If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Or, put it another way:
If a production plays to a theatre and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Oh, Berwick. Berwick, Berwick, Berwick – town of NOT BAd’s heart, cobbles of our soul, landscape of our collective loins/womb/post-op space. Where were you? What did you have scheduled that was more important than supporting new writing talent from the North East? Two wonderful shiny-bright plays – ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’ and ‘Hide’ – both lovingly crafted and sweated over, decisions whether to use the definite or indefinite article taking on all the heavy import of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan; two plays, demanding nothing from you but your quiet indulgence.
What’s that, Berwick? You couldn’t miss ‘EastEnders’? Or is your brain so surfeit with culture, so clammy through furtive costume drama binges, that the thought of expanding your experience by just one more mind-morsel had the lobes of your brain gripping the rim of the cerebral toilet?
Yes, look ashamed. It’s not just that you let us down; you let the writers down, you let the performers down, you let New Writing North down, you let Arts Council England down, but most of all you let… erm… wait…
It’ll come to us in a minute.
We realise these Northern Bites were scheduled against productions each with a cast employing the town’s entire child population but — hel-lo, Mum and Dad? Have you heard of helicopter parenting? Did you really need to sit through every performance of ‘Annie’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’? And anyway, crime-writer Graham Pears‘ ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’ came in at a modest sixty minutes and you could have quite comfortably watched it during the first act of ‘Annie’ and nipped back to catch the rest. No-one would have judged you.
And please. Don’t embarrass yourself by dragging the prevailing economic conditions into this. You got two plays for twelve quid. Yes! Twelve quid for two evenings of not having to talk to your spouse! Blimey, you’d be hard pressed to get a pastie from Greggs for that these days.
So now, because you couldn’t be arsed to support these productions, NOT BAd will tell you exactly what you missed and we will have our insufferable smug look on, the one we use for those morally superior occasions, what we like to call our ‘Just Bought a Big Issue’ face.
First, up ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’
This comedy drama revolves around the relationship between two brothers – Phil and John (Kalum Fergus and Charlie Richmond) – sitting on a park bench waiting for a girl who never comes. Only – !SPOILER! – she does. Phil (dressed as Captain Kirk) is a committed Trekkie – a naive dreamer who believes that a cryptic ad left in the local paper is a coded message meant for him from Sandra (Catherine MacCabe), a girl he met at a Star Trek convention and the love of his life before she mysteriously disappeared.
John is the older brother – a realist, feet planted firmly on the ground, master of his own destiny and plumbing business; a bluff wide-boy whose marriage is in trouble as his wife suspects he’s been sleeping around. John does his level best to get Phil to come to his senses, exhorting him to grow up and stop pining for the girl who dumped him.
There is narrative tension as we wait with the brothers, privy to their bickering and airing of childhood resentments. We won’t lie to you, reader, we had a momentary thrill of excitement that this could be a ‘Waiting for Godot’ set-up with a Tyneside Vladimir and Estragon.
And do you know what? We couldn’t quite shake off our disappointment when Sandra, Uhura to Phil’s Captain Kirk, actually did turn up. Because from that point on everything became tangible and earthbound, losing some lightness of touch, that ambiguity, which until then had been a joy.
For a debut play ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’ acquitted itself well with two well-rounded main characters, genuine warmth and snappy dialogue. Comic dialogue is extremely difficult to get right but Pears clearly has an ear for it; right from the outset the squabbling between brothers skips along, spilling a steady stream of laughs along the way.
We would have liked to have seen the secondary characters with more behind them; both Sandra and Victoria (bowling club commandant) lacked depth. And showing not telling is always the best way forward. Obviously in a one-act play some exposition is handy; what bothered us more was John’s somewhat clunky declamatory epiphany. But still, nothing a little finessing wouldn’t put right.
Staged with delightful simplicity and ably directed by Carolyn Fairlie, the solid performances by Fergus, MacCabe and Fairlie (Victoria) should have ensured this play had an audience far in excess of the seven that were there. A disgrace for The Maltings. Still, it meant we had the outstanding performance of Charlie Richmond as John almost all to ourselves. Natural timing and comic ability in spades. Bravo.
Out of the two scripts, it has to be said Carina Rodney’s professional playwriting experience shone through in ‘Hide’ (audience of six). Having had success on Radio 4 and at the Edinburgh Fringe, Rodney makes it look easy. There were so many cracking lines in this play that it was a job to give them all the attention they deserved.
Four disparate characters – Alex, Mary, Nelly and Taz – find themselves trapped together in a birdwatching hide in a remote part of rural Northumberland as a snow storm sweeps in.
Mary (Carolyn Fairlie) fizzes as an independent old-style feminist. She may have spent time at Greenham Common but this doesn’t prevent jealousy flaring on the arrival of young helpless Nelly (Catherine MacCabe) who, to Mary’s chagrin, stokes the embers of Alex’s (Matt Sutton) romantic notions of chivalry. But to no avail, as mysterious man of action Taz (Kalum Fergus) barely has to compete to win Nelly’s affections. While the four wait for rescue it soon becomes clear that everyone has something to hide and no-one is who they first seem.
This play is a fine example of fabulous characterisation. Only someone who has put in some serious character groundwork beforehand could have created people so recognisable through their vulnerabilities and hidden desires.
However, if justice is to be done to a script of this quality then it demands actors to match, and while the cast served ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’ admirably, they weren’t quite so successful in delivering ‘Hide’.
In the former play, Kalum Fergus turned in a Phil of touching naivety, but his Taz never really took shape; it was as if Fergus didn’t fully know where his character was coming from or how he should be played. A tough call admittedly – a twenty-something man playing a fifteen-year-old lad pretending to be a twenty-something man – and help should have been forthcoming.
There were pacing/timing issues too, mainly in the first act. It’s a common mistake in the bid for naturalness to trample lines under foot rather than giving them the air that they need. Hey, it’s okay to breathe! Some one-to-one work with director Geof Keys on nuance would have resolved this issue.
Saying that, Matt Sutton in the second half came into his own as Alex, delivering the best line of the night. Sick with envy that Nelly has slept with Taz who has subsequently vanished apparently taking all their rations with him, Alex rages with delicious gloating spite, “He fucked you and then he took your jaffa cakes!”
Our braying guffaw probably let us down.
As a fan of the less-is-more approach of staging, we felt the set of ‘Hide’ served the practicalities of the transitions more than the play itself. It didn’t contribute in any way to the atmosphere – the actors were managing fine by themselves with a few props. The painted flat made an ugly distraction, and if a way can be found to make transitions work without it, then so much the better.
So. Two new plays showcasing local play-writing talent. Yes, both these Northern Bites productions had their flaws, but that’s the beauty of projects like these. As any writer will tell you, a play is never finished; it’s always in a state of evolution. These plays are only just setting out on their theatrical journeys and when they reach their destination – if they reach their destination – they should be different creatures to those we’ve just seen.
NOT BAd feels privileged to have witnessed their first steps. No, in the grand scheme of things these plays may not have made much of a sound, but they certainly left a very good impression.
People of Berwick! We’d be interested to know your reasons for not going to see ‘The Starship Now Arriving At…’ and ‘Hide’ on 23rd and 29th/30th March respectively. Please take a few moments to click on the poll below.