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

The Durham “Busk Factor” dilemma

PAUL WHITE presents his entertaining analysis of Durham’s busking auditions which aim to vet the quality of buskers in the city, but who decides?

An interesting item came up on my Facebook feed at the weekend. A couple of musician friends had both posted a link to a Change.org petition against a new way of regulating buskers that is being established by Durham Business Improvement District (BID).

Neither of my musician friends actually busk, but they were vehemently against the idea. I read the introduction to the petition, found that I, too, agreed, and duly signed up.

At the time of writing, it’s 22 names short of 1,000 signatories.

Busker Thomas Donnelly of Chester-le-Street in Durham’s Silver Street: Photo: David Simpson

The essence of the tale behind this petition is that Durham BID is bringing in auditions for people to secure six-month busking permit in Durham City. Currently, no such licence is required to do so.

Having read both the petition and reports in the Durham Times, it seems that local people attending these auditions, alongside representatives of local businesses, the police, etc, will get to vote on which buskers get a permit. It’s either a straight yes or no from the “judges”. How demoralising for someone who has a bad night, or is just starting out to face rejection like that.

It seems the business community isn’t happy with the noise and this is what has started all of this kerfuffle. (Note to certain elements of the business community, when you get a quiet moment in your shop, just listen to some of the rubbish being piped in on your speakers. Scorpio Shoes, where staff have excellent musical taste, are excluded from that last statement.)

Now, having seen who gets voted for on the X Factor, I’m horrified by this prospect. It always seems those talented artists who have worked their backsides off, busking away, playing to one man, his dog and a pool table in local pubs, and who have actually developed a skill set, far too often get voted off in favour of bland, manufactured music and “characters”.

Can you imagine Jedward or Wagner lasting five minutes if they tried busking on Gala day?

Interestingly, my England’s North East colleague, Dave Simpson, nipped down to the city centre and talked to some buskers.

Irish piper Neil Chambers told Dave he wasn’t really against the licence, but his main concern is for the increasing use of pre-recorded music by buskers and I have to agree.

Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Durham's Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Neil said: “They should do what Dublin did: ban backing tracks to take it back to what busking should be, creating a nice atmosphere instead of overloud pre-recorded music which a lot of people think is insulting.”

I can’t imagine the “X Factor” style voting panel would agree that backing tracks are a bad thing. You can just imagine Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (surname correct at time of writing – I genuinely had to Google it to check) saying: “Ok Reggie and Bollie, that’s very good, but I need you to play something called a guitar.”

Fair enough, if what this proposal does is eliminate that element of pre-packaged musical hell. Isn’t it better to put efforts into stopping those anti-social people who blast music out of their phones as they walk down the street, or as they travel on public transport? Perhaps they could legalise grabbing those phones from the offending individuals and smashing them into a million pieces. I digress.

What I like about unlicensed busking is that it is, by its nature, rather self-regulating. If buskers are good, they will earn money and return. If they are terrible, they will not, with the possible exception of a busker many of you may be familiar with, who camps himself at the Newcastle side of the Millennium Bridge and is charmingly entertaining in his own inimitable way.

It seems that the members of Durham’s business community who have created the issue by complaining about the noise must not be bothered by the actual noise itself, if the proposed resolution of the situation is for buskers to be licenced. Then it seems it may be a matter of taste and, surely, all these events are likely to do is change the style and, to some extent, quality of the performers. It’s swapping one noise for another and isn’t that just institutionalised discrimination?

Should the petition fail and this goes ahead, I urge all fans of live music, the ones who go down their local when there is a band on, the ones who go to local festivals and open mic nights, to get themselves along to these events en masse and vote for the real talent they think deserves a slot.

But then, if these acts can wow a real live crowd, do they not deserve something a little more than being sent to play outside in the Great British Weather?

*The first Live InDurham busking audition event will be held at Whisky River on Thursday, August 18, from 7pm. Details are available at www.durhambid.co.uk/live.

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

 

North East Regional Hub and Portal