A hound! Some toast! A bottom!
The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness may be just round the corner, but the autumn season promised by Northern Stage looks more like a smorgasbord of fresh flavours, tasty treats and crunchy things to get your teeth into. Pardon the gustatory prelude, but my starting point is a hearty recommendation from the ubiquitous theatre-going Sue (who’s seen it but is coming back for seconds) of Nigel Slater’s Toast (17-21 September), a drama based on the TV chef’s autobiography. Quite aside from my instant attraction to all things food-related, I love the fact that this production comes to Newcastle via The Lowry, the West End and a national tour. This what Northern Stage is so impressively good at – finding the gems, booking the more off-beat companies, taking on all theatrical scales and styles and, of course, also commissioning and producing work that ranges from the idiosyncratic to the classic.
Actually, that oxymoronic combination pretty well characterises their new programme, where I counted some 30-odd (got distracted and lost count) different productions on offer between September and the end of 2019 - and that’s not including master story-teller Chris Bostock’s Saturday sessions for the younglings (first Saturday of each month).
And yes, among this mellow fruitfulness (see what I did there?) you’ll find some absolutely, indisputably classic titles given a new slant. Up there calling out to everyone who likes posh frocks and prolonged courtships is Edinburgh-originated Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) (2-12 October), an all-female take on the Jane Austen classic but with the household servants, those unsung heroines of Regency romance, taking the roles and manipulating the match-making. There really is nothing like pulling the strings to play out the happy ending, a theme that also pops up when we’re invited to have fun deconstructing the role of the bride (well, four of them) in Gracefoot Collective’s wildly entertaining dance theatre item This is Not a Wedding (13 & 14 September) not to mention watching the ever-wonderful balletLORENT go quite literally in search of The Lost Happy Endings (31 October-2 November) based on an original story by the inimitable Carol Ann Duffy.
If you like your classics a mite darker, you’ll be delighted to know that, following the sell-out success of Northern Stage’s own, pared down, highly concentrated and endearingly northernised ‘The War of the Worlds’, they’re turning the same sort of treatment onto everybody’s favourite Sherlock Holmes shaggy dog story in a tight new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (11-23 September). This is one of several tempting performances taking place in Stage 3, the smallest of their playing spaces (used to be the front bar), which can be almost frighteningly intimate. It’s also tiny, so early booking for this and other Stage 3 gems such as Mama Rhi’s Lady Garden (6 November) (which looks big and rude) and the intriguingly titled Laurence Clark: An Irresponsible Father’s Guide to Parenting (12 October) is very highly recommended.
Amidst the theatrical jollity (did I mention splendidly unpredictable stand-up Jason Byrne: Wrecked but Ready (23 October) for one night only?) you’ll also find running threads of a more thought provoking kind, and it’s a huge compliment to Northern Stage when I say that the dead hand of self-conscious political worthiness rarely taints these. Plays with a message can (even when you agree whole-heartedly with that message) be pulled cringe-makingly away from the dramatic and towards the didactic. Here, though, some deeply felt issues are embodied in vehicles worth watching. I’m thinking particularly of the Gary Clarke Company’s Wasteland (25 & 26 September) and if you saw their earlier piece ‘Coal’ you’ll understand my enthusiasm. This is social history telling of tough times, when a jobless generation of the nineties turned from the ruins of once-vital mining communities to the illegal rave scene, a desperate transmutation expressed here via fantastic dancers, male voices, brass musicians and archive film footage. Across the programme, it’s astonishing to find this one season of events tackling such themes as ageing, social, national and sexual identity, depression and dementia, but blink and you risk missing them, so co-ordinate those diaries now.
And just to swap the seasons, there will be (pause for trumpet fanfare) a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (11-14 September) officially one of the best things in the world. It’s the most infinitely transmutable of plays, combining a gently sympathetic take on mismatched partners and the follies/joys of love with the pure fantasy of the fairy realm, plus some amateur dramatics and a bloke called Bottom with the head of an ass. Something for everyone, really, and the fact that the Watermill Theatre Company’s take mixes the magical with an edge of chaos hits just the right nerve. It also promises the music of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday performed live and that’s just class. The year ends (if you can think that far ahead) with a home-brewed Christmas adaptation of that frosty classic The Snow Queen (30 November-4 January) but that’s a whole different season to start wrapping up for.Northern Stage, Barras Bridge, Newcastle. Ticket details for all of the above, and the rest of the autumn/winter programme from: northernstage.co.uk