Review – Dead To Me by Greyscale Theatre

Do you believe in the spirit world? If you could talk to the dead, might it change your life?

Steven (Gary Kitching) is a small man in a stifling job, who visits a psychic (Tessa Parr) because someone gave him a gift voucher. He’s sceptical, uncomfortable, hunched and nervy and literally wrong-footed by her fey new-age mannerisms. She pulls his aura like taffy, twinkles about like a ballerina doll and jumps off furniture. Their interaction is a hilarious mismatched tango – until a final piece of abrupt advice from her spirit guide tips him into anxiety. When the prediction seems to come true, he comes back and we see their relationship evolve over several meetings, as Steven becomes more enamoured with the psychic and her beliefs. Each time he leave, he sheds his jacket, putting on a new one when he returns. They lie around the stage like skins he is shedding, or parts of himself he is losing. Each meeting is separated by a strange red-washed interval where Steven paces out his discomfort at the margins of the stage while the psychic occupies it, dancing her weirdly naive dance to the sound of Elvis (that great ambassador of the Realm Beyond). It’s clear that this is not going to end well. Maybe you can even guess what might happen if an emotionally vulnerable person is encouraged to believe that they too have the gift of communication? The audience can see where it is headed, not with the stale predictability of a cliche but with the dreadful inevitability of a tragedy.

Kitching and Parr are both tremendous in this, their physicality is pitch-perfect. Kitching in particular basically gives us a masterclass in how to ramp up status just through body language. Initially, he is so far down the food chain that it is easy to ignore him, the whimsical Parr is so much more charming and compelling. But by his character’s final manifestation, he is as riveting and chilling as a psychopath. This was a flawless production, as far as I’m concerned, worth every penny.

Review – North East Rising by Rowan McCabe

I was recently one of ten people selected to write theatre reviews for the North East Artist Development Network, which of course has made me very happy and has also forced me to admit that I know very little about reviewing. So my cunning plan is to do some warm-ups on here.

Rowan McCabe
Rowan McCabe

I’d really like to tell you about ‘North East Rising’ by Rowan McCabe, and I will, I will – but in all fairness, I must declare an interest. I’ve been working with Rowan in my capacity as Apples and Snakes co-ordinator since he started as a performance poet. He’s come up through Scratch Club, had performance mentoring from me, been programmed and commissioned by me on a range of projects and most recently I acted as a freelance mentor helping him edit the text of this show. Fairly obviously, I think he’s good, but then so do all the other people who have supported him to write this first solo pice – Arts Centre Washington, Arts Council, ARC Stockton and the like.

North East Rising is based on a simple observation, that the portrayal of the north east and Geordies in the popular media is unfairly skewed towards negative, vulgar or impoverished stereotypes. It’s grim up north, always has been. What McCabe sets out to do is to use his own experiences as a north-easterner to set out a stall of alternative exemplars, exploring what for him is the true ‘essence of the north east’. He does this through a series of character sketches in poetic form, ranging from poignant to lyrical to comedic, linked loosely together by an imagined walk through Newcastle and beyond, up the Tyne valley. The overall tone is one of relaxed, chatty comedy, as he moves from poem to poem via links that are scripted a little like stand-up routines, and this all works extremely well. He’s an affable presence, the audience is always on his side and happily jumps up to twerk with baked goods for his Stottie Rap! And the final piece, stretching out its fingers towards this new positive ideal of north east community and culture, is truly moving.

If I have any reservations, it’s about the support acts. In keeping with the stand-up nature of his delivery, the show is presented within a cabaret format, with a first half consisting of music from Alix Alexandra (who was sublime) and poetry from Jess Johnson, all hosted by Robbie Lee Hurst. This is a fantastic format, it really makes sense as a structure given the feel of Rowan’s piece, but I was a bit taken aback by Jess’s set. She’s a tremendous actor, incredibly vivid on stage, and I’ve seen her in late-night cabaret settings and laughed until I hurt. But the same material shifted to early-evening theatre struck a different note. Her themes are sex, jealousy, domestic abuse, drug-use, drunken brawling and council estate slaggery  – so, many of the negative stereotypes that Rowan’s show is trying so hard to move away from. Her set seems to undermine his in its content, but this could be mitigated if the pieces were delivered with more invitation to empathise, and there’s plenty of space to do that as she’s writing with heart and not to judge or mock. Instead they are spat at us, obscenities lobbed like bricks, angry and confrontational. It’s like being blasted with a flamethrower.

I know there may be tweaks made to the support set for the next three performances, so I really wouldn’t let my responses put you off, not least because you may enjoy Jess’s piece very much, there were plenty of others around me finding it funny. And the main show I wouldn’t have you miss for all the pasties in Greggs.

North East Rising can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 21 October and at ARC, Stockton on 23 October