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Playing Up 12 –Northern Stage, Newcastle

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Writers: Debra Fisher, Rowena Gray, Lewis Cuthbert, Lee Stewart, Mary Pickin, Elle Douglas

Directors: James Barton, Sarah Seymour, Craig Fairbairn, Amy Herdman-Burns, Brian Green, Catriona Burnett

Playing Up is a Newcastle-based group who showcase North Eastern writers, directors and actors by staging regular collections of short plays from around the region. This is the twelfth time they have done this within the cosy confines of Northern Stage’s Stage 3 and although the results are inconsistent, there is more than enough evidence here to prove that the North East is bulging with theatrical talent waiting in the wings.

The evening comprises of six short plays, three in each half. The subject matters vary as do the genres: comedy dominates the first act while the second half is a little more dramatic. Each play is presented on a black stage with minimal furniture and props. Costumes are also kept simple and all of this allows the audience to focus on the three things that are being showcased: the writing, the acting and the direction.

The evening opens with Debra Fisher’s A Bout a Round, an amusingly constructed pub-set comedy where the banter between a barmaid and a customer is commentated on as if it were a sports event. This has some good jokes and is a strong start to the proceedings despite some uneven performances. Second is the shortest of the night: Rowena Gray’s …Excuse Me? explores stereotypes in today’s ‘woke’ society. It’s simple, funny and has a great payoff, although a faster pace would avoid it from sagging slightly in the middle. Rounding off the first act is Singular Vision by Lewis Cuthbert, a comedy set in a video rental shop. This is by far the weakest entry of the night, trying too hard and completely failing to get the laughs it expects. It does feature a really nice, sincere performance from Pete McAndrew as one of the store clerks but otherwise comes across like something written by someone who has seen too many Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino movies.

The second half is much stronger starting with Lee Stuart’s Where the Butterflies Dance: a brilliantly observed and frighteningly realistic exploration of a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. Amy Herdman-Burns ‘ direction shines here and Ruby Shrimpton is superb as the abused Susan, brilliantly conveying the fear and anxiety in her character and gaining full empathy from the audience in the process. This is a real standout performance which is ably supported by Ben Storey as her abuser, who Stuart smartly writes as inconsistent in his moods and all the scarier for it.

Things lighten slightly for the next piece. Predominantly a duologue between ladies who lunch, Coffee Morning by Mary Pickin is hilariously recognisable as two women meet for a coffee and a gossip. Their conversation quickly descends into a character assassination of one of their closest friends and this is wonderfully delivered by Karen Elliott and Gillian Asherley whose infectious glee transfers easily over to the audience.

The final play is Anxious Annie by Elle Douglas. This is another extremely strong piece of writing and is amazingly insightful into the mind of someone who suffers from high anxiety, presenting in a short space of time a very real idea of what it is like to suffer from this mental illness. Eleanor Beck is fantastic as the anxious Annie of the title, displaying versatility by being both heartbreakingly honest and very funny as she attempts to cover her weaknesses with humour. Along with Shrimpton, this is the performance of the evening. Mention must also go to Anthony Broderick who plays the men in Annie’s life, from her boyfriend who dumps her to a random man that she shouts at in Ikea, as well as to Catriona Burnett’s interesting direction.

Colin Cuthbert acts as compare throughout and unfortunately removes a lot of the shine from the overall production with a collection of the least funny old jokes in existence. Far better would be if each piece was introduced by the writer and/or director so that the audience is provided background and context instead of being subjected to Christmas cracker gags.

Like a box of chocolates, this assortment offers a lot of delicious treats and regardless of a few that are destined to remain at the bottom of the box, is still very much worth buying into.

Runs until 15th February 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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