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Culture highlights 2013: Dramatic highs, film firsts and shining successes

Barbara Hodgson picks out some of her personal favourite cultural highlights of the year

Grayson Perry at his exhibition of giant tapestries with L-R Kat Adamson, Debra Ratcliff and Laura Gooch who appeared in one of his works
Grayson Perry at his exhibition of giant tapestries with L-R Kat Adamson, Debra Ratcliff and Laura Gooch who appeared in one of his works

It seems to come around faster every year. The time when our three-man Culture team starts flicking back through diaries and old magazines to help jog the memory about what we’ve covered over the past 12 months and, most importantly, what we most enjoyed.

It’s not as easy as you might think. But from a by-no-means definitive list I’ve finally managed to whittle down a few favourites and theatre does seem to dominate. It’s innovative, unpredictable work that tends to stick most in my mind and it seems that not a year passes without Live Theatre getting some sort of mention in my annual highlights.

It was there in June that I watched the memorable Brilliant Adventures, written by 26-year-old Alistair McDowall from Middlesbrough (who in April had premiered Captain Amazing at Live: a one-man show, and soon-to-be Edinburgh Festival hit, developed with the help of a bursary from the theatre).

Set on a run-down housing estate in his home town, the play conjured up a grimly realistic world tainted by drugs and violence before totally wrong-footing us with a futuristic change of direction which delivered everything promised in its title.

In a fine cast of six, Robert Lonsdale and Joseph Arkley shone as the mis-matched brothers at the heart of a story, peppered with dark humour, which turned out to be extremely moving as it entered the realms of time-travel and science fiction, marking McDowall at a writer to look out for.

Nor was it possible to second-guess anything about one-off theatrical event White Rabbit, Red Rabbit which came to Live earlier in 2013. I say “event” as this was more than a play: a unique idea by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour who, then confined to his homeland due to passport problems, had his show do the travelling for him - while he pulled audiences’ strings from afar.

Another one-man performance, it requires a different actor each night who sees the script for the first time on taking to the empty stage and must carry out Nassim’s written instructions word for word.

On its opening night here in February, it was local actor and writer Shaun Prendergast as much in the dark as we were as the story continually changed tack from surreal and funny to dark and surprising. And it was a case of all in it together as we were forced to ask ourselves: are we the type of people to follow instructions or buck the trend? It made for a mix of thought-provoking theatre and interesting social experiment.

My flick through the diary also reminded me of meeting flamboyant Turner Prize-winning transvestite artist Grayson Perry when he came to Sunderland in June for the launch of a major exhibition of his tapestries which had their origin in his popular TV series that looked at issues of class and taste.

Kicking off the taste debate himself in a multi-colour frock, orange stockings, blue leggings and white platform shoes, he arrived at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens to unveil his work which included two colourful, typically humorous scenes featuring local families whose stories he’d heard on a night out in the city which was filmed for C4’s All In the Best Possible Taste.

It was a fun event and something of a coup for Sunderland in being picked as the first host of the tapestries ahead of an international tour.

I’ve also enjoyed the Laura Knight Portraits exhibition which opened in October at Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle with an upstairs gallery is given over to more than 30 watercolours, oils, pastels and drawings which combine to comprehensively explore the fascinating life story of the late pioneering artist. It runs until February and is worth a visit.

Then there was the September premiere at Gala Theatre in Durham of locally-made film Harrigan, the end result of a 17-year journey from script to screen for 74-year-old Arthur McKenzie. Before the big night, the former policeman, who based his story on his real-life experiences of policing Newcastle’s streets in the sixties and seventies, told me of his delight in finally getting the project off the ground.

The film is made by TallTree Pictures with commercial director Kirsty Bell - Arthur’s daughter - helped by local business to raise its £1.5m budget. Starring Teesside’s TV favourite Stephen Tompkinson in the eponymous role, the gritty period crime drama is proving a hit.

I also attended this month’s opening of Vue Cinema in Gateshead which, at the heart of the new Trinity Square re-development, is surely going to be great for the area. Fully digital, with disabled seating and nine-screens - three of them 3D - it’s promising to add to the regular film programme with music concerts, sporting events, gaming, comedy, opera and ballet.

Also this month, Enchanted Parks made its welcome return to Saltwell Park in Gateshead and saw the return too of a proper storyline to link the route’s illuminated artworks which hopefully will be further strengthened in future years.

I’ve just about space to mention another old favourite: the RSC visit to the Theatre Royal, this time a sparky As You Like It being my pick of the bunch. Finally, as I know my colleague Sam is picking the play Wet House (Live again) as one of her own highlights for tomorrow’s Culture pages, I’ll just end by saying that if there was an award for performance of the year, I’d give it to Joe Caffrey for his role in this as the loveable alcoholic Dinger.

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