Category Archives: Theatre

Three brothers, four starring roles and one proud mum

DAVID SIMPSON speaks to the proud mother of three North East brothers who will be starring in four different musical productions this year

Siobhan Bales
Siobhan Bales

Show business talent often runs in families and for one Whitley Bay mum this is a particularly big reason to be proud. Siobhan Bales, 46, is Head of Marketing at Tradebox UK Ltd, a software company based at North Shields Fish Quay which she runs with husband, Stephen. Upbeat, positive, yet  humble, Siobhan clearly has a drive and ambition that she has seemingly passed on to her three talented sons.

In the coming months Siobhan’s three boys, Tom, Oli and Gabriel will appear in key roles in four separate musical productions, three of which are in the North East and one in London. The Bales brothers certainly sound like future talents to look out for.

Siobhan and Stephen don’t have any obvious stage connections: “There’s no performance history in our family” says Siobhan, “so I’m not sure where it comes from, though we do have singers and my mum used to dance”. Apart from that it seems the three brothers simply caught the performing bug, starting with eldest son, Tom, who displayed a natural talent for singing from the age of four.

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Tom Bales in Grease (2013)

Now 20, Tom is a student at Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd) in Chiswick, west London, the esteemed performing arts school at which Andrew Lloyd Webber is president. It’s a major point in a performance progression for Tom which all started when, at four years old, he joined the Stagecoach performing arts school for children in Whitley Bay.

“He loved singing, dancing and dressing up” says Siobhan speaking of the four year old Tom,  “he could sing pitch perfect”.

By the age of 7, Tom appeared as Young Scrooge alongside Tommy Steele in Newcastle Theatre Royal’s production of ‘Scrooge’ and at 9 joined the chorus of urchins in ‘Oliver’ at Whitley Bay Playhouse. At 11 Tom attended a dance school in Newcastle, although by the age of 14  GCSE demands meant he had to make a choice and shift focus from dance to performing in more shows. Singing was a key talent for Tom as North Tyneside’s soloist of the year, aged 13 and at 16 an intensive six months of singing lessons culminated in top grades. By 17 he was playing the lead role in ‘Aspects of Love’ at Whitley Bay Playhouse.

Many young people dream of making it in performing arts and it’s an interesting insight into the work, drive, dedication, time and talent that’s needed to achieve such goals. In terms of his training and education Tom’s enrolment at ArtsEd is the present culmination of all this work and you have to be exceptionally talented and driven to get this far.

Siobhan explains that from around 3,000 auditions at ArtsEd only 45 actually get in. “It’s good to have a particular strength but you must have an all round talent for singing, acting and dancing that are all at a similar level” she says, adding that “musicals are very competitive” .

There isn’t any sense of a pushy parent or of young people with big egos from speaking to Siobhan as she describes her family. There’s more a sense of modesty, enthusiasm, dedication and drive. Siobhan is keen to note that ArtsEd certainly look for people who are driven, talented and grounded. “they are not looking for prima donnas” she reflects “they are looking for people who are humble, modest and open to learn.”

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Tom Bales playing the lead in Summer Holiday when he was 16 (2012)

The school certainly has a good reputation with an alumni that includes Martin Clunes, Julie Andrews, Darcey Bussell, Nigel Havers and Will Young. Typically, Tom might catch a glimpse of Colin Firth in the school corridor and has met with film director Trevor Nunn as well as being taught to act by the now retired head of acting Charlie Barker, daughter of the late comedian, Ronnie.

In such a competitive and talented environment Tom seems to have more than held his own and will be appearing in the ArtsEd production of ‘Titanic’ from Friday January 20th, 2016 in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Theatre at Chiswick for a run of 11 shows. Tom opens and closes the show with solos, playing a lead role as Titanic designer, Thomas Andrews, complete with a learned Ulster accent. Around fifty people, including friends, family and members of dramatic societies in North Tyneside are heading down to London from our region to give their support.

Meanwhile back in the North East brothers Oli and Gabriel are also preparing for their own starring roles, seemingly inspired by their elder brother’s talents. Sporty middle brother, Oli, aged 16 (there’s a four year gap between each of the brothers) is currently in his first year studying A’ Levels and has proved to be a bit of surprise to his family with his growing interest in theatre:

“Oli is a rugby player and into boxing, taking a different path to his brothers” says Siobhan but GCSE drama soon ignited the performing arts spark for brother number two.

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Oli Bales

Oli’s not a complete stranger to performance though. Siobhan mentions Oli has done busking, plays guitar and has a “rocky voice”. He’s now joined the annual musical at Whitley Bay High School, playing two roles as Prince Charming and also as The Wolf in a production of ‘Into the Woods’. “It shows his charming, satirical side as well as his dark, manipulative side” says Siobhan.

In a separate production Oli will also be playing Nathan, the son of the lead in ‘The Full Monty’ for Whitley Bay Operatic Society at the Playhouse where he has recently joined up. Recently he’s managed to squeeze in time as an extra in BBC children’s drama ‘The Dumping Ground’ which is filmed in Newcastle and as an extra in the filming of ‘Inspector George Gently’ around Durham. In addition he’s been learning dance at the Gillian Quinn School of Dance Theatre in Whitley Bay and hopes to follow in his older brother’s footsteps with an audition for ArtsEd at Chiswick in October.

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Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Bales on the set of Beowulf (2014)

Youngest son, Gabriel, who is 12, is not to be left to out. Siobhan describes him as very similar to Tom in character and “naturally good at dancing”. In May, Gabriel will be playing the principal role of Zach in Tynemouth Operatic Society’s production of ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ with a number of solos to perform. Based on the novel by Michelle Magorian, some readers may recall the 1998 TV movie of the story, featuring John Thaw.

Gabriel’s other passion is making and editing films and has ambitions to be a film director. His current projects include parodies which he edits on his home computer and publishes on YouTube. For TV. Gabriel has appeared as an extra in the production of ‘Beowulf’ filming near Consett and Barnard Castle in the Durham Pennines.

In an age where ‘reality TV’, bis egos and sometimes outrageous behaviour are often seen as shortcuts to stardom, the hard work, passion, determination and dedication of Siobhan’s three sons is a refreshing and interesting insight into the actual reality of nurturing talent and achieving success in the challenging, competitive yet rewarding environment of performing arts. It is something for which Siobhan can be justifiably proud.

 

USEFUL LINKS

Stagecoach: Performing arts schools for children aged 14-18

Arts Educational Schools, London (ArtsEd)

Gillian Quinn School of Theatre Dance

Whitley Bay Playhouse

Whitley Bay Operatic Society

Tynemouth Operatic Society

North East England Amateur dramatic groups

Tradebox Uk Ltd

Putting the Band Back Together

Sunderland musician Ross Millard talks to RICHARD CALLAGHAN about his Edinburgh Fringe debut

Ross Millard is looking relaxed. Surprisingly relaxed, in fact, given that he’s one third (just about, more on that later) of one of more than three and a half thousand shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Guitarist for the Futureheads and Frankie & The Heartstrings, Ross is making his Fringe debut in a show about music, why people stop playing it, and why it’s great when they start again. I sat down with Ross, and asked him about the show, the relationship to the audience, and his first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ross Millard
Ross Millard

Putting The Band Back Together features Ross Millard, Maria Crocker and Alex Elliott. It is directed by Annie Rigby. Writer, Chloe Daykin.

RC: So, what’s Putting The Band Back Together about?

RM: Annie’s chosen to describe it as part gig, part poignant show about reconnecting with a one-time obsession in your life. In our case it’s music but it transfers to anything that you’ve had a passion for but which has dissipated.

The original inspiration for the story was Mark Lloyd who was a Northern Stage actor diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and with the rest of the time he had left the main thing he wanted to do was put his old band back together. And he did it, and they did gigs at Washington Arts Centre and places like that. Alex and Annie were very close with Mark and they wanted to sort of honour that story because it’s quite an important message in life, at the heart of it all what’s your passion? What do you want to do above everything else? But that story’s offset with some quite wild interpretative moments with other people’s experiences about music. And then there’s the House Band element as well.

RC: For those who haven’t seen the show yet, could you just explain the House Band?

RM: So every day at three o’clock at Summerhall we meet up with anybody who’s coming along to the show who plays any instrument, a little bit or a lot, and we’ve got a rehearsal room booked and we go off for three quarters of an hour and run through some tunes and then they get up and they’re part of the show. So far we’ve had quite a good variety, we’ve had a flautist, drummers, keyboard players, quite a few guitarists, singers, people are getting in touch constantly and the band’s different every day, which is great for us.

At the heart of the message it’s that it’s not about ability, it’s not about getting bogged down in the minutiae of being great, it’s just about doing it, and if that’s the message of the play we couldn’t really have that without the House Band.

As an audience member, perhaps even subconsciously, you’re willing them to do well. But there’s a fine line to walk, because people have paid their money and they want to see a quality show, I don’t want to do something where people come along and the theatre element is great but the music falls apart. It’s about trying to arrange it so that people can still contribute regardless of their ability, and so that the show remains strong.

Yesterday we had a guy who contacted us out of the blue, plays keys, he said “I’ve got tickets for the show with my wife, I play keyboards very occasionally, jazz, and it’s going to blow my wife’s mind if I just get up and become part of the House Band without her knowing about it.” So he told her he was at a meeting, and came along to the rehearsal, and her jaw just dropped when he stood up and joined the band. And it was a thrill, you know, for him to be part of that. A big deal to be up on stage, to perform, it’s easy to forget that not everyone does that on a regular basis. It’s a big deal.

RC: You’re used to performing, to playing in bands, but this must be a different experience.

RM: I’ve tried to treat the audience at our thing the way I’d treat the audience at a normal show, and I think you’ve got to hope there’s strength in the story or in the overall experience, and that people take something away at the end. Getting a theatre audience on side isn’t like getting a gig audience on side, it’s more difficult, because you’ve got less opportunity to engage with the audience.

RC: The Fringe is famously a fairly unrelenting experience, why have you chosen to do it?

RM: When I got approached to get involved it was completely out of the blue, but I really wanted to come and play music, and this is an opportunity to still write music, still play, and I couldn’t really say no. It’s flattering as well, somebody coming and saying ‘do you want to write the songs for this show’, too right, yeah.

I think you’ve got to accept that it’s a different experience to playing in a band, and I’m just trying to have my eyes as wide open as I can and take as much in as possible. I’ve enjoyed doing this work and it’s something I’d probably like to do more of, but if that’s going to happen I need to understand the machinations of it and the way that it works.

RC: The devising process for the show involved a lot of work in Sunderland with the Cultural Spring, how did you find that?

RM: The thing that totally terrified us was the workshop, participatory element, because I’ve never done any teaching before, never really had to get large groups of people to do something I want them to do, apart from in Hounds of Love. It’s not quite the same. So that was terrifying for me, really uncomfortable, but as the months have gone by we’ve got to know each other more and more, we’ve got a big band there, and I’ve grown to really enjoy doing it. We’ve got a good chemistry between us all, everybody’s really friendly, we know a lot about each other now, and it feels more like a normal band. Up here we’ve got 45 minutes to make that happen, so I’m really glad we’ve had all those months of preparation in Sunderland because it’s changed my approach here.

puttingtheband
Putting the Band Back Together

RC: If you could describe the show?

RM: It’s quite life affirming and fun, and that strikes me as important. That’s quite a political thing to say, I think, that now more than ever the most important thing is to say ‘what is it that you care about? Let’s go for that, let’s try and embrace that a bit more’.

Annie’s always made these kind of feelgood, life affirming positive shows, and in terms of her work it’s very much consistent with that, it’s an Unfolding Theatre show, she’s got an identity and an aesthetic and I think sometimes you come into a project and there need to be some parameters and some rules to follow, because otherwise you never get anywhere because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

RC: And finally, what will you take away from this year’s Fringe?

RM: I think I’ll take a little bit more knowledge in terms of how live theatre works, how much of a connect or disconnect there can be with the audience. Personally, if I want to write more music or songs for shows, I know I’m not always going to be in them. I was quite surprised to end up in this. I didn’t really expect that in a million years, but it’s been a great experience, a really democratic process to be involved in, and I know that lots of people don’t work like that. But I think I’ve come away with a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, how much more economical you have to be with what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it. In a gig you can give backstory, you can introduce things, you can do whatever you like. But in this you’ve not always got that opportunity, sometimes you have to sum up a scene in a short piece of music, or just a song. That context, that knowledge of how a show like this works, that’s really important.

Putting the Band Back Together is part of the Northern Stage programme at Summerhall, Edinburgh (Venue 26, 16:50) until August 27th (not 17, 24). The show will then return to the North East for performances at Arts Centre Washington 0191 561 3455 (September 22nd) and Newcastle’s Northern Stage Tel 0191 230 5151 (September 28, 29, 30).

 

Find out more about Richard Callaghan and our England’s North East bloggers here

Laughs a-plenty across the North East

With such a broad choice of comedy venues and lots of up-and-coming comic talent, HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds much to laugh about in North East England

The North-East is fast becoming known as the hub of an eclectic and talented comedy scene.

Gone are the days when all showbiz talent was London based; the region now has proud ties, past and present to comedy legends like Ross Noble, Sarah Millican, Bobby Pattinson, Brendan Healy, Bobby Thompson and Chris Ramsey to name drop a few.

The late, much-loved Brendan Healy
The late, much-loved Brendan Healy

So what is it about the North-East that produces such comedy genius?

Some would argue it’s our laid back and sarcastic outlook on life. Others may argue that Northerners are naturally happier than their Southern counterparts thus making better jibes. Northerners aren’t known for being overly-stressed or possessing a stiff upper lip and this could be the crux of our hilarious observational comedy and often zany outlook on life.

One only has to hear everyone’s favourite randomist and nonsense-spouter Ross Noble go off on one of his famous tangents to appreciate the Geordie stance on life. Famed for his scarily quick freewheeling style and imaginative flights of fancy, a Noble show is always an unmissable event.

Ross Noble
Ross Noble

Many lesser known, up and coming North East comics are fast making waves across the comedy circuit and have the potential to become household names in the not too distant future. Born and bred Sunderland comic, Matt Reed, has an affable, cheeky style (and claims to look like a‘scruffy Jesus’) that has won him fans across the UK. In 2015 Reed took his debut show to the Edinburgh Fringe, retelling the four year ordeal of how he was stalked and cat-fished by an online admirer. The show won rave reviews from critics and audience alike and he now boasts sell out shows and a growing fan base.

Jarrow-born Carl Hutchinson is enjoying similar success. He’s been and done Edinburgh supporting fellow comic and school friend, Chris Ramsey. Hutchinson’s latest show, The Fixer, shows him hilariously squaring off against life’s petty annoyances. From giving ‘banter cards’ to people you get stuck with who have dull chat, to mocking overly cheery motivational quotes on social media.

Matt Reed

Other local acts showing great potential include Jason Cook, Patrick Monahan, Lauren Pattison, George Zacharopoulos and Mike Milligan.

As well as solo comics, the region’s improvisation acts are enjoying equal success. Newcastle based The Suggestibles have been enjoying national success for a decade now. Their team of comedy actors react at lightening speed to audience suggestions to create spontaneous scenes, skits, stories, sketches and songs. No show is ever the same and audiences must always expect the unexpected. The gang’s original venue and comedy home is at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle’s Ouseburn and they’ve since frequented most comedy hot spots in the city.

Newer to the improv scene is Spontaneous Wrecks who perform a live two-hour improvised comedy show in the style of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ each month. The team create sketches, scenes, and games based entirely on audience suggestions. Spontaneous Wrecks perform on the first Wednesday of each month at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.

Comedy venues across the region are becoming ever popular too. The Stand, The Gala Durham, The Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Sunderland Empire and Newcastle City Hall are just a selection of the venues that play host to a stream of laugh makers every month.

The Stand Comedy Club
The Stand Comedy Club

Those who can’t get to the Edinburgh Fringe this year still have the opportunity to see gigs at a variety of venues across the region including Newcastle’s new Bottle Shop Bar and Kitchen, The Stand, Punch-Drunk Comedy in Northumberland, Big Mouth Comedy Club in Teesside, Hilarity Bites Comedy Club in Darlington and The Venue in Northallerton.

It’s also pleasing to see that many North East town are now hosting their very own comedy festivals so locals can enjoy a mini Edinburgh Fringe on their doorstep.

This summer saw the success of the South Tyneside Comedy Festival, the Darlington Comedy Festival, Newcastle’s Jesterval, Sunderland Comedy Festival and Monkeyshine Comedy Festival in Middlesbrough.

Who was the fool who said it was grim up North?

For upcoming comedy events, visit www.chortle.co.uk

1916: No Turning Back

DAVID SIMPSON enlists for the 1916: No Turning Back experience at Durham’s Gala Theatre for a brief, moving experience of life in the trenches of World War One

1916: No Turning Back. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
1916: No Turning Back. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, hundreds of thousands of men answered Lord Kitchener’s call and enthusiastically signed up to serve their country.

Patriotism and the mistaken belief that the conflict would be resolved in a matter of months meant that by the end of the year over a million men had signed up for the war. In Durham, young men, often close friends, left towns and villages in their masses to serve their country.

Few knew the horrors of what lay ahead in what would become one of the most dreadful wars the world has ever seen. The nightmare of this so-called Great War was most exemplified by the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which took place one-hundred years ago this summer. For many the Somme not only confirmed the undeniable reality that there was no turning back but it would also prove to be, quite literally, the point of no return.

Into battle. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Into battle. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

In remembrance of the Somme, Durham’s Gala Theatre is hosting ‘1916: No Turning Back’, a visitor experience and theatre production created by Studio MB and directed by Neil Armstrong. It aims to recreate, through actors, the story of the Somme from the angle of local lads and their families.

It begins with the cheery eagerness of enlisting, then takes us through training before we find ourselves experiencing the terrible horror of the trenches. Ultimately it moves on to the devastating impact on families and survivors. It is a story tenderly told through the live performances of talented actors, accompanied in places by appropriate film footage.

As I stood in the queue along with my daughter and a small group of tourist ticket holders – mostly couples in their fifties and sixties – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Like the enlisting soldier whose life it portrays, this was a date of uncertain destiny. I knew that if it was going to be true to its tale then there would have to be some sadness and horror, yet I also knew with much certainty that the chances are I would get out alive, but would it be entertaining, educating and moving?

This is an experience told through actors, but it is not a traditional theatre production. Over the course of around 40 minutes, the actors interact with the visitors who are carefully ushered on a short walk-through of different stage sets that tell the story. Thankfully, there is enough balance between audience interaction and the sometimes deeply emotive stories of the actors to keep the visitor feeling comfortable and engaged.

If the aim is to get you to imagine the experience of the soldiers of the Somme then it succeeds in this well.

You are escorted through a series of stage sets partly recreated within the auditorium – though you won’t realise this – where seats have been removed. At the recruitment stage you hear the hearty banter of Second Lieutenant Simon Taylor as he has his photograph taken – in this case by my daughter – along with his Durham pals before you are moved on to the setting of Cocken Hall (now demolished, it was near Finchale Abbey) for our military drilling.

Here, some ladies and gentlemen in the front row of our group are subjected to a fierce verbal dressing down by the drill sergeant, Jack Cotton. One of our group was then given the opportunity to take a stab at the enemy – in the form of a sack – using a bayonet rifle (of the blunted, retractable kind you will be glad to know).

Drill Sergeant, Jack Cotton. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Drill Sergeant, Jack Cotton. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

The best bit for me though, was the experience of sitting in the dark bunker deep inside the trenches of the Somme.

For a few moments you will hear the constant realistically loud, thunderous pounding of shells above and around you as the nerve-shattered lamp-carrying Tommy recalls the horrific loss of his colleagues.  With all the noise and sudden intrusion of theatre-effect smoke you will begin, during these few almost claustrophobic moments, to imagine the sheer terror that the trench-bound soldiers constantly endured for many months and years.

Yes, it is an understatement to say you can only begin to imagine, but it is enough to make you think how fortunate you are not to have been there.

Finally you are told it is time to go “over the top” in the terrifying though no less absurd sense of the phrase as it was used in the days of the First World War. For a moment I wonder if this could turn out to be “over the top” in some farcical  ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ moment as I picture a sudden, chaotic rush of tourists running across a staged battlefield but it is nothing of the kind.

Instead the sombre emotion of the Somme’s story is appropriately maintained. So, as we alight from the trench onto the battle stage we are greeted with a veiled screen at which we stand, in line, briefly, watching black and white movie footage of the battle events. It creates a slightly dream-like out of body sequence that was perhaps not unlike that experienced by many on the battlefield.

Post battle, our particular fates unknown, we move on to a field hospital room where we are greeted by a triage nurse, Sister Bailey and three beds with a kit of antiquated operating instruments lying upon one.  In a kindly but matter of fact, battle-hardened way the nurse explains her role and experience in caring for the wounded and dying of the frontline. We are are confronted by the sad reality of death and survival in this awful war.

Sister Bailey. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Sister Bailey. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

Other stages then take us on to a family home where news from the trenches arrives and then we head inside the home of a traumatised ‘lucky’ survivor whose story is told through the tender anxiety of his loving sister. Finally we learn the fate of Simon and his comrades and we are moved by the terrible futility of it all.

So was I entertained? In places, certainly. Educated? Just enough. Moved? Undoubtedly.

If I’m honest I’m not always a big fan of actors working in heritage attractions as the result can often seem fake or in your face, or even embarrassing. This is NOT the case here but in fairness it is not a museum or heritage centre but a theatre production with a difference where the audience is taken from stage to stage as a story is movingly told by experienced North East actors who effectively and professionally maintain just the right mood to move you.

I would recommend it.

Some kids will enjoy it too, though in truth, my daughter, who is eleven and not a history fan, wasn’t particularly keen. She was a little on her guard from the beginning of the production/tour when the usher explained that there would be loud noises so perhaps she didn’t focus on the event.

She was the only youngster there too – though I know this is not always the case – but this may not have helped. The actors included her in the experience and I’m certain lots of kids will enjoy the battle bunker and the banter, or seeing a parent getting some much-needed discipline at the training camp, so don’t let that put you off.

All in all it is an unusual, interesting and moving commemoration of an important yet tragic event in our nation’s history.

Go see it.

 

1916: No Turning Back runs until Sunday, August 28 at the Gala Theatre, Durham City

There are multiple performances each day with the production featuring two teams of North East actors: Luke Maddison, Samantha Neale, Lawrence Neale and Anna Nicholson who perform in rotation.

Tickets: £7.50 concessions £6.50 (family ticket £22)

For times contact the Gala Theatre box office: 03000-266600 or visit the website at: galadurham.co.uk

Twitter @GalaDurham

1916: No Turning Back is one of a series of events and exhibitions  to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016. For more details of other events visit:

www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers

 

World War One History Links

“Defending the Tyne” : recalls the life of a WW1 gunner at Trow Rocks Battery in South Shields:  Defending the Tyne

First World War Centenary at Newcastle University: First World War Centenary

North East War Memorials Project

Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project

Zeppelin raids on the North East in WW1 Zeppelin raids from a site focusing primarily on World War Two.

Durham Remembers  www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers