience from their comfortable viewing positions.
Just as the impressive set suggests a broken religion, the actors portray broken men.
Max Bowden successfully portrays the innocence of Tipper, a terrified 15-year-old soldier. Edmund Wiseman as Stephen Wraysford captures the cold facade of the officer class while revealing glimpses of vulnerability and compassion in flashbacks to his love affair with Isabelle Azaire, a married Frenchwoman he met before the war.
However, it was the outstanding performances of Peter Duncan and Liam McCormick that did the novel justice, playing tunnellers Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw with an honesty of emotion.
Their brotherhood and tender compassion for one another was played out beautifully in a handful of scenes that left my throat aching with trying to hold back tears.
The relationships portrayed meant that it was less a play about war than a play about people. In a scene where the soldiers prepare for the infamous Battle of The Somme, the soldiers write letters to their loved ones.
The reassuring words and the comforting memories they write give clues about their life before the war, intensifying our connection with the characters.
In the novel, Faulks writes that soldiers are “not men, but flies and flesh”. This performance beautifully contradicts that.
It is easy to think about the lives lost in WW1 as numbers but this play shows husbands, sons, brothers and friends. It depicts their fear, their bravery, their hope and most of all love and what it is capable of.
Lands of Glass reviewed by Peter Cumiskey (until Saturday, February 28)
In its latest show, Unfolding Theatre proves that imagination truly has no limits. Land of Glass conjures up the whimsical, picture-postcard town of Quinnipak with nothing more than five cast members and an awful lot of glass.
Loosely based on the Italian novel Lands of Glass, set around the turn of the 20th Century, it centres on a small town where glass is the main industry. The five-piece’s nuanced portrayal of the eccentric townsfolk is something special.
Beccy Owen stands out as the mysterious woman who guides us through this dazzling locale; her rendition of specially composed song, Marbles in the Park, is intricate and graceful.
Tom Walton and Hannah Boyde pull at the heartstrings in their portrayals of both husband and wife and father and son pairings. This is without even mentioning the glass musical instruments, which they all expertly play. You’ll never hover your finger over the rim of a wine glass in quite the same way again.
I, for one, was certainly glad I stayed for the after-show discussion with cast and crew. It was only afterwards that I was able to appreciate the extent to which each member of the ensemble cast contributed; it transpired Tom Bancroft and Brendan Murphy, very much supporting artists during the show, were composer and glass-playing virtuoso respectively.
The crowning achievement is, without doubt, the scene in which the cast successfully create the illusion of an entire crowd, gathered together to celebrate the opening of the new railway. Only when instruments occasionally drown out dialogue does this ingenuity prove a double-edged sword.
The journey the characters embark on is romantic, disastrous and wonderful in equal measure. Over the course of the narrative, the audience becomes fully immersed in the culture of the town – at one point handed megaphones and being asked to join in its ‘choir’. It’s a testament to inventive staging that the 90-minute running time hurtles by like the flurry of a speeding locomotive.