Review of 2011: North East Theatre

FROM kings to miners, old classics to premieres, theatre in our region encompassed the great and the good and everything in between this year with a mixed box of delights.

FROM kings to miners, old classics to premieres, theatre in our region encompassed the great and the good and everything in between this year with a mixed box of delights.

Looking back at some of those which played a starring role in 2011, we’re hard-pressed to select just a few productions but needs must so here goes with a selection of Culture’s highlights.

First up is the performance by Stephen Tompkinson in the debut of Faith & Cold Reading at Live Theatre at the end of February.

The new play, a dark comedy by North Shields-born Shaun Prendergast, had a lengthy run at the quayside venue and saw the usually family-friendly Tompkinson, dressed like an undertaker, give the cast’s stand-out performance and add a chill to the air as Tyneside gangster, Freddie the Suit.

We may be more used to seeing the locally-born actor on TV, but he had a stage presence we’d like to see more of.

Of course, we have to mention April’s new production at Northern Stage of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which scored on all fronts.

A joint effort between the Newcastle theatre and Sheffield Theatres, the new take on Edward Albee’s 1962 play was described on our Culture pages as possible the best thing Northern Stage has ever done.

Over two hours 40 minutes (and not one minute too long) the four-strong cast – starring Sian Thomas and Jasper Britton in the roles of Martha and George made famous by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1966 film version – played out a vicious dissection of two marriages in all its venomous glory.

All barbed digs and razor sharp wit melded with excellent performances, it was given epic treatment in the hands of director Erica Whyman.

Giving equally expert treatment to a now-well-honed play was the People’s Theatre in June with the first-ever amateur performance of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

The playwright gave his old drama teacher – People’s director Chris Heckels – special permission for the production to celebrate the Newcastle theatre’s 100th birthday year.

And what a way to celebrate.

With the hit play’s first amateur performance rights in their pocket, the cast – accompanied by live brass band – went all-out for a top-notch show to give the professionals, who have taken it to the West End and Broadway, a run for their money.

Pete McAndrew, as pitman turned painter Oliver Kilbourn, and Matthew Cummins, as art tutor Robert Lyon, led the cast in the now well-known warm, poignant (and true) North East story about the Ashington group of miners who found artistic fame in the 30s and 40s.

Also celebrating something of a birth, or rather re-birth, was the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, which marked its September re-opening - after a six-month £4.9m refit to restore its auditorium and foyer to its original 1901 glory – with a suitably royal occasion.

While Propeller Theatre’s Richard lll – one of my favourite productions – helped wrap up proceedings in February before the closure, another king re-opened it.

Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III – a fitting choice considering it was George III who granted the theatre its royal licence in 1788 – starred David Haig in the title role, capturing the king’s descent into temporary madness with all the poignancy and passion at his disposal.

The performance, against the backdrop of trademark Bennett humour, won him a standing ovation on the night we reviewed.

Performance isn’t confined to the theatre stage of course and this year we had another outdoor fairytale brought to us by Enchanted Parks.

High winds might have blown out one night of December’s four-evening light festival at Saltwell Park in Gateshead – no doubt to the relief of its aerial performers – but it was soon back on track, with highlights including the lights and rosebud display making a giant maypole of the bandstand and the smoke and flame-shrouded Medusa head sunk into the ground, its snakes weaving among tree branches.

But the big impact piece we’ve come to expect in the park’s dene was missing this year, though visitors were stopped in their tracks (quite literally) by “divers” wanting to introduce a fishy tale called Where the Land Meets the Ocean, while a surreal little vignette was acted out by Bare Toed Dance Company in Ladies of the Light where the illuminated outline of a parasol- carrying Victorian lady was picked out in the darkness as she took tea at a garden table beneath similarly-lit figures dangling from trees overhead.

We enjoyed promenade theatre, too, with a new production back in March at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle, following in the wake of its earlier promenade commissions which make such an occasion of a piece of theatre.

In the hands of director Alison Andrews, and Maurice O’Connell, of theatre company A Quiet Word, Edge of the Unknown conjured up the world of the supernatural, of believers and spiritualists, of poltergeists, magic and realism.

Audience members divided into small groups and followed performers up and down candle-lit stairs and in and out of atmospheric rooms to meet characters from the past such as writer Arthur Conan Doyle, a believer, and Houdini, an expert at the tricks of the trade who made a habit of disappearing and re-appearing around the building.

Performed by actors and students, it was imaginative, questioning and hugely entertaining – which is just what you want theatre to be.

This might all add up to a Newcastle-centric drop in the ocean but serves to give a flavour of a pretty fabulous year for performance.

Bring on 2012.

 

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer