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Lee Hall gives Live Theatre audiences a special preview

Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall will be showcasing six of his developing screenplays in 2014, including a biopic of Elton John

Paul Norris Playwright Lee Hall
Playwright Lee Hall

Audiences at Live Theatre will be treated to a special preview of Lee Hall’s next screenplay before it becomes a film and blasts off to cinemas everywhere.

The writer of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, who found his feet and first taste of fame as a writer-in-residence at the Newcastle theatre, has penned the screenplay to Rocket Man, a musical film about Elton John.

It tells the eventful life story of Elton John, whom Lee worked with on the award-winning stage musical adaptation of Billy Elliot, from birth to superstardom, taking in his life-changing stint in rehab.

Inception actor Tom Hardy has been announced as the film’s leading man and cameras are scheduled to start rolling in autumn 2014.

But way before the first shot has been, well, shot, Newcastle-born Lee will be bringing his script to Live – and to life – as part of a six-part series of performances of screenplays-in-progress.

It has been around 15 years since the 47-year-old last tried out some big screen ideas on a North East audience, with pretty memorable results.

“When we got Arts Council funding to bring Lee in as our writer-in-residence for a year, he ended up writing the play Cooking With Elvis,” says Live’s artistic director, Max Roberts, who recently directed a revival of the play as part of the venue’s jam-packed 40th anniversary celebrations.

“But while he was here, he had all these other ideas in development and we gave them a rehearsed reading in front of an audience. It’s really useful for a writer to hear them like that – and of course nice for the audience too.”

One of those plays was called Dancer – now better known as the Bafta-winning and Academy Award-nominated Billy Elliot, of course, which propelled Lee onto the international stage.

The need for rehearsed readings doesn’t dissolve with arrival of global success, though, and Max says Lee is looking forward to giving his current crop of screenplays a toe-dipping outing on home soil.

“When we were working on Cooking With Elvis this year, he was talking about some of the things he had in development and he sent them through to me, just for my interest really,” says Max.

“But after reading them all, I thought it would be great to give them a reading in front of an audience – both for Lee, who will introduce each one, and for the audience who may well one day be able to say they saw a very early incarnation of what has become a big screen film.”

As well as Rocket Man, audiences will also hear Lee’s dramatic take on some astonishing true stories featuring a diverse crop of characters.

One of these is the extraordinary cricketer Harold Larwood, a pitman who became the world’s fastest bowler only to fall foul of the British Establishment during the infamous ‘bodyline’ Test series of 1932-33, which saw the tactic of bowling towards the body of the batsman rather than the stumps.

Max says he was thrilled, but a little surprised, at the subject matter for this particular screenplay.

Riley Jones as Andy, Joe Caffrey as Dinger and Chris Connel as Mike in Wet House at Live Theatre
Riley Jones as Andy, Joe Caffrey as Dinger and Chris Connel as Mike in Wet House at Live Theatre
 

“Lee has no interest in cricket at all, unlike myself,” he laughs. “I was delighted to be cricket advisor on this story,” which, he adds, skillfully weaves the combination of comedy and class commentary.

Other previews in the series, to take place in January, March and June, include screen adaptations of George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Edmund De Waal’s best-selling family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes.

You can also see his take on the story of French composer Olivier Messiaen who created one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century music in a German prisoner of war camp, Quartet For the End of Time, with the only instruments at his disposal –a clarinet, a cello, a violin and a piano.

The event will include a performance of the piece by musicians from Royal Northern Sinfonia.

“If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing this beautiful piece, I couldn’t recommend it more,” says Max simply.

Although the Lee Hall Readings, as they have been christened in my head, are certainly a stand-out element of the January to June programme, there is much more worth spoiling your new diaries for.

Three Pint-Sized Plays, presented by Queen’s Hall Arts in Hexham, will be performed in the Live Theatre Studio. The first of these 40-minute offerings, John Challis’s The Next Train to Depart, will get a platform on January 31.

It will be followed on March 21 and 22 by Never Forget, Lee Mattinson’s exploration of identity, and Laura Lindow’s Wishbone, which chronicles a Christmas Day encounter, on April 5 and 6.

Also in April a new play by Nick Payne, youngest winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play, will be presented.

Directed by Joe Murphy, who also directed the acclaimed love story Blink (visiting Live on February 18 and 19, by the way), Incognito is a Live Theatre co-production involving three interwoven stories exploring the nature of identity and how we are defined by what we remember.

More new writing will come in the form of Lee Mattinson’s and Paddy Campbell’s respective work with Live’s Youth Theatre.

Paddy, who made an unforgettable mark earlier this year with his first full length play, Wet House, is developing Day of the Flymo, which asks what you do when the state takes over from your Mam.

Lee, meanwhile, whose burgeoning reputation has been boosted thanks to plays like Donna Disco and Chalet Lines and a stint on Coronation Street, will be working on Peter Pam, a play set in the world of four 15-year-olds.

“We’re going to present them as rehearsed readings in April and then they will become fully produced youth theatre plays later in the year,” says Max.

“I’m so thrilled that writers of both Lee’s and Paddy’s quality are coming back to Live and are so keen to work on this kind of production. It’s very representative of what we’re about here in that we value this kind of work just as much as the other work we do.”

On June 5 there will be an exclusive screening of The Dementia Monologues, a series of five short films exploring the real life stories of those dealing with dementia as both patients and carers. They came out of the research done by Fiona Evans for her play Geordie Sinatra.

“It was a really lovely project,” says Max, “and the screening will be attended by many of those who were involved in Fiona’s research.”

Returning to the venue in May, following its sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, is Mark Weinman as Captain Amazing. “You will not see a better one-man-show performance anywhere in the UK,” promises Max.

The show, written by prize-winning writer Alistair McDowall, finishes its national tour back on Tyneside, telling the story of Britain’s only part-time superhero who balances his world-saving duties with raising his daughter and putting in the hours at his more conventional job.

Another returning production is Michael Chaplin’s Tyne, which was commissioned for the 40th anniversary of Live and will enjoy runs at the Customs House, South Shields, and Newcastle Theatre Royal as it maps the history, atmosphere and soul of the river.

Meanwhile Paddy Campbell’s aforementioned and quite wonderful Wet House, which featured a storming performance by Joe Caffrey, will have a run at the Soho Theatre in the capital.

“Our relationship with the Soho is such a great one to have,” says Max. “Being able to give work a platform in London is terrific.”

Other relationships are also bearing fruit on the programme, courtesy of a raft of visiting productions.

How to Be Immortal, which was developed with The Lowry and West Yorkshire Playhouse, comes to Live on February 21 and 22 and explores the almost unbelievable – but utterly true – story of Henrietta Lacks, who died in West Virginia in 1951 but whose cells, taken for medical research without her consent, are still dividing in laboratories all over the world.

On June 7 the real stories of women prisoners from Low Newton prison will be told in the main theatre in a play called Key Change, presented by Dilly Arts with Open Clasp Theatre Company, which is billed as being as raw as it is honest and gritty.

There is more where this all comes from, including the Studio performances of Kate Craddock and Steve Gilroy’s The GB Project (March 6-8) and Kirsten Luckins’ The Moon Cannot Be Stolen (May 15), but column inches are against us.

What is clear from the programme is that it has been compiled with much imagination and creative planning.

A combination of bumper 40th anniversary activity throughout 2013 – which justified its relative extravagance with healthy box office performance – and well-publicised funding cuts from both Newcastle City Council and the Arts Council presented a challenge.

“We have known for a long time that the traditional income streams we have relied on would be in decline,” says Max. “We, along with most other arts organisations, have had to be creative and imaginative in both the way we fund and do things.

“So we have our programme of social enterprise (including the establishing of the popular Broad Chare pub) and then things like Lee’s screenplay readings which have a pretty modest budget but offer really high value to everyone.

“I’m really pleased with the programme we’ve put together. There’s a lot to get excited about.”

* Tickets and full programme information is available at www.live.org or by calling 0191 232 1232.

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