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The love affair goes on

Natural born actor James Baxter is hoping the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will bring a repeat of the applause he earned in his native North-East, as David Whetstone reports.

Natural born actor James Baxter is hoping the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will bring a repeat of the applause he earned in his native North-East.

A VERY busy August beckons for one of the North-East’s most promising young actors – and he couldn’t be more pleased.

James Baxter, one of the finalists in our Culture Awards earlier this year, is one of the region’s contingent heading for Edinburgh and the annual Fringe Festival.

There the 17-year-old will revive the role of Darren in Scarborough, the short but controversial play about an affair between a female teacher and a pupil which was premiered last year in the Bite Size Theatre initiative. This saw lunchtime performances at Newcastle bar The Apartment and evening repeats at the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham.

The play, by Newcastle writer Fiona Evans, was challenging fare for a midday audience. But it had people talking and applauding loudly, earning the summer revival which will take Fiona, James and director Deborah Bruce into the entertainment jungle that is the Edinburgh Fringe.

There, every August, shows and performers of every description gather and clamour for an audience. They also hope to catch the attention of the many agents, producers and financiers who might – just might – take them up the ladder to fame and fortune. As the total audience is limited and spoilt for choice, it really is a case of the survival of the fittest.

Already, it seems, agents have been alerted to the potential of James Baxter whose confident performances in Scarborough impressed many and earned him a commendation as most promising newcomer in the Culture Awards.

“It could be his big break,” says Fiona. “I know a lot of people are interested. The Stage (the theatrical trade paper) have said they are going to do a big piece on him during the festival.”

The ability to play Darren so confidently and plausibly, opposite a more experienced actress several years his senior, marked James out as a bit special. And it will hardly hinder him that he has the same boyish good looks that have served Ant and Dec so well.

James grew up in Sunderland where dad Martin is a butcher and mum Bev a school nurse. He has a sister, Laura, who’s nine.

It is clear that James took to acting like a duck to water. He did a bit at school and spent four years performing regularly with the Northern Academy of Dramatic Arts in Sunderland.

He recalls: “I left when I was 15 but I really enjoyed it. I did a few shows there and I got taken on by Janet Plater who became my agent when I was about 12 or 13.”

A couple of adverts came his way, one with ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne. “I had a dinner with him. His mate Five Bellies was there too. They were great to me.”

It was Janet who sent him to audition for Scarborough, an intense drama set in one room of a guest house in that seaside town where Darren and teacher Lauren have gone for what used to be known as a dirty weekend. But before anyone gets too blase about this, Fiona points out that Scarborough is really dealing with paedophilia.

Part of her motivation for writing about it was to see what sort of reaction it would get. It actually crossed her mind to twin it with another play in which the script remained the same but the roles were reversed, so it was a male teacher with a female pupil.

Anyway, James was unfazed. “I read the script and the audition went really well. They had told me what it was about but at the time I was so excited to get the part that I didn’t really care.

“To be honest, I never really worried about it. I just enjoyed doing it and it didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just forgot the audience was there.”

It helped that Newcastle actress Ashlea Sanderson, 10 years his senior, proved to be an understanding co-star. “That really helped,” he says. “She was very experienced and we got on really well.”

One of the most potentially nerve-wracking performances was when his dad attended with a group of friends. They were enroute to a do. “Afterwards he just said, ‘Well done, son. I really enjoyed it’. That was nice. But we had positive feedback from everybody who came.”

James will have a new co-star in Edinburgh.

Replacing Ashlea, who has other commitments, will be London-based actress Holly Atkins who has appeared in EastEnders and Holby City and has worked in the past with director Deborah Bruce.

Rehearsals start on Monday in Newcastle and, despite James’s excitement about his first Edinburgh Festival visit, it is clear that the really hard work is just beginning.

The play is being staged at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh, one of the prime festival venues, from August 3-27 (excluding August 14). There will be performances each day at 4pm, 5pm and 6pm. If that isn’t a punishing schedule, I don’t know what is.

“I expect it will get hard but I’m really excited about it,” says James who sees his future lying in stage work or films (asked for his favourite screen actors, he cites Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, both known for their edgy roles and cult following). “I will come back to Sunderland for four days and then I’m going to Ibiza for a holiday.” It will be well deserved.

Early next year we should see James on television.

He has won a part in new children’s series The Revenge Files of Alistair Fury (based on the books by Jamie Rix) which is to be shot in the North-East and shown on CBBC, partly filling the gap left by the scrapping of Byker Grove.

The team behind Scarborough are seeking a sponsor for the play’s Edinburgh run.

With no subsidy to support them, their Scottish adventure is taking flight on a wing and a prayer.

“It will happen but how, I don’t know at the moment,” says playwright Fiona Bruce.

She and producer Justine Watson are hoping that a sponsor might be able to come up with £2-3,000 to ensure that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival run is a success.

Having a company name attached to one of the North-East’s rising young stars – and that could equally apply to Fiona who has some interesting writing projects up her sleeve – could amount to a shrewd bit of business.

Anyone interested can contact Justine via email on justine@mediatique.co.uk


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