Tracey Emin and William Blake in focus. Tate Liverpool. 10-03-17.

My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805

Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.

Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.

Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

Pygmalion. Headlong/West Yorkshire Playhouse/ Nuffield theatre Southampton at Liverpool Playhouse.

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

I love Bernard Shaw’s work so if you are going to play with the text and leave out/ rewrite/ distort whole scenes of one of his best known plays, Pygmalion, and expect me to like it you are on dangerous ground. I haven’t read the reviews of the co-production I saw at Liverpool playhouse between Headlong and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I’m quite sure that some people will not like that idea at all, however well it is done, and if the production hasn’t worked it will sink without trace. It’s a brave thing to do and the director Sam Pritchard has expected a lot of his actors and laid himself on the line. Once or twice it made me lay back my ears a bit but it still managed to carry me along and kept me onside.

Shaw himself was not afraid of comparing himself to Shakespeare and part of me thinks that he would be outraged at not being able to hear every word of his precious script. Another part of me imagines that the man who campaigned for a new phonetic alphabet would have been delighted at the playfulness and attack of the cast as they juggled accents, lip-synched recorded voices and distorted their lines in the opening scene. He would also have been delighted that his best writing was still there exactly as he wanted it and shone as brightly as ever. Doolittle’s great speech, Mrs Higgins disastrous at home- a comic masterpiece- and the moving scenes at the end between Higgins and Eliza were all (literally) showcased and given full weight allowing the actors to fly. Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett were both heartfelt and true to the original characters and it was this that held the show together. Without their belief and commitment there would have just been two hours of a director enjoying being clever. Audiences need to have people on stage that they can relate to and understand. My heart lifted at the end when the two of them were given space to spark off each other and show some real emotion as that always impresses me far more than directors imposing their own ideas on a play. I also liked Liza Sadovy as Mrs Higgins and Raphael Sowole as Colonel Pickering very much.

The design by Alex Lowde works very well, especially the giant vitrine on stilts, which forms the set for Mrs Higgins front room and later her conservatory. It was both beautiful and appropriate for a play which is all about appearances and social conventions.

In short they were flying close to the wind to make this work- we even heard a bit of My Fair Lady from Eliza as she rode in a taxi on screen- but thanks to some truthful acting and the fact the fact that they left the best of Shaw’s writing alone they got away with it and this is a really interesting and thought provoking new look at a play that is over a hundred years old.

Magic, Mysteries and Midnight Feasts. The many adventures of Enid Blyton. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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The Enid Blyton exhibition, Magic, Mystery and Midnight Feasts, at Scarborough Art gallery is fascinating. There are photographs, books, toys, letters, plenty for those like me who read her books years ago to enjoy and plenty of interactive play things for todays tots to have fun with. It’s the first major exhibition that there has ever been about her and it is in a small provincial gallery, a fact which is very telling. In her heyday Enid Blyton was hugely popular and the young woman at the ticket desk said that it had been a busy exhibition and the museum would be sorry to see it go. Her work rate was phenomenal- so much so that she liked to produce her typescripts as proof of authorship to people who doubted that one person could write so much. Unless it was a school story when she needed to keep track of characters as they moved up through the school years she never wrote notes. It all poured out onto a manual typewriter sitting on her desk or her knee.

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She understood in a way that no children’s writer had done before her how important it was to build a connection with her young readers. Any of them who wrote to her would receive a hand written reply- a big commitment in the days before social media- and there were competitions and invitations to teas at her home, Green Hedges.

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She took her commitment to her young readers very seriously. It was a very carefully managed public persona and it worked. Games, toys and books were marketed. Even her signature became a familiar logo which is still used. This is all commonplace today but back then it was very unusual for anything much to be known about an author outside the content of their books. Childhood reading was a private, solitary activity and authors were just names. Enid Blyton broke through that. She understood how powerful it was for readers to feel that they were being allowed into her world in just the same way that JK Rowling does today. All very cosy- she doesn’t sound like a controversial character but she was. She was disliked by teachers and librarians and eventually her books were banned, but nothing could stop children reading them. I will be kind and say that she was a woman of her time but plenty of people have examined the attitudes displayed in her prose and said much worse. Her books have proved lastingly popular- while not as omnipresent as they were- but they need careful editing before they are acceptable today. Here is an extract from Last Term at Malory Towers as a quite gentle way of showing what I mean without getting into accusations of racism or snobbery. I picked up the book in the exhibition and it took me seconds to find what I needed.

“Clarissa said she wished you would do it again, when she was looking” said Suzanne in French. “We would like to see it done. Me also I would like it very much. We are too big and old and prudent to do tricks- but we do not mind watching you!”
This was very naughty of Suzanne. No sixth-former would be silly enough to encourage the younger ones to come and play tricks in their room as much as they liked- which is what Suzanne was telling them to do! But Suzanne was French. She hadn’t quite the same ideas of responsibility that the British girls had.

It’s a very strong, moralistic authorial voice which I find unpleasant now but when I was very young I lapped it up along with everybody else. She had a way of making her readers feel grown up and important which was very flattering. You got to know her, even if you were never one of the lucky ones who got to visit Green Hedges. Her stories were exciting. There were girls who stood up for themselves, schools which allowed the pupils to bring their ponies with them, children who could outwit policemen, brave dogs, spooky islands and secrets. Her style was sometimes clunky- she did write very fast- but you were more interested in what was happening on the page. Her attitudes were never questioned because the stories pulled you along with them and your limited experience of the world allowed you to take them at face value. Enid Blyton was a nice smiley author who loved everybody who read her books so she had to be all right and you knew exactly what to expect from her.

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I left feeling quite sorry that this was the first exhibition devoted to someone who was such a major figure in so many children’s lives but also quite glad that nobody had mentioned the golliwogs. Some things are best left in the past and perhaps Enid Blyton is one of them.

Beryl. West Yorkshire Playhouse at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 30-10-15

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Samantha Power as Beryl Burton. Production photograph by Keith Pattison.

Beryl Burton was not born to be a great athlete, she became perhaps the greatest cyclist that Britain has ever produced by sheer hard work and force of will at a time when cycling- however good you were- did not bring huge fame and money. Maxine Peake’s play, Beryl, tells her life story, showing us how an ordinary Yorkshire lass without the advantages of money or good health became someone truly remarkable. I don’t believe in the trite adage that “you can achieve anything that you want to” but Beryl’s story is enough to make you wonder.

The writing itself, which is cleverly structured and well done, but not especially memorable in itself, does a simple job of telling a story which is well worth hearing. What does make the play memorable is the stagecraft and the teamwork of the four actors. Samanth Power, Rebecca Ryan, John Elkington and Dominic Gately. They get the tone exactly right, down to earth, sparky and friendly. It is harder to bring off than it seems, full of quick timing, hard physical work, fast changes of mood and technical details which the actors need to be aware of. The writing uses this aspect of the play self-consciously and it is full of wit and charm. Alongside this we need to see real, believable characters who we can get behind, or it might have seemed an empty technical exercise, and right from the start, smiling at us as they get things ready, the cast make sure that we are on their side. Beryl herself is a gift of a part and Samantha Power is both likeable and engaging- a convincing embodiment of everything that we hear talked about. Take away the cycling and there really isn’t much drama in Beryl’s life. She was poorly with Rheumatic fever as a child, worked incredibly hard to achieve and maintain fitness, had a long, happy marriage and a daughter who followed in her footsteps. She finally died on her bike at the age of 59 having pushed herself to the limit all her life. The drama within the cycling, which has to be at the heart of the play, is cleverly staged using back projection and real bikes on stands and it works beautifully. This is down to some really clever direction from Rebecca Gatward which is at least as important as the writing- not something that can be said often.

This is an unashamed tribute to someone who thoroughly deserves it, a roll call of a life well lived and her considerable achievements. One of Beryl’s records still stands today in spite of all the advantages of modern cycling. We were not just applauding a piece of theatre at the end, we were applauding the spirit of a great Yorkshire woman and there’s nothing we like doing better than that here in Yorkshire.

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Beryl Burton in 1967.

The Woman in Black. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 30-07-15

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Production photograph copyright Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media.

The Woman in Black started out at the Stephen Joseph theatre as a small scale lunchtime show, back in 1987, without any thought that it might become the second longest running show ever to be staged in the West End- it has been running for twenty five years and there have been twelve national tours. Something about it touched a nerve. Quite simply Stephen Mallatratt took Susan Hill’s clever, middle of the road ghost story- the kind of thing which has a wide audience- and produced a pitch perfect piece of writing for the stage which was given an engaging and very theatrical production. It draws you in cleverly, and is genuinely frightening when you see it for the first time. It was one of the Stephen Joseph’s greatest successes in its first 60 years and it was no surprise to find another revival of it in the 60th anniversary celebration season. A safe choice but I think that we can forgive them that.

This production doesn’t put a foot wrong. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about seeing it again, having seen a young Martin Freeman in the SJT’s 1997 revival and got to know the twists and turns, but I am very glad that I did. Robin Herford, the original director, has been with the show for every production and every recast and this is obvious from the start, the whole thing runs like a well oiled machine. Every move, every line reading, has been proved by time to hit home when done correctly and the technical team, Denzil Hebditch and Charlotte Brooke manage a series of challenging sound and lighting cues faultlessly. By now I am probably making it sound like the equivalent of Sunday evening television, and but for the two actors at the centre of it it might well have been. Christopher Godwin and Tom Godwin bring it to life with great accuracy and energy. They establish an immediate rapport with the audience, which is important if you want those watching to be afraid, and we can lose ourselves in the story confidently, sure that they both care about telling it to us and know exactly how to do it. They make you feel that they are presenting it to you for the first time rather than trotting out an old war horse yet another time and nothing matters more than that. A lot is asked of them and they deliver. It also adds an extra frisson that they are father and son as this works perfectly within the play when we are taken back in time.

Obviously I am not going to say anything about the plot as one or two people may still not have seen it in spite of the film (which had drawn a few young people into the theatre) but it is a very classy piece of writing which allows you to scare yourself with a minimum of effort. We do that much more successfully if we are left to our own devices

The First 60 Years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough Art Gallery. 11-07-15

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The Stephen Joseph theatre is sixty years old this this year- two years older than I am- and for someone who has been seeing productions there for thirty years the celebratory exhibition at Scarborough art gallery is a fascinating walk back through time. Theatre is an impossible art form to recreate- you are either there to see it at a given moment or you are not- and that is what makes it so special to those who love it. When it is gone it is gone. What we are shown in the exhibition are ghosts. Posters, photographs, costumes, props, designs, fragments of something that once lived and breathed. These fragments help us connect with the past, whether it is thirty years ago or last October. Oh the memories………… hand painted publicity from the seventies, two of the original seats which came to Westwood after the Floral hall was demolished, (I might have sat in one of them in either venue!) the white fur coat with a magnificent train that Sarah Parks wore as Marlene Dietrich, relics from the lifetime of a theatre. Magic props. Memories of plays that I saw, plays that I missed, plays that went on to be performed all over the world after their birth on a tiny round stage.

Woman_in_mindIt says a lot about both my family and the town of Scarborough that it took me until 1985- well after I had become a theatre nut- to walk through the doors into the old Theatre in the Round at Westwood for the first time. Our family holidays were about seeing the big summer shows and that was what both they and the town valued most. I struck lucky. It was the original production of Woman in Mind, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. I was completely entranced by both the play and the space. At that point I had seen nothing like it before. Even my dad had to admit as we walked out that “if they put that on in a proper theatre that wouldn’t be a bad play”. I have been going back throughout the thirty years that have passed since. I have seen some of the best theatre there that you could ever wish for and a few real turkeys. No playwright and no theatre company gets it right every time over that kind of timescale and that’s fine- it’s what makes it so special when it works. The stakes are high and you sit there in hope.

I have even performed there myself, back in the Westwood days when there was a break in the professional season and amateur companies were allowed to mount productions. It’s a thrilling space to act in- a very exposed circular arena where there is no place to hide. It demands truth and complains loudly when it doesn’t get it. Seeing an actor like Michael Gambon or Judd Hirsch at full pitch in an intimate space like that is a wonderful privilege. You are just lucky to be there in one of the few available seats without having to pay through the nose for the chance. Even today you can get a midweek matinee ticket for ten pounds if you are quick off the mark. I mean…….. come on, why wouldn’t you? So many famous names have been on stage in Scarborough that it is easy to forget that you saw them there first, I was surprised to find out, for example, that I saw Martin Freeman in the revival of The Woman in White back in 1997 when I saw his face in the exhibition. In contrast I have a very clear memory of Tamsin Outhwaite. I had picked her out as a star before she even opened her mouth as I watched her on stage flicking sulkily through a magazine.

It was good to read so many supportive quotes for the theatre around the walls. Alan Ayckbourn’s gift to the town has not always had the appreciation from the town of Scarborough that it deserves. A town councillor once famously remarked that the small subsidy which the council used to give would be better spent on public toilets. Luckily Ayckbourn’s loyalty to both the town and his mentor Stephen Joseph’s vision of a very special way of making theatre ensured that the town got a theatre whether it wanted one or not. It has been a lifeline and a joy to me through most of my adult life, growing and flourishing against the odds and it is still there, a beacon of live performance at the top of Westborough. That is something to celebrate. Long may it continue.