Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

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Geordie Sinatra. SJT and Live Theatre Newcastle at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 31-05-12

Anthony Cable as Geordie.
Production photograph by Chris Auld.

Geordie Sinatra highlights an important subject, that of Altzheimers disease, something which is not talked about enough. It is a brave choice. Geordie has been a Frank Sinatra tribute act in his younger days. He never made the big time but he had talent and he wowed them in the Sands, Whitley Bay. He is still there now, living in the faded remains of The Sands with his partner Joan to care from him. His grudging daughter Nancy is helping out while she visits. As the Altzheimers takes hold his mind is drifting away from reality back into his own past, and that of Frank Sinatra himself. There is a lot of love and care around him, even if it isn’t always expressed well, but the arrival of Sonny, one of his band members from the past, opens up old wounds and hidden secrets. This ultimately moving story is played out with a succession of vintage Sinatra songs which are sung and played live with panache by the cast and the musical director Richard Atkinson. The songs comment or reflect on what is happening, and this structure is the greatest strength of the piece, along with the performances.

Heather Saunders and Anthony Cable.
Production photograph by Chris Auld.

Anthony Cable is a very experienced musical performer and he is both touching and believable as Geordie. When he (inevitably) sings My Way it is both moving and uplifting, and without his talent there would quite simply have been no play. It is his show and he does it justice. The rest of the cast, Jill Myers, Heather Saunders and Kraig Thornber, provide nice support, playing a variety of parts. I particularly liked Heather Saunders in her incarnation as Ava Gardner and Jill Myers is very moving in her care and concern for Geordie.

The set, designed by Jan Dee Brown, sits beautifully in the cabaret configuration of the round and makes those members of the audience sitting in the table seats at the front, feel that we are actually in the Sands. The design is clever, a faded cabaret bar, just right for the period when The Sands would have been built, and it has just the right faded seaside aura. There is a wealth of well thought out detail to enjoy from the front seats.

The writing, by Fiona Evans, has its strong points. I love the echoes of the Pennies From Heaven style surrealism that pop up in the musical numbers now and again- I would have liked a lot more of that- and the basic idea works very well. The dialogue is good when it stays close to reality and there are some nice moments, but I could have done without the plot revelations later in the play if I am honest. They don’t completely ring true and there is enough of a story there in Geordie’s fight, with the help of his family, to stay true to himself and perform one last comeback gig as Frank. There is a great play to be got out of this material, not just a capable one which is given a very good production by Chris Monks and his talented cast. All the same, I give Fiona Evans full credit for tackling it. It is a brave effort at a subject which needs to be talked about more, given our ageing population. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t even braver.

The Pitmen Painters. Leeds Grand Theatre. 27-08-11

“Real Art belongs to everyone. ” “You take one thing and you transform who you are.”

The Pitmen Painters comes to Leeds trailing clouds of glory gathered during several years of success. It started small in Newcastle, transferred to the National Theatre and became a long running and award winning success both there and on Broadway. It is about to go into the West End with several members of the original cast still in place and this tour is a welcome chance to see it again in the North before London grabs it back.

I am not surprised that Lee Hall (who wrote Billy Elliot) recognised it immediately as a perfect subject for him when he picked up William Feaver’s book about the Ashington Group, a group of North East painters who began painting in the 1930’s, in a second hand bookshop. He must have felt like all his Christmases had come at once. He was the perfect person to tell the story of the pitmen painters and he has done them justice. It is a brave piece of writing, very fast, sharp and funny and if he hadn’t got the tone exactly right he might have risked patronising them. He has made changes for dramatic effect, as you have to in order to shape a piece of theatre, but the spirit of a fiercely proud and intelligent group of men sings out in the writing. They were intent on finding out about all kinds of things that they had never had the chance to learn at school through their Workers Educational Association classes, and they were prepared to put the time in even after a long shift down the pit in order to make up for what they had lost. Second best was never going to be good enough. They wanted to really learn with no pretensions or posing and they were not afraid to ask difficult questions. When they decided to have a go at art appreciation they homed in straight away on the key issues about the meaning of art and the London tutor that they had hired to come up each week to teach them quickly realised that showing them lantern slides of the Sistine chapel was not going to be of much use. They needed answers and there would be no hiding behind academic waffle. They were not going to be happy until they really knew. They were men of great integrity, proud of who they were and that was what they needed to express. They were going to have to learn by doing and that is what Robert Lyon led them towards, starting with lino cuts and allowing them to find and develop their considerable talent together as they looked at and criticised each others work. This approach eventually led to considerable wider acclaim, London exhibitions and a lot of attention but the men kept their jobs, held together as a group in spite of the pressures, and remained true to themselves and their community. Art remained central to their lives but they never allowed themselves to be sucked into the art market. Their work was kept together by Oliver Kilbourne, a key member of the group, and it is now displayed in a permanent gallery at Woodhorn. It’s an inspiring story, one which brings up issues of class and snobbery, creativity, and integrity, and richly deserves to be told. The play makes you feel very proud of what they achieved and also very sorry for all those clever and agile minds of the time who were not able to find the same opportunity. In some ways, as Lee Hall clearly points out in the play, the modern world has not managed to follow the trail that they blazed. We have let them down.

Great writing then, and wonderful dialogue, and the actors rise to it. Several of the original cast are still in place and far from this fact making the show look tired it has made it into a powerful example of a company working in perfect harmony. They know how to time every move, every laugh line and every exchange perfectly but the characters are so strong and well drawn that the play remains truthful and real. It is a true company piece, just as the men themselves were a “company”of painters. Along with the laughs there are some very moving speeches from Trevor Fox as Oliver Kilbourne ( one of which drew a round of applause at the matinee I was at- not something which you hear often today) and Michael Hodgson as Harry Wilson. David Leonard provides an interesting contrast to the miners as Robert Lyon, a decent man of considerable knowledge about Art who begins the play by suddenly finding himself completely out of his depth but who ends up finding great joy in what the men are able to achieve. His relationship with the group is fascinating. There is no automatic respect or acceptance given to what he says, it has to be earned, and he is humble enough, and insightful enough, to let the men find their own way and treat them as the equals that they are. He also has something to learn from them as they work together and David Leonard portrays this beautifully.

There are some fine scenes to enjoy. I loved the meeting between Oliver Kilbourne and Ben Nicholson ( a nicely played second role in the play for Brian Lonsdale) where Nicholson does most of the talking but you can see Oliver realising that he has to change his mind about his future as he listens.

The set is simple, brown and drab, slowly filling up with the colour and variety of their work as the play progresses, a metaphor for what is happening in the men’s lives and it has been directed with speed and panache by Max Roberts. He has done a lot of work with Lee Hall up at Live theatre on Newcastle’s quayside where the play began and it shows. Director, writer and mostly local actors have worked together in perfect sympathy.  No wonder what they have produced has spoken to so many people from so many very different backgrounds over the last few years, just as the pitmen painters themselves did.

It took me far too long to catch up with this one, but I am very thankful that I did.