My Heart

You know those little origami paper boats you can fold?

You see them in films on ponds or puddles.

They swirl and float away.

They tip.

They sink.

You know those paper hats you get in Christmas crackers?

They tear and fall.

You know those paper lanterns?

They burn.

They fly away.

You know those paper napkins?

They never stay on your lap.

They drop to the floor.

You know those paper doll chains you can make with scissors?

They look so pretty.

They snap.

They let go of hands.

You know those paper carrier bags?

They break.

And everything is strewn to the ground.

I live in a paper world…

…flimsy, sinking, blowing away.

And my heart is heavy. Stone-cold heavy.

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At A Loss

The word loss comes from the Norse word – los. Meaning – the breaking up of the ranks of the army. Which then morphed into – destruction of. Which then changed to our meaning today – the fact or process of losing something or someone.

In fact people say those very words when someone dies… I’m sorry for your loss.

When my two year old granddaughter Betsy was in a fatal incident nine months ago, I heard those words. And those early definitions of loss seemed more appropriate. Because the news of her death ripped through my family, ripped through my life, ripped through my heart.

When my son told me on that Monday morning in March, I didn’t cry initially – I let out an animal like wail. I’m sure now that a body can’t take such pain in one go; it’s just too much.

Lockdown has been overridden by Betsy’s death. I only feel slight twinges of anxiety with regards the pandemic. In one way lockdown has cocooned me, and helped me feel safe by giving me permission to stay at home lots. But on the other hand it has isolated me too much, from family and friends. I have therefore needed to tell a lot of people about her.

Reading the book: Finding Meaning by David Kessler helped me realise though, that telling people was because I needed my grief witnessed. No-one can take away the pain, but to bear witness to it, is all most of us need. It’s what I needed… need.

Friends and family have been so kind with words, cards, flowers, meals made for us, weekly/monthly messages, phone calls, and walks on the beach. Plus the kindness of strangers… when I least expected it, has touched me. The only thing that didn’t sit right with me, was when someone said: she is in a better place. No… no… for me she isn’t. I want her here in this messy world.

I also read that grief is different to mourning. Grief is what we feel inside, mourning is that outward manifestation of grief. For me the pain of grief is very different to depression. Depression for me back in 2012 felt like walking through treacle or quick drying cement… it was constant and relentless. Grief is like a tidal wave about to knock me over. And the energy needed to hold back the wave is immense. And it usually gets to about 1am and I can’t hold it back any longer and I sob and sob.

I have tried various tactics to cope. At first I went into mam mode for my son and daughter. I had to be strong for them. And then they went back to work and I had to have another approach.

One night I decided Betsy hadn’t died and that the next day I would get up and act as if nothing had happened. As soon as I woke I knew I couldn’t do that.

Then I decided to try believing in an afterlife. I tried to do interesting things that Betsy could see me doing. I talked to her lots. And then one night four months ago it hit me. For me there is no afterlife. And I hit a brick wall. And then I thought now what?

I’ve tried to not sleep through the day and tried to binge watch telly to make me tired at night. But that only worked for awhile.

So now I’m trying to keep busy yet leave time to rest and think and feel and cry… as it is exhausting keeping busy. The thought that I will feel like this for the rest of my life is exhausting too.

I have tried to be pro-active… eg in October I embarked on a walking challenge for Samaritans to raise funds. I walked 50 miles in the month and raised £640 in Betsy’s memory. It was a big challenge for me as I’m unfit at the moment. I’ve kept the walking up a little bit which is good.

I am engaging a little more with the world as I am running my creative writing workshops for children again… they bring me pockets of joy. But sometimes planning them and organising them becomes addictive; an obsession… again it is easy to keep too busy. Another addiction? Buying children’s books. And don’t get me started on social media. Let’s call it a distraction – which plays its role now and again.

I’ve tried to write creatively… but the only things I have managed are editing a play I’d written last year, and writing two blog posts – this being one of them, which I started in late March and finished at 2am today. I would like to write a children’s play to dedicate to Betsy. I can see the set and the main character. Just need a story! Maybe next year. One day.

And I registered for Cruse Bereavement Counselling, but I’m still on the waiting list; sadly the counsellor assigned to me was recently bereaved so I’m having to wait longer. Whether I need it or not is another matter; I just don’t want to slip into another depression without realising I’m slipping.

There are no short cuts with grief though. There are no fixes. And anniversaries that loom ahead don’t help. It would have been Betsy’s 3rd birthday today and my son’s birthday tomorrow… this week will be tough.

Triggers happening out of the blue are unsettling too. Last week I went on a First Aid course and I just didn’t pre-empt how upsetting it would be practising CPR. On a rare occasion for me, I decided to bail and miss the afternoon session, and get snug and safe at home and have a nap. And shut out the world.

And then there’s the physical stuff around my grief… losing my hair around my hairline (but it’s growing back), the vivid dreams & nightmares (they feel physical), the not eating, the feeling chilly most of the time. I could go on.

And then of course I’m navigating all of these thoughts and feelings along with my family’s. For sure there are no short cuts. No answers. I am not going to write about their grieving on a public platform, that is personal to them. Just know I feel like a harbourmaster keeping the boats safe. They probably feel they are keeping me safe.

I have survived other traumas; I’m resilient and resourceful. I know I will… my family will… survive this. We are a strong unit. But I would go through all the traumatic shitty times in my life again, and again, just to have Betsy back. To have her back, rooting through her Aunty Megan’s handbag, as in the photo of her below.

The book above mentions the stages of grief and says there is an extra one… finding meaning… finding meaning to their life…. finding meaning to your own… nine months since Betsy died and I’m no where near this stage yet, and I make no apologies for not being there yet, and I make no apologies for feeling distraught or low or triggered. And angry. Very angry. I make no apologies for feeling joy or for laughing at Schitts Creek or for not crying for a week last week. Or for crying at every episode of This Is Us.

Recent threads on twitter have helped as it was Grief Awareness Week. They prove different aspects of grief are unique to every person.. while some are universal. And best to take the bits that resonate with you and leave others. Just as this post is my individual take; at this moment in time.

For now, I’m moving forward with Betsy. A TED talk I heard the other month about grief and loss explored this idea… That we don’t get over a loved one. We don’t move on. We move forward with their memory. This is important to me. That I honour Betsy.

I hear people say time is a great healer… and I believe… only if you use time for yourself to heal.

I’ve just read over this before posting it, and really these words don’t do my feelings and thoughts justice… like a lot of people when faced with a bereavement I’m mostly at a loss for words.

All I can truly say is – Betsy I love you, and I always will. Go well little one.

My Writing Story & How Saluting Magpies Came To Be

Whenever I need to make sense of my life, or the world, then I turn to writing it down. Some people do it through music, painting, or dance… me through writing. I express myself through dance, but make sense through writing.

Over the years I’d only written privately. I had written diaries, unsent letters, poems, and two short stories, never sharing anything publicly… all because a teacher ridiculed my writing when I was a teenager and had put me off. I could write in exams for an anonymous examiner, but found it extremely difficult for anyone I knew in real life.

However, in August 2016 I started blogging at the age of 57, due to the encouragement of an online journalist on Twitter. And that boosted my confidence, which led to playwriting the following year. It was the start of me feeling vulnerable yet doing it. As Brene Brown says, vulnerability is showing courage, rather than weakness… although I walk the fine line with my feelings around it. I write publicly when the need to write and share it, overcomes the fear of doing it.

I now need to record my public writing story, for my own benefit.

This is a long form post and if you are interested it will take about 20 mins to read. The link to my audio play, Saluting Magpies (produced by Coracle Productions, in assoc with Alphabetti Theatre) can be found at: Write Longer.

At age 61 I’m proud of what I’ve achieved; I’ve had a lot of rejections too (some that hurt quite a bit) but I’ve had six successes. The world of writing and theatre feeds me! I have made some great new friendships too because of this new world. And I also want to thank people who have encouraged me with regards my writing – I want to use this post to thank writing schemes/courses, theatres, companies, facilitators, producers, actors and directors – I will name organisations and people.

I would love to name every person who has crossed my path over the past four years… but I’m too nervous that I’ll miss someone out… if you are in my life, then know you are one of those encouraging people with regards my writing… and my life. Every exchange, conversation, and positive feedback have all meant something. Thank you so much.

There is one person though who has been my steadfast champion and who I will name… my lovely daughter Megan. I always put writing stuff by Megan.. and if she goes… it’s shit-hot Mam… then I know I’m on the right track. I’ve come to learn that my writing won’t be to everyone’s liking, it’s not meant to be, but if I like it and Megan likes it lots, then I’m satisfied.

2011

I’m going to go back to 2011. I was driving the car one day round a roundabout (I can see the exact one just outside of Morpeth) and I spotted a lonesome magpie – and saluted him – and the thought crossed my mind, how ironical if I had an accident in the car, all because I took one hand off the steering wheel to salute a magpie – for good luck.

Later that day I sat at my laptop and a story of 4k words poured out. All about a woman who told her life story using the whole rhyme – One for sorrow, two for joy, etc. It was loosely based on my life, with embellishments of course. For the first time I dared to share my writing with a few friends. And then it sat in my documents folder for five years till 2017.

Two other things happened in 2011 too… I was not long back from living in Athens and two dear friends, Angela & Ged, started inviting me to Live Theatre in Newcastle. I’d only ever been once, and Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis blew my socks off. It was the dark humour, the structure, the twist, and the fact only four people were on stage with minimal set and no curtain, no side wings, and we were so close to the action.

And for the first time I thought, I want a play on a stage one day. Friends have asked if I’ve always wanted to be a writer, not until that day. Looking back though I now realise that all those children’s books I had read to my children & in school; all those films I had watched; and those puppet shows I did as a child… had planted seeds.

I enrolled on an online playwriting course, but it didn’t really click for me. And by the next year I was hit by a severe depression and anxiety.

Even though I recovered, I decided to take early retirement from full time work in 2014, sell my house, and go into rented. For all this was not ideal and felt scary, I do acknowledge that I was privileged to be able to do this and not end up homeless, and that in turn this gave me the time and energy to write further down the line.

Now jump five years to…

2016

Autumn of 2016 I did three things that were to kick me into gear…I started my own blog, I blogged for Live Theatre, and I enrolled on two writing courses.     

Live Theatre – Autumn season 2016

My blog about things in my life was favourably received; I reviewed plays at Live for a month, which opened my eyes to four plays I wouldn’t have normally seen; I enrolled on a day’s photography/poetry workshop in Hexham; and I applied to do a free weekend playwriting course at Live Theatre, with the laid-back, wise Gez Casey.

The playwriting course was an introductory one and I started to grasp about needs/ wants and obstacles with regards playwriting. I was so nervous the first day that I only took things in on the Sunday. Think this was my first visceral, fully-aware experience of imposter syndrome – a heavy cloak that I’ve never really shaken off.

One of the plays I reviewed at Live was Spine – a monologue by Clara Brennan. If Lee Hall had whetted my appetite, then this play set me off in a certain direction. It was a monologue with multiple voices. I bought the playscript (my daughter and I to this day still recite the opening bit – it’s so darkly funny) and now finally in late 2016 the fire was properly lit.

2017

January 2017 I enrolled on the Theatre Royal’s ten-week playwriting course for £60 (One of the few courses I’ve paid for, there’s some bloody good stuff out there for free) – run by the brilliant Roxana Freeman.

And eventually the penny dropped about dialogue – about it driving the action forward, and about sub text, and about each line deserving its place.

She also said something that has stayed with me: successful playwriting is 90% hard work, 10% talent – and I thought, I can do hard work!

As it became clear that we would have to share our work, people began dropping out. It took all my courage to stay the course.

By the March of 2017 I decided to get over myself, and write a short monologue for a call-out.

I studied Spine above to see how it was laid out. My three minute monologue was called “Off to see a man about a dog” and gorgeous Vik Kay of NE Script Space picked it up, and it was performed at Theatre Space NE in Sunderland, by the fab Dale Jewitt.

I was so green though – at the first rehearsal Dale did a read-through and I thought that was him properly acting – I was bowled over – but even more so when he stood up and did it properly.

My piece was part of Corinne Kilvington’s launch of her new space and it was such a special evening. And I was hooked.

Running order of launch evening at Theatre Space NE – 2017

In the April I was submitting to Live Theatre’s Ten Mins To. Well, I was trying to. I had to maroon myself on St Mary’s Island to get my bum into a seat and write – and I turned the One For Sorrow, above in my short story, into a monologue with multiple voices, called Fragile Clouds.

I had procrastinated so much though that I had to submit the first draft, which I only completed within ten minutes of the deadline. I’ve never flown so near to a deadline again… ok, maybe I have a few times.

St Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

When Fragile Clouds was performed I was in awe at what Bex Bowsher the director, and Caroline Liversidge who performed it, had created. My ten year old self was heard by an audience for the first time, and I realised I had connected with people through my writing… a potent feeling.  

Programme for Live Theatre’s Ten Mins To – Reach Inside – April 2017

Throughout April/June 2017 I tried to turn all of my short story into a play – but it just wasn’t happening. I had the idea to have it as a two-hander with a younger and older self on stage… but I was stuck; Saluting Magpies – the play – just wasn’t happening.

However, if I was hooked before, then I was well and truly smitten now, and knew I had to try and write some other playscript.

Minimal set for Ten Mins To – April 2017

Next up was a call-out for a project, Hear Her Roar, in the Autumn of 2017… for JoJo Kirtley’s Workie Ticket Theatre Company.

Time for me to step back from personal writing to writing about an issue I knew a lot about, but also had to do a lot of research on too, plus I needed to ok the story I was telling with the people involved.

My monologue was called Rocking The Boat. All about me sitting in the Durham Miner’s Hall at a rally, for the teaching assistants, who were in dispute with Durham County Council.

My path crossed again with the fab Corinne Kilvington, this time as director, and the wonderful Jackie Lye who performed it.

Act One of Hear Her Roar held at the Bridge Hotel Pub, Newcastle – 2017

If you have stayed with me this long, then thank you. I thought I’d have written this blog post by now.

2018

Quite a few rejections under my belt from that Autumn 2017 until the next May in 2018 and I was losing confidence, so I knew I had to be proactive and I booked the five-week playwriting course at Alphabetti, with a showcase at the end of it (costing £20).

This was me meeting Ben Dickenson, their literary manager, for the first time. The third facilitator to be encouraging and inspiring… I sent him an email early on asking a question, saying… sorry, feel a bit dim… and him saying… what a perfectly sensible question, cos in his experience, some of the best theatre grows from asking the obvious, there’s genius to be found in that moment of: “eh? what?”

It meant I could take a risk with what I was about to write… I felt safe. A feeling that doesn’t come easily, but one that frees me up.  

For the showcase I wrote a multiple voice two-hander called Beyond The Yellow Brick Road… where a daughter had reached an impasse with her mam, with regards her moving abroad for work.

It was a script-in hand night… another new experience for me. And my five minute piece was on stage with 12 other pieces, this time in the very capable hands of Paula Penman and Caroline Liversidge – with the comic addition of Adam Jordan Donaldson.

I was.. back in the room.

What happened next has to be a proper dream come true.

A week later Ben emailed me saying that Alphabetti would like to offer me a commission – to write a 15 minute play (max two actors, minimal set) for an Alphabetti Soup Night. And I could write on any theme…. yikes, problem… I’d never had carte blanche before. And so the mind-mapping began. I often use snippets of a conversation or an image to get the ball rolling – this time I could see a set of step ladders, and a girl who wasn’t allowed to read (me) and an older version of that child who used superstition to get through life (bits of me)… at last I could use the image of me saluting magpies, and the idea from 2017 of a younger and older character on stage began to take form.

For the very first time I hit the deadline a month early… in case Ben didn’t like my play… he did.. and the play went through about five edits with him.

The first play version of Saluting Magpies took place that Autumn of 2018… with the dream team of Ruby Shrimpton (dir) and Tash Haws as older Ruby and Rebecca Graham as younger Ruby.

Since Fragile Clouds I’ve had this perverse need to have an audience cry… and that night I could hear stifled crying around the auditorium… result.

Also in that Autumn I applied to Live’s free ten-week playwriting course. I wanted to gather more insight and skills – playwriting books weren’t doing it for me as my concentration was diminished after the severe depression.

But that imposter syndrome was back with bells on… I think I was the oldest person on the course and felt I was only there to fulfil some ticky-box exercise.

The course was run by Chinonyrerem Odimba – who put me at ease, even though she didn’t know about my self-doubting. She speaks with vulnerability, and with such passion about plays – it’s infectious.

We had an informal show-back at the end and Chino said my writing made her want to lean in and hear more… uplifting feedback.

Along with the course above I also started FOH at The Exchange in North Shields.

Plus I applied to do the free reviewing workshop with Lyn Gardner at Northern Stage, and I began a working relationship with the lovely Helen Fussell.

This all meant I could see as many plays as possible for free, and I could keep interrogating which plays I liked and didn’t like, and why, while also keeping the machinery oiled by blogging again, and contributing in a small way to theatre discourse in the north east.

2019

From 2016 to 2018 I had soaked up as much about plays as I could (for now, there’s always more to learn) and I stepped into 2019 with lots of optimism.

Three opportunities came my way in the Spring… Saluting Magpies was performed at a scratch night at ARC Stockton, by Northumbria Uni MA theatre students; Alphabetti announced their Write Longer scheme, and Coracle Productions did a call-out for response audio plays to Down To Zero, a play by Lizi Patch.

Programme for Northumbria Uni’s Scratch Night – Jan 2018

I’d never written anything longer than 10-15 minutes… and Alphabetti were asking for plays of about 30 mins or longer to be workshopped and developed.

I could still see a younger and older Ruby and I had the idea to chop up and weave together: A Prologue, with Fragile Clouds, with Saluting Magpies, with Beyond The Yellow Brick Road and An Epilogue – they all had elements of ritual and superstition – and I called the whole thing Saluting Magpies.

I was chuffed to bits when it was chosen to be workshopped (performed again by the fantastic Tash Haws and Caroline Liversidge) along with lots of other plays, and then even more chuffed when Alphabetti’s Write Longer scheme chose it in Oct 2019 to be directed and produced by Matt Jamie of Coracle, to be performed in April 2020. Along with two other plays, one directed by Melanie Rashbrooke of The Six Twenty, and the other by Ben Dickenson of Alphabetti.

And this was the start of me working with Matt… like other facilitators he was very good at making me feel safe to develop ideas. Saluting Magpies – the 30 min version – went through about six edits with him. He is so patient… I’d send an edit then usually follow it with an email entitled: PS (like Detective Columbo saying… erm, just one more thing)

The above was happening while I had also been successful with Coracle’s response play call-out. My audio play was called Great Expectations – A love story of sorts. It can be found on Coracle’s podcast – Playstream – directed & produced for audio by Matt and performed by the lush Hannah Walker and Arabella Arnott. Down to Zero was about a woman feeling invisible and my play was too. This was my first attempt at writing an audio play.

On the final stretch now… thank you for staying this long. This post has taken me four weeks to write – as I said, my concentration is not very good – but it has been useful for me to reminisce and put this together though. I also know I’ve been avoiding this next chapter.

2020

And so to 2020 … the longer version of Saluting Magpies was to be performed in the April at Alphabetti, at the Write Longer Festival, with the two other plays. But of course Covid-19 put a stop to that.

However, it was decided that Coracle Productions/Matt Jamie would put it out as an audio play, in association with Alphabetti Theatre/Ben Dickenson, supported by Arts Council England. Which is what happened on 29th June. (As I said, you can find it at www.writelonger.co.uk or on Coracle’s podcast Playstream)

Matt brilliantly re-formatted it for audio by stripping it of my stage directions, and by adding music and sound FX. And the two characters who were to multi-role on stage, were now to be joined by five other NE voices.

I heard a preview on the 28th June and loved it…. Lucy Curry and Janine Leigh did a beautiful job of younger and older Ruby, and the other five spot-on women were Jacqueline Phillips, Katie Powell, Sam Neale, Arabella Arnott & Amelia Loulli. Matt had got them all to record their parts in their own homes, on their phones, and he wove it all together – some feat. I’ll be forever grateful. Dream no 2 came true.

I have had lots of positive feedback online and privately. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to do that. And Tracey Sinclair, who writes for Exeunt & The Stage, wrote a lovely post Write Longer – online plays, on her personal blog prodigalgeordie; even if she did admit to being a biased friend.

However I wasn’t able to savour the moment… some of you know my granddaughter was in a fatal incident in March this year, and it has overridden my play… and lockdown. I’m heartbroken. However, I’ve come to realise that writing was my saviour back in 2016 and hopefully it will carry on being so. Writing publicly may bare my soul, but it mends stronger. So for now I’m back to writing a blog post because that’s where I started. (I’ve written 56 posts since 2016) It grounds me and I feel I’m creating. And, as there is always something new to learn, I have done two zoom playwriting workshops recently… with Bryony Kimmings and Gill Greer – felt I had to get my bum in a seat again! Both fab women and insights, but oh how I dislike zoom!

Anyway… playwriting-wise what’s next? One day I would like to write a children’s play to dedicate to Betsy… a play to bring joy to children. When I’ll be ready to do that who knows and when/if theatres can re open who knows. I also may develop Saluting Magpies – I would like it to be longer; I would like to play around with the structure of it; I would like it to be realised on stage one day. One day.

The other week I was in the cemetery laying flowers and I asked for a sign that Betsy was near, and a magpie flew out of a nearby tree. So, I’ll forever be saluting magpies. Go well Mr Magpie… rest in peace dear Betsy.

Love these words, even if there is a typo!

(If you can afford to, then Alphabetti, Northern Stage and Live Theatre all have ways to support them financially through these dire times on their websites. If you like my writing or my blog posts then you may like to support me if you can, at my new Ko-fi page https://ko-fi.com/wendyerrington And if not, then shares of my play are very welcome. Thank you)

MoMA – New York – my photo taken Feb 2018

Sugar by Open Clasp Theatre Co – review

Most of what you need to know about Sugar by Open Clasp Theatre Co is set out on the postcard above. They were given out at the premiere screening, at Live Theatre, last Thursday. Fittingly, two days before International Women’s Day – a day that isn’t so much about celebrating women, but fighting for women’s rights.

In fact, the above underpins all of Open Clasp’s work. Work that isn’t about getting bums on seats and sensationalising women’s plights. Work that is made to engage audiences, and to initiate change for girls and women. Work that lets you see the world through someone else’s eyes – hits you in your gut and your heart.

Sugar is a devised piece of theatre, made to be screened. A film. A stark 80 minutes of four women’s stories – women who could be any woman you pass on the street or see on the bus… or don’t see at all. This devised piece of theatre, written by Open Clasp’s Artistic Director Catrina McHugh MBE, was made with women in homeless shelters, in prisons, and on probation – to give them a voice. The stark set matched the tone and mood. The lighting, camera angles and sound playing their part too.

Three things affected me the most.

1. The women’s faces – unlike a staged play everyone in the audience could see the actors’ faces up close. The anguish. The defiance. The despair.

2. Their stories – of being stuck in relentless cycles of abuse and trauma. Relentless.

3. The little girls at the end – dancing in and out of the stark grey pillars. Not a care in the world. Not knowing what might be in store for them.

Laura Lindow’s direction kept it taut, while allowing moments to let it breathe and sit with us. Not once did I look at my watch.

Annie’s & Julie’s tales were told as monologues. Tracy’s began as one too, and then Rita joined her. All four played by four amazing women actors. With such close camera angles there was no where to hide… the piece needed such an amazing cast.

Four women who have been let down by their families, by society, by us.

Sugar is a state of the nation piece of theatre. And the nation’s not in a good state.

I turned the postcard over when the lights came up. And read…

Sugar is about a future for those young girls… It’s about every Annie, Julie, Tracy and Rita out there. It’s about breaking the cycle.

Sugar goes on tour from June.

So far dates have been set for two screenings, at ARC Stockton – June 17th & 18th. Pay What You Decide. www.arconline.co.uk

More dates around the country will be announced soon.

Screenings can be shown at conferences too and for training, just as Key Change and Rattle Snake by Open Clasp have been.

For more information visit www.openclasp.org.uk

Creative Team and Cast

Writer: Catrina McHugh MBE

Director: Laura Lindow

Cast: Taja Luegaezor Christian, Paislie Reid, Zoe Lambert, Christina Berriman Dawson

Camera Direction & Editing: Katja Roberts for Meerkat Films

Set & Costume Design: Verity Quinn

Lighting Design: Ali Hunter

Sound Design: Roma Yagnik

Photo Credit: Topher McGrillis

Edit – July 2020 – if you like any of my blog posts & my writing then here is my Ko-Fi page. Thank you ❤️

https://ko-fi.com/wendyerrington

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns at Northern Stage – review

The Young’uns, a well-known folk trio from Stockton, sat on the edge of the stage at Northern Stage and introduced themselves, broke the fourth wall and took away any of the illusions of the magic of theatre – then they stood up and sang – and the magic, the joy began. Because it was a truly joyous evening of song, tales and love – it was The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. But it wasn’t a sentimental romantic ballad, it was a traditional narrative ballad about the life of Johnny Longstaff, also from Stockton-on-Tees, laid bare – told through folk songs, visuals and recordings of the man himself.

The lads mostly sang in a capella, and the harmonies cut through to my core. The lads may not be actors as they said, but their banter and renditions were full of humour, warmth and emotion. It was stripped-back storytelling, with the set and design complementing it all, rather than outshining it. And I had a feeling it was going to be a “tissue at the ready” kind of performance, stories about the North East, social injustice and the fight against fascism – directed by Lorne Campbell – gave me a clue.

Woven between the songs were recordings of Johnny recalling his experiences of being poor, marching to London for work, and fighting in the Spanish Civil War at age 17. Just before he died Johnny recorded his life story for the Imperial War Museum. The Young’uns deftly used the six hours’ worth to inform their album of songs about his life.

Hearing Johnny’s words and accent filled me with pride. And projected on the backdrop were woven images of maps, landmarks, landscapes and faces. Images that seemed as if they were being drawn in real-time. I have a fascination with the staging of shows. Huge shout-out to the creative team – see the listing below.

Over the past month or so I’ve wanted to simply tweet – it’s two thousand and twenty! I feel Johnny would be disgusted too. Why are we still fighting racism, the far-right, poverty and discrimination? I think my tears were also about my despair and frustration. However, the performance last night also put a fire in my belly.

One man’s story but a reflection of so many people’s experience in the 1920’s and 30’s. A story about one man making a difference.

People talk of patriotism or nationalism – I felt the power of humanism last night. I felt proud to be from the North East, proud to be from a working class background, proud of Johnny Longstaff and The Young’uns – the spontaneous standing ovation at the end said it all.

On Twitter I’ve seen two 5 Star reviews published, I haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure my response piece here will echo their words. And I’m sure there are more five stars to follow.

And Lorne – this wasn’t a swan song from you, as you head off to pastures new in Wales to their National Theatre, this was what theatre does best – the telling of authentic stories told with intent and impact.

Catch The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff at Northern Stage until Sat 22 Feb, or on tour to Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Hull.

(Disclaimer – I received a complimentary ticket for this show, in return for an honest response piece)

Photos credit : Pamela Raith Photography

Wolf! By Kitchen Zoo at Northern Stage – Review

I’d hardly sat down when I could feel the sting of tears – tears of joy – watching groups of young children settle down on the carpet to watch “Wolf!” I know… I’m a right softie.

I saw Kitchen Zoo’s “The Three Bears at Christmas” last December, so I was keen to sign up to review their latest Christmas offering. And what an offering again – from the set, to the songs, to the story – to the lighting, to the puppets, to the sound.

What Kitchen Zoo excels at, is interactive shows for under 5’s and their families or nursery teachers. There is just the right balance of story, with actions, with songs. Nothing is patronising and there’s no aside jokes for adults. It’s all for the children (or big kids like me!)

Artwork – Aimee Liversidge

And Kitchen Zoo’s Bob Nicholson & Hannah Goudie-Hunter have the most warm, animated faces and demeanour. They multi-role effortlessly and the whole 45 mins flies by and is definitely relaxed. One mam told me her little one maybe wouldn’t manage to stay with it all… but they did.

Photos – all credited to – Von Fox Productions

The sheep puppets are pure genius. And have I mentioned the set?! Like last year it is delicious… little houses hanging as lanterns, stacks of giant books to make the mountains, swirls of paper snow & snowy lights, with swathes of satin and frilly white net – it was like The Snow Queen on the main stage in Studio One was spilling over (which starts Sat 30 Nov).

Once again I implore you to get along – when a show starts with the line – Beneath the Christmassy moon – then you just know you’re in for a treat. “Wolf!” is on til Sat 4 Jan – but tickets are selling fast.

Ring the box office 0191-2305151 or go online http://www.northernstage.co.uk

From Northern Stage’s website

Burgerz by Travis Alabanza at Northern Stage – Review

Where to start with Travis Alabanza’s solo show – Burgerz?

Do I start at the beginning with the reveal… or the inciting incident off stage, when they had a burger and a transphobic slur thrown at them in 2016… or the cooking of a burger (made from scratch) on stage with the help of a volunteer from the audience… or all the things I felt from joy to anger… or all the questions whirring around my mind… or… or the pledge from me to do better… to be a better ally?

I’m going to go with my pledge.

Over the past four years, maybe more, I have been aware of the trans community. And on social media I have blocked TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and liked tweets and retweeted in support of trans people. I felt I was an ally.

However, since seeing Travis’s show two weeks ago at Northern Stage in Newcastle, I realised I could be a better ally. I’ve been educating myself more about transitioning and have been having more conversations with friends and family about it.

One interesting situation though was when I was in the hairdresser’s last week. When the usual question came up: “What have you been up to recently?” I decided to talk about seeing Burgerz; knowing that in a hairdresser’s you can overhear most conversations… so when someone said… “I don’t agree with transitioning but I would never discriminate” – it got me reacting.

I reacted by saying: “Imagine I sit here today and tell you I want to transition and become a man – do you think I would do that lightly – on a whim – for the hell of it?” No answer. Whether that person then thought differently I don’t know, but at least I voiced my opinion – I wasn’t silent, and maybe I planted a seed.

I’ve always said on Twitter – with regards any campaign – that awareness is one thing but acceptance is what we really need. Travis says something similar – they say understanding is what’s needed… cos visibility and awareness alone aren’t protecting the trans community from abuse, slurs and attacks… if anything, the visibility on its own, may be making matters worse.

I realise at this point that I’ve hardly talked about the actual show. But I do realise that I’ve spent the past two weeks thinking about it and acting on it. I’m a huge believer that shared stories told live impact on us, more than anybody up on their soap box.

During the show Travis got me thinking outside of the box; got me thinking more about the boxes people can be put in to; got me thinking about when that burger used to attack, then becomes a fist or a knife.

Got me thinking about my privilege – I’m a 60 year old white cis straight woman, and I come from a generation that used expressions such as narrow-minded and broad-minded. I like to think I’m broad-minded… but I pledge today to keep verbalising what’s on my mind more and to not stay silent.

Thank you Travis for sharing your experiences and thank you Northern Stage for giving them a platform.

Writer & performer: Travis Alabanza

Director: Sam Curtis Lindsay

Designer: Soutra Gilmour

Assoc. Designer: Isabella Van Braeckel

Presented by: Hackney Showroom, in association with Curious Arts

On tour til 1 December

Theatre Review ~ Nigel Slater’s Toast – at Northern Stage

I take my seat, and I’m faced with a 60s kitchen, 60s music and the waft of overdone toast hanging in the air. The stage is set in Northern Stage’s main auditorium, and I’m taken back to my childhood and I’m in the mood to see this new play based on Nigel Slater’s autobiography.

Set – Kitchen (This is my photo – all the others are credited to Piers Foley)

I’d watched the TV version (written by local writer Lee Hall) in December 2010, and I was fascinated and went off to Google Nigel. I realise today that it was the start of me watching biopics and thinking… ah, so I could maybe make a dramatic version of my life story (work in progress!) I also began following Nigel on Instagram. I love the photos of his house, his garden and the food he creates. Oh and photos of his Christmas decorations, trips to the markets in Europe and to Japan. Beautiful photos. He is one of only two celebrities I follow.

Anyway I digress.

The play was fluid (great choreography) and it relied on lots of props… lots. It used different levels and it was all set in the kitchen or had the kitchen as the backdrop. Lots of theatricality… eg multi-roling and at times entering/exiting by the fridge. Lots of engaging with the audience… sweets to eat (NB check the board in the foyer or N Stage’s website for foods to watch out for – if you have allergies or intolerances) Plus Giles Cooper, who plays Nigel from age 9 to 17, broke the 4th wall and acted as narrator too.

Mum with Nigel dancing

The reference to Marguerite Patten’s cookery book and to dishes, such as Duck a L’orange and Angel Delight, was met with favourable audible recognition from the audience. That was lovely to witness. And it was funny when the Dad made Spaghetti Bolognese for the first time and tipped smelly Parmesan Cheese on top. Nigel and his Mum had never even heard of it. I hadn’t in the 60s/70s either, mince and dumplings or crisp sandwiches were on our menu.

Dad serving up Spaghetti Bolognese

I came away thinking there was an abundance of components. Plenty of signposts to explain the route Nigel took with cooking… and an extremely successful career too. Dollops of nostalgia – which I got, as I’m only one year younger than Nigel. But this stage version wasn’t my cup of tea. I wasn’t invested in Nigel… I wasn’t rooting for him. It’s had a run at the Fringe and in London and it’s on a long tour. Plus there’s rave reviews – all 4 and 5 stars. So it’s a lot of other people’s cup of tea.

Top of the Form Sweet Quiz

I have just read Lyn Gardner’s review where she speaks highly of it and ends with: “It’s not demanding, but it’s immensely satisfying.” Maybe these days I am more inclined to find something satisfying, only if it is demanding for me. Not true when I watch TV, but true for me with regards theatre and cinema.

However, at the end Nigel starts to slice up a mushroom… fry it with lemon juice and butter and garlic on a live hot plate… the sizzle, the smells, the time taken to do it and the significance of the act – all made me go goose-pimply. I needed a few more of those moments.

If you have tickets, or fancy it, then go along and soak up the nostalgia and let me know your thoughts. And I defy you not to go home and make some buttered toast… or to buy some pick-n-mix the next day.

Nigel cooking mushrooms

On at Northern Stage til Saturday. Go to http://www.northernstage.co.uk for tickets.

(I was at press night on Tues 17 Sept with a comp ticket)

Ten Things About My Dad

Father’s Day can stir up good and sometimes not so good memories about dads… here’s a few of mine about my dad. (CW – domestic abuse)

1. He loved to drive. He had a motorbike once too. He drove vans for his job – all his life.

2. He loved dogs. He always had one. When I was a teenager he used to drop off his dog Dusty, a little dusky pink whippet, with me. And leave saying: Am off to see a man about a dog. Was only as an adult I realised what it meant. I included that saying in two of my plays. Yes, he wasn’t transparent.

3. He liked to do a crossword.

4. He was born on 15th February, but his mam said his birthday was the 14th, Valentine’s Day, so he always celebrated a day early.

5. I never went away on holiday with him.

6. He always wrapped my xmas presents. My mam never did. Once he gave me a pair of roller skates for no reason. I was well chuffed.

7. He sometimes would pick me up from secondary school in his gold Corsair car. Thought I was the bees knees. I was embarrassed about his name though… it was Maurice. I think I’d think it was quite unusual now. But back then I wanted him to be a Bill or a Harry. Looking back that was the least of my problems.

8. He took me to the beach once… I went for a pony ride & fell off & broke my left arm. I remember screaming the place down when the doctor tried to take the plaster cast off with an electric saw thing. He had to cut it off with huge scissors. He didn’t seem too happy. I was only seven.

9. He hit my mam with a poker once. A cold one. I was about ten? As an adult I once said that to a counsellor, and she pointed out it was still really bad.

10. My dad died five years ago. Three days after my 55th birthday. At his funeral the vicar didn’t even mention my name. He mentioned my brother & sister. Up to that point I had been crying, but not mentioning me stopped the tears. But really I feel I lost him lots of years previous. When I was five my mam & dad divorced. I feel I lost him then. I wasn’t allowed to cry about him; got told my mam was going through worse. We used to go to his on Saturdays, but that didn’t last for long. I remember we would eat fish n chips. And rice pudding out of the tin. It probably happened once.

Lots of “onces” above. Strange how they stick so vividly in my memory.

Do I miss him? A little bit. Did I cry writing this?…not once.

My 3rd birthday – me & my dad

Open Clasp… opens doors

Looking down at the old-school slides on the table – reading the words, and looking at the photos, I could feel the sting of tears.

In front of me were slides of Open Clasp Theatre Company’s first play, from twenty years ago: After Her Death. Twenty years ago! Open Clasp was co-founded all those years ago by writer and artistic director Catrina McHugh MBE. It was formed to: place theatre at the heart of transforming the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

I’d been invited to the company’s archive symposium last Tuesday, at the West End Women & Girls Centre, on Elswick Road, Newcastle. And the whole room was an archive of those years… of the plays and the company’s work in the community. There were scripts, posters, awards and newspaper cuttings. An exhibition of its achievements. To find out more about the company then visit openclasp.org.uk

One thing that looked particularly intriguing was a huge body outline on one wall… covered in words on coloured post-its. It had been created earlier on in the day. The words on the body represented the known facts about Open Clasp and on the head were the company’s values.

The room was one big celebration of those twenty years. A celebration of plays performed in theatres, prisons, schools, conferences, community centres, at the Fringe and on Broadway. Not only archives curated by staff of Newcastle University, but also a gathering of women. Women who have been directly involved with Open Clasp (such as past cast members) and those who have supported the company. The room was buzzing with chat and laughter.

Then we all gathered to watch Kate Sweeney’s film, Traces in the Script, about Cheryl and Abigail Byron talking about making don’t forget the birds (Open Clasp’s latest play and winner of a recent Journal Culture Arts award – Performance of the Year). Catrina looked visibly moved. And I’m sure, as the day came to an end and birthday cake was eaten and fizz poured, that she felt proud too.

It seems that our world can still be ugly and discriminating – let’s keep pushing for education to combat ignorance and prejudice. Open Clasp connects with varied audiences, inviting them to walk in the shoes of the women portrayed. And it works with organisations and policy makers too. Let’s keep championing Open Clasp – as it strives to change the world, one play at a time. Let’s keep opening doors.

And I look forward to what Open Clasp creates next and to the next twenty years of their journey.