A Night at the Theatre – Blithe Spirit

Escape into another world with Noel Coward’s comedy classic, Blithe Spirit running this week at Middlesbrough Theatre. Enter the country house set of the early twentieth century, a world of faltering servants, clipped accents, cocktails and it is formal dress code for dinner parties. It is all frightfully correct but there are frightening things bubbling beneath the surface. This particular dinner party thrown by socialite and novelist Charles and his wife Ruth serves up far, far more than the hosts bargained for with hilarious consequences.

Charles is researching for his latest book and decides to invite the marvellously over the top medium Madame Arcati over to conduct a séance. Maybe he ought to have thought twice before the flamboyant spiritualist asked if there was anyone there. Charles’ troublesome first wife Elvira seemed only too keen to return and cause all sorts of trouble and mayhem between Charles and second wife Ruth.

We are so lucky to have Middlesbrough Theatre. The unassuming post-war theatre sits amongst the foliage of leafy Linthorpe. The theatre has so many pluses, from the ample car parking right outside to the attentive staff. There are the home comforts of proper theatre seats and the rake affords superb viewing. Yet it has that intimacy of a small theatre but with a stage big enough to allow the elaborate country house set. In fact the last time I attended a play here we were all actually seated in the round on the stage itself.

Blithe Spirit is regarded as one of Noel Coward’s masterpieces, breaking all records for a West End run with nearly 2000 performances through the 1940s, records then smashed by The Mousetrap. Yet Coward went out of fashion, his plays about upper class England were something of an anathema to the aspiring post war generations. Latterly we fell in love with Noel Coward all over again as he made notable appearances on the screen, who can forget him as the criminal godfather, Mr Bridger, in The Italian Job.

This show is co-presented with Less is More Productions. They are a local company aiming to create theatre in Tees Valley area. Less is More like to work with and nurture emerging artists from Middlesbrough and the north east. That is certainly the case with the actress fulfilling the role of the ghostly presence of Elvira. South Shields Natasha Haws still known to many as the ridiculously talented teenage singer songwriter. She is also a ridiculously talented actor on the stage.

Only Charles can see Natasha/Elvira’s ghostly presence but while the results are hilarious for us they are certainly no laughing matter for the hen pecked husband. He is suddenly trapped between his high maintenance first wife Elvira and equally domineering second spouse, Ruth. Charles doesn’t know which way to turn. Maybe he could enjoy the best of both worlds. Yet secretly and certainly not silently Elvira is plotting, plotting, plotting.

Really funny, superb acting and a great opportunity to revel in a real treasure of 20th century theatre.

You can see Blithe Spirit – Friday and Saturday evening 7.30pm

£14/ Concessions £12

Middlesbrough Theatre, The Avenue, Middlesbrough, TS5 6SA.
T. 01642 81 51 81 | Website: www.middlesbroughtheatre.co.uk

Blithe Spirit poster

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New Writing at Middlesbrough Theatre

Middlesbrough Theatre is the venue this week for the public sharing and caring of New Writing Festival. Local writers have written plays that will in parts provoke the grey matter but also hugely entertain fellow Teessiders and their friends from parts beyond.

Last night I was part of an audience seated on the main stage for three plays performed in the round and tonight there is second opportunity to view them. So, I am spreading the word as it was gripping entertainment for a tenner.

new writingFences is the first ever full length play by Scarlet Pink. Scarlet won a festival last year at Redcar’s Tuned In and from that short she has developed a fully fledged drama around the lives of best mates Titch and Tommo and the woodland that is their retreat from lives spiralling out of control at home. But when the fences go up and some of the trees are torn down their escape into nature is blocked. Their childhood memories and fantasies could suddenly be ended and they might now be caged in to face the music in their family homes.

Numbered – by Julie Hogg is set on the rooftop retreat of stats obsessed twin, Lola, she can celebrate all the landmarks of Teesside. Her sister Leila might not share her love of heights but certainly is not short of brains either, destined soon to fly the nest to Cambridge University. It is late at night on summer solstice and this is a night of gradual unwrapping of revelations under the twinkling stars. High up above Teesside the sisters and the two flatmates from downstairs share confessions and piece together constellations of stars and patterns of their lives.

The final play is The Last Caretaker by Michele Plews, theatre maker, film producer and teacher. This is a scary, sci fi unreality where a pestilence or infestation has swept the earth and human kind is on the brink of total annihilation.

In a basement an aged woman, The Last Caretaker, holds the destiny of humanity on drip feeds, the final three children left in the world. As she gets weaker she is faced with moral dilemmas to keep herself alive. She has to play God to decide who lives and dies and to shape the survivors of a future order for when the all clear message finally reaches the lonely basement. But has she overstepped the mark?

Three fascinating plays. Superbly well scripted and brilliantly acted. What talent we have amongst us. Great to see the theatre used in this way, achieving real intimacy without sacrificing the lighting and professionalism of the facility.

Switch off your tv and tune in instead to New Writing Festival tonight. Tomorrow night a fiver will let you see a brand new play written by collaborators starting and finishing on the day. First play starts at 7pm.

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Dance Double Feature

Last Monday Middlesbrough Theatre was the venue for a dance double bill. Normally my appreciation of dance does not stretch far beyond a Saturday night TV dose of Strictly Come Dancing, but Southpaw Dance Company and MYSTERY SKIN certainly expanded my horizons.

Middlesbrough Theatre is such a lovely venue and last Monday it was crowded with young students eager to watch the dance companies that had led workshops the week before at both Macmillan Academy and Kings Academy.

The two dance pieces could hardly have been more contrasting. The lights dimmed for Southpaw and eerie silhouettes of the troupe danced across the walls before a hectic, energetic, frenzy of hip hop and almost balletic movement set to equally fast paced and energising music.

The young dancer from Mystery Skin was on stage as we entered, looking out over the audience, observing us as we took our seats.  As we settled to watch, the performance started with the dancer onstage; her movements were carried out in almost complete silence, only broken by the almost whispered, gentle noises of her partner through the microphone. Those movements and sounds reflected the stop, start, jerk, get up, get down of modern day existence. Road Postures is the title of the work and is the result of research and observation of a local community.  The way people interact and move through shared public spaces. Movement that we might see peripherally or else ignore completely brought into sharp focus on stage.

Southpaw Dance Company’s piece was centred around the global phenomenon of riot and protest. Anarchic on the one level, but it was also poetic, balletic, graceful in form and shape. Dancers creating disordered yet beautiful shapes, with the clever use of torches and spotlights in almost total darkness, playing with light and shadow. The thrill of the chase, the fear of capture and maybe those enforcing order hunting the rioters, trying to capture them in their torch light.

 “Anger is an energy”, John Lydon once sung, and here was the anger and violence of rioting channelled into a maelstrom of movement and sound.

Robert Nichols/Tracy Hyman

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David Rovics at Little Theatre Club, Linthorpe


On the same night that 5000 were cheering on Olly Murs and Amelia Lilly in Central Square an American singer stopped off on his world tour to play at a small club in Linthorpe. David Rovics, has been rightly described as one of the greatest living international protest singers.

David Rovics schedules tours to tally with protest events around the world taking him far from his Portland, Oregon, home. It was a return visit to Middlesbrough and the intimate Studio, Middlesbrough Little Theatre Club and it turned into a memorable evening from a performer that was stopping over after visiting Norway, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Scotland. David had actually driven up all the way from Swansea that day to play the gig.

And now for something completely different. Support was provided by Teesside’s own Old Muggins. A meddlesome three-piece that in so many ways could not be further from David Rovics and his material of the downtrodden and rebellious. Yet vocalist songwriter Bob Fischer, Lonesome Pine drummer Miniature G and guitarist Garry “Atomicloonybin” Brogden all share with David Rovics a love of performance and using music as a medium to get a message across. With Old Muggins that message is often comedy and a big whacking 1970s sideburn, collar and kipper tie dollop of nostalgia.

We were treated to a fine vocal exposition of Doo Wop, a visitation from a native red Indian spirit guide, a tribute to a mystery film from the 1950s and finally a round up of Look North and Tyne Tees presenters that found their way through Bilsdale transmissions in years gone by. Oh and not forgetting fourth member of Old Muggins, the ever so slightly sinister Old Bill, who popped out of his box for the night to watch over the crowd, under the guiding hand of Miniature G. Bill is a ventriloquists dummy in the form of a policeman with pop up neck, wandering eye brows and unsettling eyes.

On the night that George Orwell’s 1984 was being performed next door at Middlesbrough Theatre, David Rovics took us on an enlightening journey around the world’s oppressed and oppressors. I’m sure Orwell, real name Eric Blair would have approved, especially when David talked about the plight of the Americans that had fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil war. This was a cause to which Blair himself devoted himself in the field and later actually recuperated in a house near Stockton.

David shunned the use of the microphone, his voice and guitar carried to the back of the room without the use of any amplification. He delivered two full sets that held the audience gripped.

He began his songs with an uplifting anthem about the Irish that switched sides to fight for the Mexicans against the USA in the nineteenth century. His songs are all brilliantly researched and convey vivid word pictures.

There were tributes to the makers of the first wind turbine in Denmark and the plight of the homeless in Athens and their apparently socialist dogs. David Rovics shed light on some incredible stories of personal heroism and valour. But he is neither preachy nor weighed down by dogma. His human compassion shines through at all times. The songs are highly accessible as well as clever. They convey messages but they are tuneful. They are not mere polemic they are poetic. The man is amiable and his chats between songs are revealing and truly a mine of information.

Once championed on the Beeb by Andy Kershaw (who himself will be coming to Middlesbrough at the Mink Bar on June 25th) but these days David Rovics work has to be sought out live, you will no longer hear him played on the radio. Yet you can download up to a 100 of his songs for free from his website www.davidrovics.com One of the greatest living, touring protest singers in the world today, it is a real privilege to see and hear him perform. And a real tribute to the Building Bridges promoters and the people of Middlesbrough that David Rovics has chosen to bend his world expeditions in our direction twice in recent times. Simply outstanding.

Robert Nichols

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