, ,

National Youth Theatre and Contact, Manchester: Putting young people centre stage

With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby
With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby

In this age of extremes, I often find myself at the sharp end of funding squeezes, local authority cuts, and am continually alarmed by the devastating demise of arts in our state schools.

As you can imagine, it truly depresses me. 

So, I was delighted to be invited to a soft-launch of the National Youth Theatre’s award-worthy £4m refurbished premises on Holloway Road.

The National Youth Theatre’s HQ, Holloway Road, London

The organisation nurtured Daniel Craig, Helen Mirren, Zawe Ashton and many more of our theatre legends.

Speaking at the supporters event, dynamic NYT CEO and Artistic Director Paul Roseby said: “Cuts to the arts in our state schools have led to a significant pressure on organisations like ours that work with young people to bridge the gap. What’s going on across these revitalised spaces here are all about giving young people the chance to start again. Failure is what we are about, and we embrace that as much as success.”

He continued: “If you are a youth organisation you have to stick your neck out; it’s now more important than ever before.” 

Certainly, school reforms have caused pupils to move away from arts subjects such as dance, music and art, and towards more traditional academic subjects such as geography and English. What’s more, recent analysis of government data shows that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade.

Outside the M25, Manchester’s Contact Theatre on Oxford Road, closed in 2017 but has also just reopened following a £6m ‘youth led’ revamp. 

First established as a theatre in 1972, in 1999 Contact reinvented itself as a multi-disciplinary creative space specialising in producing work with, and providing opportunities for, young people aged 13 to 30. 

Contact Young Company, Everything All of the Time

What’s so brilliant about Contact is under Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Matt Fenton, this significant refurbishment was led by a dedicated team of young people at Contact – who had their say on everything from light fittings to consultations with the architects.  

Speaking at the Press Night of Contact Young Company’s excellent show Everything All of the Time, Fenton said: “Young people should have access to free, high-quality and world-class creative resources to express themselves, to find their politics, find themselves and to then go out into the world and do amazing things. Contact has always done that, but this building now allows us to do that at such a higher level.” 

The iconic Contact, Oxford Road in Manchester

There has been a radical growth in the knowledge economy and creative industries over the past decade. It goes without saying that an education that includes creative subjects facilitates critical thinking and increases emotional resilience.

Quite simply, it is a proven fact how small investments return massively more than was spent and the cultural impact it has on our children is huge. What might a viable, authentic, enduring kind of ‘levelling up’ look like?

Nobody I speak to understands what it means – despite the government’s levelling-up fund of £4.8bn, and places now bidding for help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”. 

Anyway, according to a recent report UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre cultural organisations across the UK save the NHS £102 million a year thanks to the physical and mental health benefits to attendees.

Remarkably, the report found that the NHS saves a yearly total of £11.91 for every person partaking in such an activity, from a reduction in GP visits and use of psychotherapy services.

But as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the National Youth Theatre and Contact investing in these spaces for the next generation of dramatic talent offers us all hope. I left both occasions feeling a sense of optimism that I had not felt for some years.

There is an overwhelming sense, too, that we are at a turning point and that the arts can and must play a leading role in developing talent, protecting communities, as well as in fighting cuts in higher education and cultural education in schools.

It demonstrates, quite pertinently, that in order avoid widening inequality of access to the arts, that theatres across the country must enact their civic duty – not only to plug the gaps, but to truly level up every part of the UK.

, , ,

Bat out of Hell rocks Manchester Opera House

Bat Out of Hell is the first big musical to be staged at the theatre and it’s a night of delirious entertainment.

It’s a tale of unrequited love from different sides of the track, with a parent determined to keep them apart. Story wise, it is post-apocalyptic Peter Pan.

Jay Scheib’s totally electrifying production re-imagines the jukebox musical for these mad times.

If you saw the show in London you won’t be disappointed –  the flames, the cameras circling the stage, the video screen capturing and magnifying the action are all here. There’s no expense spared.

What’s more, this talented and vibrant cast navigate the luminescent and fast-paced production with high stamina and real flair. The songs are gloriously sung and the occasion allows everyone to let their hair down.

Glenn Adamson and Martha Kirby lead as Strat and Raven respectively, and are electric together. 

Glenn Adamson and Martha Kirby

Incredibly, Meatloaf’s three Bat Out Of Hell albums have sold a staggering 100 million copies globally. This lively and quirky show has been perfectly reconfigured for a UK Tour and features all the hits: Out Of Hell, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.

Jim Steinman’s soaring rock n roll anthems and Jon Bausor’s anarchic designs offer an extravagant sense of occasion, as well as a show with extremely high production values. The lighting and sound are world class here. 

It was great to see people having fun, and this high voltage and good-natured mega show is the perfect tonic to reinvigorate regional theatres and attract audiences back after a miserable 21 months. 

Vegas? Don’t bet against it. 

Bat Out of Hell runs at Manchester Opera House until 2 October and tours the UK through to November 2022.

, , ,

Jonathan Harvey: ‘Good drama should challenge you and go to places that you think that you might not want to go.’

18 months into the Doomsday pandemic, Liverpool’s Everyman theatre has re-opened and restaged Jonathan Harvey’s Our Lady of Blundellsands.

This twisted new play – that ran for just five performances before the first national lockdown in March 2020 – tells the story of the Domingo family who have plenty of skeletons in their closets. 

Harvey – best known for the cult sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme and the astounding 1990s gay coming-of-age drama Beautiful Thing — is one of Liverpool’s most acclaimed writers and on good form as we chat via Zoom. “I wanted to write a play that on the surface is a comedy but is telling some dark truths about how f***** up this family is,” Harvey explains.

Beautiful Thing (1996) Film4 Productions, World Productions

“Good drama should challenge you and go to places that you think that you might not want to go. I’m really interested in twisted, dark secrets really.”

Nick Bagnall’s deliciously dark production boasts an impressive ensemble of actors, all of whom relish the chance to sink their teeth into Harvey’s witty dialogue. One liners whiz across the stage like poison arrows, some of them loaded with genuine moments of hilarity and melancholy. Josie Lawrence plays Sylvie, a tragic Norma Desmond figure basking in the long-faded glory of a cameo on ‘Z-Cars’ during the sixties. 

There’s an almost vaudevillian edge to several of the play’s most inventive set pieces, with tragedy smacking up against emotional slapstick to bizarrely comic effect. What, I ask, are his favourite things about the Our Lady of Blundellsands cast this time around? “Three of them weren’t in it before so they have done a terrific job of slotting in,” he says.

“Josie Lawrence is incredible and never misses a laugh, she knows how to give an audience what they want,” he says. “I have been a massive fan of Mickey Jones for years, Gemma Brodrick, who plays Alyssa, just really cracks me up and is that authentic Liverpool voice, Jo Howarth inhabits the role and has found a real playfulness to the character. Nathan is an actor I’ve worked with the most, and he’s great, versatile, and very bright and Nana is solid, and you feel very safe whenever he’s on stage.”  

Josie Lawrence as Sylvie in Our Lady of Blundellsands

Our Lady of Blundellsands is Harvey’s 25th stage play and reunites him with director Nick Bagnall, who acted in Hushabye Mountain in the 90’s. I ask what makes their partnership so special. “Listen, I’ve worked with a lot of directors who haven’t worked with a living writer before,” he stresses. 

“Nick really understands the play and we are very much on the same page. He’s just inventive, he never loses his temper. That level of patience is impressive. Nick gets my writing, and some directors don’t like the writers’ giving notes or being involved and he welcomes it. I think the world of him.” 

Jonathan Harvey & director Nick Bagnall in rehearsal

Harvey is a dream, a delight, a gift of an interview. After around an hour of this endlessly revealing, completely surprising, incredibly funny, virtual discourse, I ask him if he finds reviews useful? Harvey nods. “Yeah, sometimes they are helpful. Of course, its lovely to get nice reviews – but you just have to learn what they are about. For the writer, though, you know when you haven’t got it quite right.”

He continues: “You know when the play is fifteen minutes too long, and you can either sort it out or you’ve not quite worked out how to do it. What critics will pick up on are the places you think are a bit sh** as well, but you haven’t had the time or the brain to fix them.” 

So what is the secret of a good play? “Not too long. Have a f****** interval,” he says, smiling. “Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait is my mantra.” 

And, finally, what does he make of fellow Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries, the newly appointed culture secretary? “Interesting,” he says diplomatically. “I’d really love to know what the last five plays she has seen are.”

It was so lovely to hang out with you on Zoom. Had a hoot. And it’s so often not like that, he emails later. I thank him wholeheartedly for his wicked play, and for his honesty.

Our Lady of Blundellsands is at the Everyman, Liverpool until 9 October 2021.

,

Cameron Mackintosh’s comments on casting of trans actors as a ‘gimmick’ are unacceptable and dangerous


He produced Cats, a musical featuring an animatronic singing pig, and even put a real helicopter on stage, and the one thing he can’t wrap his head around is transgender people playing classic roles? 

Back once again, then, to Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who is receiving widespread backlash for calling it “gimmick casting” to cast a trans person in an existing role, in a recent interview with Telegraph.

“You can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character, that’s what I think,” he said. 

But Mackintosh wasn’t finished. “Just to do that, that becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”

Sir Cameron Mackintosh

Mackintosh, who owns eight West End theatres, rejecting the possibility of a trans performer in one of his shows reinforces the dangerous idea that there is a right way to be female. 

Simply put, his comments are cruel and inaccurate and contradict the message of empathy and understanding found in the stories of nearly all his stage musicals, including Mary Poppins

His views are damaging to real people – people who are already disproportionately marginalised – and are downright irresponsible.

Mackintosh was very much an untouchable theatre God in the 80s and 90s, at the height of his power. These days, though, the 75 year old producer is increasingly out of touch and unpleasant. 

Still, extraordinary wealth and privilege is the story of Cameron’s life. That’s why he has so much spare time to participate in thoughtless interviews. 

Indeed, this is the latest in a long line of PR disasters for the billionaire producer. Mackintosh ruthlessly made over 850 backstage and front of house staff redundant (despite furlough), allegedly mistreats his staff and said theatres that received financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic were ones that “were going to fail”

Hilariously, he recently defended a decision to reduce The Phantom of the Opera’s orchestra by half, arguing actors and musicians should not expect to “keep doing the same thing year after year.”

Anyway, earlier this year, a report commissioned by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which looked into trans casting found that commercial or mainstream theatres “very rarely commission trans-led work and that trans roles are limited” and the majority of trans-led productions were currently on at fringe venues or on tours. 

We all need to do a hell of a lot more to support transgender, non-binary people, or gender non-conforming actors in commercial and west end theatre and not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm. 

Needless to say, transgender people in England and Wales are twice as likely to be victims of crime as cisgender people, and 2021 is set to be the deadliest yet in the US for these communities.

Mackintosh concluded his interview by saying: “As far as creating the new genre of musicals, it isn’t going to be my generation that’s doing it, because I know what I know from my generation.”

Oh right. I want that in blood, obviously. But thanks, Cameron. It’s appreciated.

Les Miserables

Newsflash: 🏳️‍⚧️ Trans women are women. 🏳️‍⚧️

On 30th August, Cameron Mackintosh tweeted an apology and clarification related to his comments about transgender performers.

, , ,

Anything Goes gave me one of the best nights in a theatre — ever. 

An actual show at the theatre. Wow indeed.

Financially, theatre is unviable. Yet at the Barbican in London right now, it’s never looked so enticing, beautiful and well produced.

Helmed by three-time Tony-winning director Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes is the real deal.

Cheeriness is contagious, folks.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

It has been a long time coming, but Cole Porter’s Anything Goes is the biggest new musical to open since the lifting of social distancing curbs on July 19.

Felicity Kendal is genuinely hilarious and brilliantly camp in her non-singing role. Gary Wilmot is thoroughly entertaining – that man is kind of amazing – throughout and theatre legend Robert Lindsay is cleverly funny as Moonface Martin – America’s 13th Most Wanted Man.

He is perfectly matched by chipper and demure Broadway star Sutton Foster making her UK debut as Reno Sweeney, who gets to sing some of Porter’s greatest songs including I Get a Kick Out of You and Blow, Gabriel, Blow

Reprising the role that won her a Tony Award a decade ago, from beginning to end Foster blazes through this feel-good show. She is full of jagged gestures. 

The story is nautical farce, but this is inconsequential. Even if you have never seen the musical, you know the songs.

However, if your main anchor is being offended by everything, then you must stay at home. The source material can, obviously, feel jarringly out of date.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Basically, the gangsters are sex-crazed, women are leggy and there is a repressed aristocrat that sings about having ‘a bit of gypsy’ in him. 

In fact, the lines leading into song The Gypsy in Me have been tweaked, thankfully. 

Unworthy critics will fail to ruin the magic of a magnificent production like this. We all know that these glitzy shows are from another era.

The dancing here is exceptional. When did you last experience the truly awe-inspiring sight of two mid-show standing ovations? 

Having said all that, this is a triumphant, world-class, rousing piece of musical theatre. 

This magnificently starry production proves most captivating, while ultimately raising a toast to the redemptive power of theatre. It is pure escapism.

Basically, Anything Goes gave me one of the best nights in a theatre — ever. 

Anything Goes runs at the Barbican until 31 October 2021 

, ,

Manchester International Festival 2021 / Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

On reading the words ‘Manchester International Festival’, you know you’re in for quite the experience. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to attend a biennial international arts festival, during a pandemic, with a specific focus on original new work.

There is more free, outdoor public art than ever before and the city is alive with accessible, vibrant and exciting art. So with some degree of excitement, I made my way to Manchester last week, and here are some things I experienced.

First up, an impressive 42m (138ft) sculpture replica of Big Ben has crash landed in Piccadily Gardens. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ – the UK’s biggest participatory art spectacle in years – has been created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin and is covered in 12,000 politically-themed books. I fully immersed myself in this impressive and quirky statement on Brexit, disillusionment and democracy. Brilliant – and – free.

Marta Minujin’s sculpture is called Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books

The Arndale shopping centre, meanwhile, has been turned into a makeshift art gallery for Cephas Williams’ Portraits of Black Britain, which features giant banners showing high-achieving black Britons. Powerful stuff.

Playing to a socially distanced, masked audience may not be every singer’s dream but Arlo Parks gig at the cavernous Manchester Central was a performance of stunning tenderness.

Arlo Parks at Manchester Central

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music string players joined Parks on stage to enrich the songs and add layers of heartfelt nuance. Parks – a 20-year old London singer-songwriter-poet bagged the Brit award this year for best new artist. She expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Pure joy.

Elsewhere, Cloud Studies at the seriously trendy Whitworth Art Gallery just out of town features clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture as toxic. This gripping exhibition explores the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to a lopsided world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the first phase of an investigation on environmental racism in an area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In a US region heavily populated with petrochemical facilities, majority-Black communities, the descendants were historically enslaved on those very lands, today contain the most toxic air in the country.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

MIF has also commissioned choreographer Akram Khan to produce a stylish and moving 17 minute short film. Breathless Puppets is a 17-minute animation co-created by Khan and animator, writer and director Naaman Azhari.

This brilliant animation utilises retroscope technology; basically whereby a live action is sketched over to give a constantly moving, line-drawn aesthetic. Breathless Puppets tells the story of a young man called Nicholas who wants to be a dancer, despite his family urging him to go into medicine. 

Manchester’s beautifully restored Central Library played host to ‘I Love You Too,” This project featured Eleven Manchester-based writers that collaborated with participants, putting their words to page and composing love letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individuals. Furthermore, together with the publication, the stunning domed Reading Room played host an exhibition of Wa Lehulere’s new sculpture, created especially for the space.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, “I Love You Too” marked the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopaedia of devotion.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

I was delighted to snag a ticket to the raggedly charming “Bloody Elle” at the Royal Exchange. It has reopened with Lauryn Redding’s emotional, wild and honest ‘gig musical’. This gauche kitchen-sink theatre is smart in its portrayal of a queer love story. Right on.

Bryony Shanahan’s supple solo production makes the most of the in-the round setting of the main space – it feels like a epic late-night show at Roundabout at Summerhall during Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The songs are spry and melodic with a forthrightness that is refreshing.

Bloody Elle is a ‘semi autobiographical’ show that is simultaneously confessional, sprawling and occasionally indulgent.

It moves in the course of the evening from noise to quietness, from non-stop crassness to moments of musical tenderness and expressive gesture. Admittedly, it is all a bit drawn out, and could do with losing 30 minutes, but it is often a perky evening and during these Difficult Times, well worth the effort.

A very pleasant surprise. 

Manchester International Festival runs until Sunday 18 July

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical runs until 17 July

, , ,

Guest Blog – The Mono Box: “Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent.”

The Mono Box has always prided itself on supporting freelancers creatively – providing opportunities that are lacking or less accessible in the industry. For 8 years, we have run workshops and events for actors, directors and writers as well as, more recently, designers and movement directors. Training never stops but we also prioritise the importance of community in an industry that can feel incredibly lonely and inaccessible. 

This became more crucial than ever from March 2020 as we watched our industry fall to its knees. We were forced to re-evaluate our careers and our lives, to step back and notice all the gaping problems we’d let slide for so long. Tweets, articles and blog posts were thrown around about a utopian post-pandemic vision for theatre. Promises were made that have yet to come to fruition…

photo credit Helen Murray  

We have always championed new voices and formalised this through a new writing scheme called PLAYSTART which has run for 3 successive years (2017-2019). After the events of last summer, and in response to the lack of opportunities for emerging talent during Covid-19, we got to work. We invested in 7 ethnically diverse writers from PLAYSTART, offering them what we knew was crucial in building a career: a commission, mentorship and a platform for their work. It is notoriously hard to crack that ceiling without someone paying you to do what you do best, and someone else who is several steps ahead of you career-wise providing a guiding light. Our industry cannot and will not evolve without investment in new talent. 

We were keen to not only keen to put our money where our mouth is in terms of supporting emerging creatives, but also to discover a way to adapt theatre-making to the current global restrictions and advancing marriage of theatre and film. As we were locked in our homes, theatre had to adapt and enter people’s living rooms and kitchens. Amidst the “it’s not the same” grumbles, we also quickly realised that this format was providing access to audience numbers we only dream of. 

And so RESET THE STAGE was born. A collection of 7 filmed monologues responding boldly to where we are as an industry and where we could be, if we committed to platforming – nationally and internationally – more diverse voices, bodies and stories.

In addition to the mentorship from leading playwrights including Duncan Macmillan, Alice Birch, Lucy Prebble and Theresa Ikoko, we provided the writers with actors, a theatre and a film crew to help realise their vision. All in lockdown, when the theatres were empty.

The pieces have been directed by Roberta Zuric (part of The Mono Box’s PLAYSTART 2018) and was mentored by Ned Bennett

CYNTHIA by Vivian Xie Stills ; Starring Isabella Laughland ; Directed by Roberta Zuric ; Director of Photography: Fẹ́mi Awójídé ; First Camera Assist: Stephen Ofori ; Sound Recordist: Luise Guertler ; Stills Photographer: Helen Murray ; Gaffer: TC Thomas ; Producer: Joan Iyiola & Alison Holder ; Co-Producer: Miles Sloman Reset The Stage ; Monobox ; Soho Theatre ; London, UK ; 30th March 2021 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

7 stellar actors jumped on board with all guns blazing and delivered mesmerising and incredibly nuanced performances: Shane Zaza, Ken Nwosu, Thalissa Teixeira, Danny Kirrane, Isabella Laughland, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and our own co-AD Joan Iyiola. We paired them up with one of our partner venues – Arcola, Almeida, Bush, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, Young Vic – all who passionately committed to the project’s ethos and offered invaluable support.

The films within RESET THE STAGE have been achieved to an exceptionally high standard, by a small but mighty team. We are so excited to share them with the world and to show what can happen when new voices are given a platform to showcase their work.

The films launched on 17th June to outstanding feedback and a brilliant 4* review from WhatsOnStage lauding the project’s beautiful outcome and bold response to our industry’s perilous state. 

Screening repeated 1 to 3 July and tickets are on sale now

, , ,

British Theatre Is Facing A Covid Tragedy

July 2021. UK Theatres are in limbo. By now, of course, you know the latest facts, because you live in them. 

In no particular order, over 62% of British adults are now fully vaccinated. And 84% have had one dose.

A new production of Jersey Boys is set to begin at the Trafalgar theatre next month

But the Indian or Delta variant (which is ultra-infectious, so infectious that one person may infect up to six others) has resulted in the UK having the highest infection rate in Europe. New research suggests ‘scarily fleeting’ contact could infect, and that places with high jab rates are susceptible.

Fortunately, we now have one of the lowest death rates because of the astounding vaccine programme. Indeed, now stadiums, shopping centres and theatres have joined the “grab a jab” campaign in England in a bid to boost vaccine uptake.

However, even by late August, only 39 per cent of under-40s are set to have been fully vaccinated, opening a generational divide and zero chance of foreign summer travel should vaccine passports become a thing. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have resigned but his successor Sajid Javid has his hands full with an NHS struggling to cope with a vast backlog of operations, treatment and surging cases.

Either way, according to the latest official figures, more arts, entertainment and recreation businesses were still suffering last month than in any other industry.

Felicity Kendall & Sutton Foster in Anything Goes rehearsals

But the show must go on, right? Major West End shows including Anything Goes and The Lion King have started rehearsals, with more set to follow; contracts have been signed, audiences have rebooked tickets (as many as four times) and the consequences of another delay beyond July 19 are unthinkable.

The pandemic has exposed the Tory government’s insulting attitude to theatre: a mixture of apathy and hostility. Despite generating billions pre-pandemic, London theatre owners and impresarios for example, claim regularly they are now “on the brink of ruin”.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Howard Panter – owner of the second-largest operator, Trafalgar Entertainment, said the situation in the West End was “intolerable”.

In the meantime, tempers (and sanity) are fraying; Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman launched legal action to force government to publish Events Research Programme pilot results.

A masked usher awaits The Mousetrap audiences

A stretch of the imagination that might have dumbfounded me pre-pandemic, but Lloyd Webber certainly seemed to be speaking from the heart when he went on LBC recently: “Public Health England officials don’t have a clue about theatre and how they’re operated. We’ve somehow been made a sacrificial lamb.”

Alas, the long awaited report – which was released promptly after a Court order – said there were “no substantial outbreaks” identified by public health teams and their surveillance systems around any of the events.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrated that the testing regime of the Events Research Programme was pointless and incompetent, meaning it clear the government is repeating their own mistakes at a colossal cost to everyone else.

But weary theatres still need insurance to safeguard against the possibility of Covid-based cancellation, however the pandemic means that the private market will not provide it. This would help thousands of freelancers return to the industry and reassure producers, venues and artists alike.


The major issue for theatres from the West End to Liverpool Everyman is that rehearsals, preparation and planning take months not weeks and often costs thousands and thousands of pounds, and the current question marks hanging around hospitality and entertainment venues are making such work impossible or loss-making. Regional theatres dependent on income from tours will lose the very shows that might help them survive.

Temperature checks outside a west end theatre

Of course, Slytherin Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden would refer to the generous £1.5bn culture recovery fund, even if the rescue funds left the actual freelance workforce – musicians, photographers, actors, artists, dancers, choreographers, designers out in the cold. In fact hundreds of cultural organisations have still not received promised funds leaving some worse off than when they applied.  

The delaying of Step Four of the road map is a final straw for many: confidence in reopening has been shattered, despite the vast sums invested in venues to restrict Covid transmission. The creative sector must now be allowed to cautiously trade their way – at full capacity – out of difficulties and contribute to our national recovery.

It is completely stupefying that we have spent 66 weeks being told to “take responsibility” and “use common sense” by a government religiously incapable of either.

Anyway, July 19 is yet another ‘not before date’ and this week came rumblings of future winter lockdowns amid warnings from scientists. So, don’t rule out another delay to the ‘cautious but irreversible’ easing of lockdown restrictions. In fact, don’t rule out restrictions being completely ditched before a murderous third wave, subsequent U-turn and more mutant strains.

Frankly I’m not sure we will ever reconcile the impact that Covid, Brexit and the ‘streaming economy’ are having on the sector in my lifetime.

Continuing to allow galleries, art centres, opera, communities, theatres and independent cinemas to wither away is an act of profound cultural vandalism.

A socially distanced audience at the London Palladium

Hell, if a whole generation of talent goes to the wall, no one wins, the whole country will be poorer for it.

Something’s got to change. Fast.

,

Northern Stage artistic director Natalie Ibu interview: “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

Natalie Ibu

Northern Stage’s newish artistic director Natalie Ibu – who took up her post in the middle of the pandemic – has impressed with her inclusive strides since taking up post in November 2020; during the second national lockdown. 

It’s true that Ibu has undeniably put the work in. But for all she has already achieved in her first year, I sense she is only just getting started. It has, in this industry, been a challenging time. Is being an artistic director in a pandemic fulfilling? “I love artists, and I love being a facilitator,” she says simply.

“I enjoy being able to say ‘yes’ and making things happen. The pandemic has certainly been challenging to my confidence. You know, there’s something about going back into a room and reminding yourself you can still do your job – I am fortunate to be able to do this in such a creative and rich region.” 

Natalie Ibu photo credit Christopher Owens

She continues: “There’s something specific about joining in a historic pandemic; I don’t yet have a memory of this building; I don’t have a memory of these audiences.” 

Ibu has also announced further plans for Housewarming, the autumn season at the theatre, which includes neighbourhood events this month, a series of performances in pop-up venues in July and August and will see the building reopen on August 25 with a Northern Stage and Unfolding Theatre co-production, co-created with kids.

Natalie will direct a new production of Jim Cartwright’s Road for her first show as artistic director of Northern Stage. It is, she says, the “dream play” for her to direct as the inaugural show for Northern Stage. 

“It’s with Road that I found my vision as a director at university,” she says with a smile. “I love the fact this play will not be contained by a proscenium arch; it is sprawling, it spills out into the interval and pre-show. Road is about the stuff that matters, it’s about protest, community, living for the weekend and dreams, all things we have been reminded of that we have missed during this period.” 

It opens in October, and will be designed by Amelia Jane Hankin, with lighting by Zoe Spurr and movement by Nadia Iftkhar.

Paines Plough’s Roundabout will also pop up in Byker during August and will present the company’s touring programme alongside community and performance work from Northern Stage.

Furthermore, Northern Stage will continue digital access to work, and will programme socially distanced performances once full capacities are permitted, restoring audience confidence delicately expanding possibilities and audiences. 

Natalie Ibu photo credit: Christopher Owens

We are talking in the week of a four-week delay to the final stage of easing lockdown restrictions in England: Andrew Lloyd Webber recently backed down over his threat to reopen his theatres without social distancing after being warned his entire staff and the audience could have been fined hundreds of pounds each.

So, would she be prepared to break the law and risk arrest for theatre? “No,” she says firmly. “One: because I dislike breaking rules and two: we’re talking about people’s health here… I love theatre but it is certainly not worth people dying over.” 

The serious challenges facing arts freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of British theatre. Looking ahead to two years from now, how does she want the industry to be different? “So much has been lost and cannot be regained,” she says with a sigh. “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

She is also clear about what she wants to achieve: “I want to see a more front-footed approach to theatre being essential to people’s lives and I want a better understanding of our collective civic purpose, to acknowledge our role as civic players. I want us to fight for our audiences and our place on the cultural menu,” says Ibu. 

Ibu, who was previously artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, a company dedicated to championing black British narratives, says she hopes we collectively “realise the need for new and different leaders that engage new and different workforces and artists that are able to speak to new and different audiences.” She seems like precisely the artist she wants to be, precisely making the art she wants to make, delivering it on precisely her own terms. 

The lack of diversity in the British theatre industry is an issue on which she is vocal. “The truth is, diversity just means difference,” is how Natalie puts it. “Difference is excellence and makes the pursuit of excellence richer, right?”

“Because diversity starts at the top, I am worried about how we look after those different leaders that we brought into these institutions in recent years and how they sustain their energy during this time. I am certainly worried about the unique set of challenges ahead for new artistic directors who are different, and as we rebuild and reopen,” says Ibu. 

She pauses then adds: “I am apprehensive about whether the sector will use this opportunity that it has been given decisively and properly.” 

Tickets for shows start from £10 and go on general sale from 1 July, with pre-sale tickets available to Northern Stage members and supporters from 24 June. 

For more details and full listings visit northernstage.co.uk

, , ,

Manchester International Festival 2021 programme announced

Manchester International Festival (MIF), returns from 1-18 July with a vibrant programme of original new work from across the spectrum of visual and performing arts and music by artists from over 20 countries.

The reasonably amazing lineup includes Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Marta Minujín, Lemn Sissay and Patti Smith

  • Events will take place safely in indoor and outdoor locations across Greater Manchester, including the first ever work on the construction site of The Factory, the landmark cultural space that will be MIF’s future home
  • A rich online offer will provide a window into the Festival wherever audiences are, including livestreams and work created especially for the digital realm
  • With almost all the work created in the past year, MIF21 provides a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times. Artists have reflected on ideas such as love and human connections, the way we play, division and togetherness, equality and social change, and the relationship between the urban and the rural
  • For the first time, the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions programme has been handed over to local people, building on MIF’s work involving the community as artistic collaborators and participants in work shaped by them
  • Festival Square returns in new location Cathedral Gardens with a packed programme of food, drink and free live music, DJs and more
  • As one of the first major public events in the city, MIF21 will play a key role in the safe reopening of the city’s economy and provide employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists
  • Much of the programme will be free to attend, with more work than ever in public spaces around the city

People sitting outside in the sunshine at tables in MIF's pop-up Festival Square in Manchester

Headshot of John McGrath

John McGrath, the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of MIF.

Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive, John McGrath says: “MIF has always been a Festival like no other – with almost all the work being created especially for us in the months and years leading up to each Festival edition.  But who would have guessed two years ago what a changed world the artists making work for our 2021 Festival would be working in?”

“I am thrilled to be revealing the projects that we will be presenting from 1-18 July this year – a truly international programme of work made in the heat of the past year and a vibrant response to our times. Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, it is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space.

“We hope MIF21 will provide a time and place to reflect on our world now, to celebrate the differing ways we can be together, and to emphasise, despite all that has happened, the importance of our creative connections – locally and globally.”

Hop along to the MIF official website from from Thurs 20 May 2021 if you’re interested