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A play with real Guts raises big questions

Big questions are raised by a highly unconventional show called Guts

Tony Neilson, one of the principal characters in Guts
Tony Neilson, one of the principal characters in Guts

Newcastle United has a new owner and he has a grand plan. He wants to create a money-spinning gated complex for the rich at the historic heart of the city, sweeping away the glorious legacy of John Dobson and Richard Grainger.

No, this isn’t you-know-who, currently dominating the news and sports pages once again. We’re in the world of make believe and the controversial tycoon is one Michael Carlisle.

His plan – if it doesn’t sound anatomically unlikely – lies at the heart of Guts, a show which opens tonight at the Mining Institute in Newcastle as part of the Festival of the North East.

On Monday I met the creative team as they put the finishing touches to an extraordinary entertainment which can’t really be called a play in the conventional sense.

“Multi-media site specific performance,” they’re calling it, which allows for the archive photographs, animation and film footage integral to the piece, and also for the wonderfully evocative setting.

Here in the Mining Institute, where you are free to visit Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm, you get a sense of coal as black gold.

Here amid palatial splendour - all stained glass, wood panels, gilt-framed portraits of substantial men and countless priceless, leather-bound bibles of the mining industry – you see that not everyone who made a living from coal needed a dip in a tin bath at the end of a shift.

Gut is the work of professionals and aspiring professionals, of established actors and very recent graduates of Northumbria University who sit on the threshold of the world of work.

But it was first conceived, said playwright Peter Dillon, at the turn of the millennium as a conventional play for the theatre.

“Then the opportunity came to fit in with the Festival of the North East which seemed to be about the same sort of concerns that are expressed in the play.

“Doing it here meant there had to be a major adaptation of the play to make it specific to this site. It meant quite a big somersault.

“What it is about remains, but it has gained a more contemporary feel with regard to what’s going on in the city in relation to austerity and the cuts.”

Peter said the seed of the play was sown during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister, “when the divide between rich and poor became greater than ever.

“It was all to do with the idea of bankers running amok and self-centred entrepreneurs exploiting the public purse.”

Not a heck of a lot seems to have changed since then, he suggested, and the idea of a gated city for the rich – already a reality in some parts of the world: South America, South Africa, India – raised interesting questions.

Lined up against the big man with his money is a little man who has little, a sewerage worker called Charlie Butts.

He is, said Peter, “someone who’s not entirely disenfranchised but at the very bottom of the pile.

“He takes it upon himself, as a recently bereaved person who couldn’t save his wife from illness, to save his city from destruction.”

Peter then said “the real spark” for Guts came when he was walking on Newcastle’s Mosley Street once, some years ago, and witnessed “this amazing outburst – just this column of water bursting through the pavement from the sewer.

“This gave me the idea of a kind of natural force which is going to sweep aside anything in its way ... which is where Charlie comes from.”

Actor Tony Neilson, making whoopee in his Ghostbusters-type costume, plays Charlie, while fellow professional Alex Elliott is cast as Carlisle.

Director Fiona MacPherson said Guts was about making people think about what sort of city they wanted.

“Grainger and Dobson loved this city and gave us Grey Street and so did T Dan Smith although he gave us Swan House roundabout and the Central Motorway.

“But the play aims to make you think about how you balance the need to develop a city and maintain and preserve the things that you love about it.”

Both Peter and Fiona lecture at Northumbria University, in media production and performing arts respectively, and are keen to express the educational value of Guts.

“This can be a platform from which the young people can get into professional work,” said Fiona.

As well as performing arts students, students of fine art and the built environment have also had a hand in making Guts, as has designer and university staff member Keith McIntyre whose fabulous animations will grace the production.

Many challenges confront the young cast – Charlie Martin, Tom Mclean, Erin Connor, Jamie Tansley, Sean Winnie and Stevie Devlin – and also assistant director Naomi Roxby Wardle.

For one thing, this is a promenade performance where the audience is not always seated but often on the move.

Alex Elliott had some advice: “For me the key is not to be intimidated by either the space or the fact the audience can be unpredictable.

“In theatre that gives you opportunities. It requires a lot of attention and care but I think it’s also really exciting. I’ve probably done more work in non-theatrical spaces over the last 10 years than in theatres.”

His younger colleagues seemed undaunted.

“This was our first opportunity to work with professionals. It’s not something you say no to,” said Erin.

Naomi added: “Having a degree is not really enough these days. You need something else to show you have some experience of work.”

For Jamie nerves were not going to be a problem. “It’s exhilarating,” he said.

“To see all that work come together is going to be really exciting, something we’re really proud of.”

For Tom, who graduated a year ago, it’s a chance to put aside for a while the novel he has been writing.

Guts is being performed at the Mining Institute from tonight until Saturday and then on June 24, 25 and 27-9 at 7pm with 2pm performances on June 22 and 27. For tickets tel. 0191 233 2459 or 0191 227 3620 or go to www.northumbria.ac.uk/guts

There is an exhibition, The Art of Mining, at the Mining Institute until June 28. It is open 2-5pm weekdays and features work by Bill Hindmarsh, Tom Lamb, Terry Parks, Derek Slater and Rick Smith. Admission is free.

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