Category Archives: Venues

From whisky and flour to an unbeatable music hub

The Cluny: HELEN GILDERSLEEVE explores the history behind the popular Ouseburn Valley venue.

The Cluny 2 venue, Ousburn, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Cluny 2 venue, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne

Even rare pub goers in the region will have heard of or paid a visit to The Cluny in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley. Priding itself as being one of the North East’s premium music hot spots, The Cluny has been hosting bands from across the globe since the turn of the century in 1999.

Once the home of a bottling plant for a Scotch whisky called the Cluny, this is now a post-industrial bar with separate music rooms that thinks like a pub and doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. You want an affordable, decent band night with a variety of beers and tasty pub grub (they even do chips and gravy in a baguette)? Look no further. This is the Cluny’s major USP and the reason behind its popularity across the region.

The Cluny, Newcastle
The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne

The Cluny’s raison d’être is music – from the moment you step inside the industrial brick walls are adorned with posters advertising forthcoming bands from The Monkey Junk Blues Club to Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and a 20 year anniversary celebration of Radiohead’s OK Computer, where fans and musicians come together to perform. It hosts over 400 gigs a year, all of which are well attended.

The Dualers on stage at The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Dualers on stage at The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne

Whatever your musical taste, the Cluny is bound to have something that appeals and this is the beauty of the place- in a world full of trends and pigeonholed venues, the Cluny doesn’t have a specific clientele nor does it judge or care. I last went in wearing sports gear whilst sitting next to folk all glammed up from the races.

Artists performing here range from the known to the completely unknown and eclectic. Notable acts that have graced its stages include Mumford & Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Seasick Steve, The Futureheads, Duffy and Glasvegas. Solange Knowles, younger sister of global phenomenon Beyonce, kicked off her first UK tour here in 2008.

Pre 2009 saw the Cluny having just one music area, until a golden opportunity arose when it took over the running of the adjacent former Round Theatre, which went into liquidation in 2008. This theatre style, 160 capacity period venue was re-branded as the Cluny 2 and the rest is history.

The bar at The Cluny
Bar at The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne

If you’re like me and are always intrigued by the history of quirky venues like this, I did a bit of digging and discovered it is housed in a former flax spinning mill which opened in 1848. It then re-opened as a steam powered flour mill in 1860 before taking its namesake from when it became a whisky bottling plant decades later.

It’s fair to say 36 Lime Street is continuing its history and putting a quirky building to great use great use once again.

thecluny.com/gigs/

Twitter: @thecluny

 

 

Laughter is just the tonic

Last weekend saw the second instalment of Jason Cook’s Comedy Club at Wylam Brewery’s Palace of Arts. HELEN GILDERSLEEVE caught up with some of the stars of the show.

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Wylam Brewery

Another sold out evening where ales were flowing gave the distinctive and airy venue a buzzing atmosphere. The evening was compered flawlessly by popular Hebburn actor and Geordie Rat Pack member, Steffen Peddie, who had the audience in stitches with his accounts of him monumentally peeing someone off at the Tyne Tunnel change machine, explaining why Slimming World coaches are evil and the highs (and lows) of memory foam mattresses.

steffenpeddie
Compere Steffen Peddie

First up was local lad, John Fothergill, who entertained us all with his dry and sarcastic accounts of life in London as a Geordie. A regular at the Comedy Store, Fothergill’s style is original as he moves from embarrassing sexual revelations to mocking his rural upbringing in Crawcrook.

John Fothergill
John Fothergill

Next on stage was Steve Day who brought a totally unique performance and shared witty observations of being a deaf man in a hearing world. He claims to be the only deaf comedian, and if there are others he hasn’t heard of them. Steve wasn’t born deaf but lost his hearing when he was a teenager, he explains: “I was about 18. They don’t know the cause, something that used to frustrate me, but I’ve learned to look forward not backwards”. His rants are enjoyable; especially a story about a Paralympics event he attended that showed Boris Johnson’s true colours. He educates the audience to the hilarity of deaf person snobbery, claiming people who were born deaf believe they are superior to him which he simply rolls his eyes at. Being a deaf comedian is great anyway he claims in conclusion, because you can never hear if anybody is heckling.

Steve Day
Steve Day

Headliner of the night was Edinburgh dwelling Canadian funny man, Tom Stade. Relatively famous on the comedy circuit, Stade has appeared on the likes of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Live at the Apollo as well as The Comedy Store and various comedy festivals.

He literally bounds onto the stage with endless energy and his performance was met with raucous laughter almost immediately. It’s impossible not to find this man funny.

His observations of quirky British habits were cleverly delivered, ranging from our obsession with buying flights for £29.95 regardless of the destination to his confusion of how we happily spend £3 on lattes (and physically demonstrated how we get sexually molested financially by coffee chains) yet are obsessed with Primark bargains and are all tight arses. British TV is also the butt of many jokes as he asks the simple question of why people would go on Cash in the Attic. The highlight of his set had to be his impressions of coffee chain adverts if they existed including “Starbucks is where you can meet a new friend” and “Nero is where you go when the others are closed”.

Tom Stade with Helen Gildersleeve
Tom Stade with Helen Gildersleeve

I caught up with him after the show quickly and it’s apparent his magnetic energy isn’t just a stage act. He told us how he simply loves what he does and can’t understand how all these young folk want photos with him as he’s uncool and doesn’t even know what Snapchat is. Its ok Tom, I don’t either. But thanks for the photo.

The 350 strong crowd left the brewery in better spirits than when they arrived, and not just from the tasty beer on tap. I think this event has already become a regular calendar filler for many locals and it’s clear Cook skilfully selects the slickest of comedians and the range is always eclectic, varied and well, funny. I can’t wait for the next one.

Jason Cook

www.jasonlovescomedy.com

www.wylambrewery.co.uk

Review: Hops and hysterics at Wylam Brewery

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE attends the debut of Jason Cook’s Comedy Club on a Saturday evening. A sell out event that proved hops and hysterics are truly a winning combo.

Jason Cook's Comedy Club
Jason Cook’s Comedy Club

It isn’t long since the popular Wylam Brewery Palace of Arts opened its grand doors less than a year ago. Since then the brewery has hosted many successful events, quickly becoming a venue etched firmly in the social calendars of many locals.

Around 350 laugh seekers headed to the brewery on what was a freezing, depressing night and it’s fair to say it was definitely worth the trip.

Cook, writer of the popular Hebburn series on BBC 2 invited a trio of comedians including local lads Gavin Webster and Carl Hutchinson as well as Canadian headliner Phil Nichol.

The Wylam Brewery in Newcastle's Exhibition Park
The Wylam Brewery in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park

The night was compered flawlessly by Cook who dropped in comical anecdotes throughout of kinky mishaps with In the Night Garden toys and mocking phone users in the audience.

Gavin Webster
Gavin Webster

First up on stage was special guest Gavin Webster who had everyone in fits with his account of Geordies being so hard they single-handedly stopped anyone attacking Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. His hilarious take on the Glasweigan accent also went down a storm.

Carl Hutchinson
Carl Hutchinson

Next up was the mightily-pee’d-off-with-life-and-everything-it-entails Carl Hutchinson. Sharing his witty accounts of why he despises vegetarians right down to an account of why he’d strategically jump off a bridge in rush hour and give Games of Thrones spoilers to the general public, Hutchinson is definitely one to watch on the national comedy scene.

Surprise guest of the night was Canadian, London dwelling, funny man Phil Nichol. Who one can only describe as completely off his rocker. In the best way possible.

Phil Nichol
Phil Nichol

His act started off lightly with some great comparisons between Canadians and Cockneys, then quickly transcended into a potty-mouthed, guitar playing frenzy. Songs were littered with below the belt blinders and material that would make your mother blush. His act ended with him stripping half naked and being carried through the crowd by a guest he’d befriended. Not a single person could have kept straight-faced if they tried.

Cook certainly exceeded all expectations for his first stab at a gig here and it’s easy to see that the next shows will be definite sell outs. The Wylam beer fresh from keg to cup was an added bonus, I was a particular fan of the aptly named Keep Taking the Plsner.

If it’s laughs you’re after in a unique venue then you should definitely come along to the next one; a superb evening out.

The next comedy club is on 1 April and features Tom Stade and John Fothergill. Tickets can be purchased here: www.ticketweb.co.uk/event/268761

@wylambrewery

@jasonmarkcook

@philnichol

@CPHutchinson

@Thegavinwebster

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

A proud return

Mike Ross. Photo White
Mike Ross. Photo White

PAUL WHITE reviews North East musician Mike Ross on a return gig to the region.

Back in the late 90s, I had the pleasure of writing about live music for The Northern Echo. While the opportunities to interview the likes of Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres, Gerry Marsden, Terrorvision, Deacon Blue and many more was fantastic, what I really loved was seeing local bands play live and be well-received by decent-sized audiences around the Darlington and Durham music scenes.

One band that I maintain to this day to be one of the best and most exciting bands to see live was Taller Than, a three-piece outfit from the Sacriston and Lanchester area.

Playing their own music as Taller Than, often coupled with covers sets as the Popular Beat Combo, they were regulars at the likes of O’Neills in both Durham and Darlington, and the Filibuster & Firkin in Darlington, along with many more venues around the region.

In 2000, they played their last gig in Darlington before moving to the Brighton area, where all three members are still active in the music industry.

Sixteen years on, singer and guitarist Mike Ross returned to Darlington on Sunday night for his first return gig in the town, playing a two-set late afternoon session at The Quakerhouse.

Normally fronting the Mike Ross Band, Mike stripped back a range of his own numbers and covers, without losing anything in his simple guitar and vocals arrangements.

Opening with a Credence Clearwater cover, he quickly got the audience onside before heading into the latest version of an old Taller Than number, Questions, and mixing his own tracks like Ran Thru Here and Statesboro Blues with his own cover of Aretha Franklin’s Baby I Love You, which appears on his latest album, Jenny’s Place.

The hugely appreciative audience in a venue I had forgotten how much I like, complete with a great selection of real ales – right up my street – were ready and waiting for a second set to follow the break.

Set two opened with a version of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With and took a blues journey through Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, before dipping into Mike’s Spindrift debut album for Don’t Worry Baby Just Call, then returning to the familiar for the audience, with Johnny cash’s Get Rhythm, Marvin Gaye’s Heard It Through The Grapevine and more.

Closing the show with his own Bamboozled, Mike left the audience happy at the close of his mini North East tour and promising a return to the region in the Spring.

It was a great way to remind myself just how good Mike Ross is and what a great venue The Quakerhouse is, as well as what a hotbed of great musical talent the North East is, whether or not you’ve heard of many of the acts.

Mike Ross Music: www.mikerossmusic.co.uk/

On Twitter: @spindriftmike

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/themikerossband

How do I love beer? Let me count the ways

The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White
The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White

Beer blogger PAUL White tries out a local beer inspired by a poet.

It’s nice to learn something new, especially if it’s about your own part of the world.

I hadn’t been to the Toronto Lodge, just outside of Bishop Auckland, since a revamp a couple of years back, but decided to drop in for a bite to eat. I’d also heard it was home to some real ales, as well.

It turns out that it offers a range of ales from Sonnet 43, a brewery from nearby Coxhoe, which is where the learning begins.

I hadn’t been aware of this particular brewery, but it has an ale for all tastes. Personally, I decided to go for the bourbon milk stout, The Raven. After all, this last week did feature Stout Day.

Now, the brewery name and that of the beer itself are no coincidence, as I also learned that Coxhoe was home to a rather famous poet – most of you will at least be familiar with one of her lines.

For it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, in her Sonnet 43, wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”.

Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

I’ve driven past Coxhoe thousands of times, but I had no idea that it was home to Browning, or that she had inspired a brewery.

The beer is likewise poetically-inspired, taking its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic classic.

Likewise, I have driven past the Toronto Lodge countless times since the revamp and it has been remiss of me not to have called in before now. What a great place with reasonably priced, but very good, food and drink.

But what of the beer itself?

Well, it’s a pleasant discovery, with a full flavour that is at once bitter and also smooth; a proper milk stout. It’s not an overly heavy drink, so could easily be one to settle into for an evening, should the opportunity arise.

With a lot of my beer reviews, I’ve highlighted those ales that are a natural progression for a lager drinker coming into the realms of beer. This is not one, but Sonnet 43 have plenty that would fit that bill.

Overall, it was an outing of discovery for the brain and the taste buds and I will be returning to sample more of the food and drink in the very near future.

Blog post originally written for Poets Day Pint.

A re-thinking of museum mentality

PAUL WHITE admits he’s not a museum fan but speaks in praise of the Oriental Museum, a hidden gem in Durham City

Some readers will call me a philistine, others may agree wholeheartedly, but I have a confession: it is a rare museum indeed that doesn’t have me wishing I could escape to the nearest pub.

I like culture and the arts, but not in the “shuffle along, item by item, trying to take in masses of information at a time” sense.

orientalmuseum
Oriental Museum Durham. Photo: Durham University

However, we have a gem of a museum hiding away in our region, to which I have voluntarily returned on more than one occasion. The Oriental Museum, in Durham, is full of great items for anyone who has an interest in the culture and history of the east.

Having visited China on a number of occasions and fallen in love with Japan on a trip that took in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I find these cultures intriguing and a pleasure to learn about.

I dropped in to the Japan section of the Oriental Museum today – I’d recommend taking it in chunks – and from Manga to the Samurai and the mix of Bhuddist and Shinto religions, it’s full of items and information that I find far more exciting than the naval gazing minutiae we fill many, admittedly far from all, of our museums with.

I’m hugely proud of coming from Shildon, but it took me 20-odd years to return to the Timothy Hackworth Museum after being taken there as a child, and that was a work-related visit.

I would hasten to suggest that we are getting better, but I think I’ve been scarred from my childhood, and from being dragged to museums when I’m really not in the mood.

The colliery, Beamish Museum
The colliery, Beamish Museum. Photo: Paul White

The Oriental Museum, alongside Beamish, show how museums can be great resources and are a massive credit to the North East. Both are done very differently, yet equally fire my imagination. On trips to the US and Canada, the museum elements of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Johnny Cash Museum, were visits I made voluntarily, despite there being an abundance of bars and other amenities I could easily have opted to escape to.

Perhaps there is something niche in each of these examples that appeals directly to me.

In any case, if, like me, you were put off such visits as a child, maybe it’s time to think again and find a museum that holds a particular interest for you. The North East is a great place to start.

Why I’m excited about Sunderland 2021 (and why I think you should be too)

RICHARD CALLAGHAN explains why Sunderland’s bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture will be a great boost for both the city and the whole North East region.

Before I tell you about why I believe Sunderland becoming UK City of Culture in 2021 would be great not just for the city but for the region, I have to declare an interest.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

As much as I would love to be able to make a living writing for esteemed publications such as this, I’m afraid I’ve actually got a day job working for the Sunderland City of Culture bid. Admittedly, this makes me less than impartial on this subject, but I can honestly say that, even if I wasn’t being paid to say it, I’d still think that City of Culture would be a great thing for the North East.

The UK City of Culture competition was founded following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Culture had effected a transformative change upon Liverpool, the argument went, just as it had on Glasgow in 1990. Why should UK cities wait another twenty years to feel the effect again? The idea of the UK competition was that rather than seeing this boost once every few decades, it could be felt every four years instead.

Derry-Londonderry was the first city to win the title, being named UK City of Culture for 2013. If you’ve not already heard them, I’ll give you a quick run down of the numbers: 48 new start-up businesses as a result of their year. 25% rise in hotel occupancy in the first six months, with May to September the highest the city had ever seen. £5 back for every £1 of public money spent. £100m invested in the city through cultural programming and infrastructure. These are real numbers, real impacts.

cityculture

Hull will take the title of City of Culture next year. The city’s already feeling the effects. Look at any newspaper, watch the six o’clock news, check out whichever news site you prefer. There are already world class artists coming to work in Hull, ready to make great art in the city next year. I’ve got family in Hull, which has meant I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that unfashionable city on the Humber. It is, like Sunderland, significantly nicer than people who’ve never been there think it’s going to be. And, with the boost from City of Culture, with next year’s prize on the horizon, it’s a city metamorphosing. Go to Hull today and what you’ll see is a place getting ready to transform itself, a civic chrysalis preparing for its year as the national butterfly.

All of the economic impacts are great. Much needed, much welcomed in the North East. But for me, the power of the City of Culture, the reason why it would be so fantastic both for the city and the region, goes beyond the economy. The North East is a fantastic place. We all know this. It’s the place I was born, the place I’ve lived most of my life, the place I’ve chosen to raise my family. It is my home. The North East, as a place, is profoundly important to me.

Yet, too often, the perception of those from outside the region is of a post-industrial wasteland, of economic deprivation, of somewhere we’d all leave if only we could. It’s a destructive narrative, one that must be argued against for two reasons. First, it makes it harder to attract skilled people to the North East, harder to attract businesses, harder to attract investment. Why would you want to move to a cultural backwater, or an economic sinkhole? Why would you want to come somewhere everybody else wants to leave?

Sunderland's Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons withiin the city. Photo: David Simpson
Sunderland’s Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons within the city. Photo: David Simpson

That’s the first reason, but for me it matters less than the second. The second reason is this. That narrative, the story we’re told about the North East, affects the way that we feel about ourselves. If the North East is a failed place, then the only people here are failures. If it’s somewhere everybody wants to leave, then the only people who stay are the people who have to. Because they’re not good enough for somewhere else. Because they couldn’t make it in Manchester, couldn’t hack it in London. They’ve settled for second best, accepted their lot. What that story says about us, all of us, is that we haven’t made a choice. We’re here because nobody else wants us.

Well, my friends, I’ve made a choice. I wouldn’t live in London if you paid me. For all its faults, for all its failures, I love the North East. There is nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather raise my daughter. It’s a beautiful place, vibrant and exciting, with a fascinating history and a wonderful story to tell. That, for me, is the power of City of Culture. It’s an opportunity, a chance to tell a different story about the place, about ourselves. To make the argument for all of us who’ve chosen to be here because we want to be. The renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead in the last two decades has begun to shift that narrative for Tyneside, but it’s time for the rest of the North East to see that kind of change.

If Sunderland becomes UK City of Culture in 2021, it’ll boost the region’s economy. It’ll attract national and international news coverage. It’ll bring world class art and world class artists into Sunderland’s communities, and offer people opportunities they’d never otherwise have. But it’ll go beyond that. It’ll help to change that story. It’ll mean that when people think of Sunderland, of the North East, they’ll not just be thinking “Post-industrial wasteland with three crap football teams,” they’ll be thinking, “They’ve got the Turner Prize there this year. They’ve got brilliant art exhibitions, groundbreaking theatre, fantastic concerts. They’ve got amazing events. They’ve still got three crap football teams (because some things never change).” That’s why I think Sunderland 2021 is important. That’s why I’m excited about it. And that’s why I think you should be excited about it too.

cityculturelogo

To discover more about Sunderland’s 2021 City of Culture bid visit www.sunderland2021.com

Twitter: @Sunderland2021

Facebook: sunderland2021

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