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New Caroline Ross novel evokes a past age of North East theatre

Author Caroline Ross drew on her Live Theatre memories in writing her second novel as playwright Peter Mortimer discovers

Author Caroline Ross in Newcastle with husband Teddy Kiendl in 1983
Author Caroline Ross in Newcastle with husband Teddy Kiendl in 1983

There are many actors’ autobiographies but good novels about the profession are thin on the ground. Even fewer are those with a setting of regional small scale professional theatre.

Caroline Ross’s book has a backdrop familiar to many on Tyneside (myself included) who’ve been involved in the theatre scene here since the Stone Age and one of its delights is spotting the lightly disguised characters or occasions.

Small Scale Tour (not the most exciting title) is fiction, of course, and like any writer of imagination Ross makes up a lot of it. Elsewhere I often paused to mutter “A-ha!” at the familiarity of people or circumstances.

Caroline Ross is married to Teddy Kiendl, one-time artistic director of Live Theatre. Kiendl somehow survived directing my own first professional production for Live to make a successful career.

The couple now live in Wales and this is Ross’s second novel. Like the first, The War Before Mine, it spans two periods. Both are on Tyneside but 30 years apart, firstly when the main character, Ham, was a part of the still fairly new and impecunious Kicking Theatre Company, and later when he returns to audition for a revival of the play which was their first production.

By the second period Ham is, as we luvvies say, mainly ‘resting’, stacking shelves for his eccentric Afghan corner shop employer, but still dreaming (as actors are prone to), of that big break.

By now Kicking Theatre Co is in swish new premises with a clutch of marketing people and Ham’s interview with the somewhat mechanical new female director seems a universe away from the chaos, passions, insecurities, emotional disasters, confusions and blind faith he remembers.

Or is Ham merely unable to adapt to a new age? Is he jealous of what Kicking Theatre has become?

The writing is humorous and perceptive and uses an imaginative device of inserting sections of invented theatre text into the narrative (Ham is now trying to make it as a writer as well). It allows the unlikely inclusion in a Tyneside novel of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus.

The book has at its heart the earlier love affair between Ham and fellow actor Jane, both now auditioning for the new production. Can they reconnect or has the world left them behind?

The book powerfully evokes that strange, irresistible, infuriating, creative, insecure and often sexually charged world in which a group of young people live hand-in-glove as they trundle their play round one night stands. It’s a world that could easily be romanticised but Ross avoids this. With two deaths at its core, Small Scale Tour can often be painful.

Naturally, it’s fascinating stuff for a playwright – the cut and thrust of writer and director, the hasty re-writes, the clashes on casting. And the nuts and bolts of the exhausting business of one-night touring is also here. We feel the author has actually lugged that set up those stairs.

But possibly because, unlike her husband, the author observed this thespian behaviour from a certain distance, the book is not too incestuous. It is capable of standing back to create memorable non-theatre characters such as Afghan corner shop owner Mr Khan.

It can also make telling social observations, as when the actors visit the dysfunctional mother of the young working class lad Matt who they’ve taken on as part of a government scheme.

At such times, when the differences in lifestyle are laid so bare and with such powerful writing, the phrase ‘working class theatre’ can seem a bit too easy.

The main playwright working for Live Theatre at that time was CP Taylor. He was an inspiring person (his widow Liz still lives in Northumberland) and the fictional Cuff is only a lightly disguised version (indeed, the play the company are about to revive in the book is The Blaydon Races, which was the title of Taylor’s first play in the 1960s).

The novel is unlikely to be a bestseller. The public like to think of their actors in the glitzy world of chat show, celeb mag, West End and Hollywood, rather than sticking up the set in a draughty Blaydon Hall.

To be fair, most actors yearn for that world also. It is only later they realise the significance and importance of that draughty Blaydon Hall.

It is to the credit of Small Scale Tour that it understands that significance and importance too. In many ways, this fine book is an homage to the same.

Small Scale Tour by Caroline Ross (Honno Modern Fiction, £8.99)

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