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Northumberland Theatre Company takes to the road with Christmas show

The big theatre shows aren't always the best. David Whetstone looks at a festive production which punches above its weight

Eleanor Dennison, Louis Roberts, Justine Adams and Bidi Iredale in NTC's Once Upon a Time In the North
Eleanor Dennison, Louis Roberts, Justine Adams and Bidi Iredale in NTC's Once Upon a Time In the North

One of the region’s busiest and best-loved theatre companies hits the road today with a Christmas show infused with a distinct regional flavour.

Alnwick-based Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC) has looked to its own doorstep for a follow-up to last year’s very successful offering.

It is called Once Upon a Time in the North but you could also call it the perfect Christmas alternative to panto.

Gillian Hambleton, NTC’s innovative and energetic director, explains: “Last year we toured Grimm Tales, which went down very well with audiences, so this year we thought it would be a lovely idea to look at local folk stories and see how we can bring these to life in an exciting and quirky way.

“There are seven tales within the show and they all vary in length, flavour and themes.

“Some of the tales are funny and romantic, with faeries, bold knights and beautiful princesses, and others are scary, with dragons and evil queens taking centre stage. Some are just good fun.”

The brothers Grimm made their names with traditional tales drawn from across various European cultural traditions, popularising the likes of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Snow White before Walt Disney was a twinkle in his parents’ eye.

The Grimms took traditional stories and tailored them to suit their own tastes and those of their audiences. Nothing wrong with that since many – notably Walt as a grown-up in the burgeoning world of cinema – have done it before and since. It’s how culture evolves.

If the Grimms had got hold of The Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle, The Laidley Worm of Bamburgh, My Ainsel and The Men of Lorbottle, who knows what would have happened? Maybe they would have become part of the British panto tradition or even joined the Disney stable of cute and brightly-coloured feature-length cartoons.

But they missed their chance and NTC’s finance manager, Karen Hirst, moved in, adapting these North East stories before working on them with Gillian and the cast of four actors to produce an evening of imaginative storytelling.

The fact that the finance manager mucked in on the creative side tells you everything you need to know about NTC, a company which lost its guaranteed Arts Council funding but survived on a wave of public support and sheer hard work.

Says Gillian: “This has been a very enjoyable production to work on as we’ve all had a hand in it.

“It’s been tremendous fun finding ways to bring the stories to life which, as audiences will see, we’ve done using puppets, songs, dancing, games and lots of laughter, all cleverly framed in Michelle Huitson’s stunning Victorian Christmas set.”

Having enjoyed last year’s Grimm Tales offering – it was anything but grim – I can vouch for the ingenuity of the resident set designer.

The secret of her particular theatrical art is using the simplest of props to the greatest effect. If they can be taken down and packed into the van after the show in double quick time (a task invariably performed by the actors themselves) then so much the better.

This production has been supported by the Sir James Knott Trust and the St Hilda’s Trust which suggests NTC is proving successful in finding alternative sources of funding (though no doubt a philanthropic fan with a huge wallet wouldn’t go amiss).

NTC has built up a solid reputation in what the company calls “theatre-less zones in rural areas of the North East” – and nationally, too – for more than 30 years.

Just a few days ago Gillian was presented with an award by the theatre committee of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for her encouragement of new writing. The awards, handed out at a ceremony at the Royal Court Theatre in London, were the brainchild of playwright Mark Ravenhill.

Gillian had been nominated by playwright Bob Shannon, who wrote: “The working atmosphere at the company’s base in Alnwick was friendly, welcoming, collaborative and constructive.

“The dedication to achieving the highest possible standards of performance from the best possible scripts was impressive and heartening.”

He commented on the remarkably “buoyant optimism and determination” of the company in the wake of the funding cut which shocked its supporters.

With another new show on the road, things don’t look too grim at all. Exciting plans are taking shape for 2014 when the company is to work with more than 1,600 young people and audience members across the North East on a project called Notes from the Front.

It is to be funded with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s First World War: Then and Now project, marking the centenary of the start of the conflict.

Once Upon a Time in the North is on at Glanton Village Hall tonight (tickets: 01665 578503) and Hawthorn Community Centre, County Durham, tomorrow (0191 527 9422 or 527 2065). You can then catch it at small venues across the region throughout the festive period.

For all tour and ticket details, go to www.northumberlandtheatre.co.uk or call 01665 602586.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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