This is not the review that I was going to write. The review that I was going to write was a comprehensive overview of Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival, a ten-day showcase of new plays by emerging talent, punctuated by workshops, masterclasses and talks aimed at supporting creatives in the region and exploring some of the big themes that affect working and performing, particularly in the north, covering everything from directing to wellbeing to dealing with being stereotyped by an industry that is still too often happy to class anyone outside the M25 as ‘generic northern’.
That was the review you were going to get. But, unfortunately, Elevator is no more immune to current events than the rest of us – at the time of writing, at least one show has been cancelled, and with theatres – left cruelly unprotected by government waffling – having to make the decision on a case by case basis of whether to stay open, the rest of the programme is uncertain. So, you’re not getting that review. Trust me, I’m way more sorry about that than you are. But I did see some work, and what I saw sparkled with promise and potential and deserves its day in the sun.
This year’s Elevator is its fifth, and it offered a more packed programme than ever. Live’s Artistic Director Joe Douglas did a Director’s Masterclass, and there were panel discussions on Producing Your Own Work, and the Art of Wellbeing (with a young people’s spoken word show also programmed, though pending at the moment.) The line up of work included three double bills (Redcoat and Last Seen Bensham Road, Getting Away with It and Dawn, and Snatched and Magic Bus), rounded out by a reading of a work in progress, Faster than Bolt.
Of the talks, the one that drew me in was called Northern Generic – a still-used casting term that assumes the north is one giant homogenous mass. Chaired by Live’s Creative Producer Graeme Thompson, the panel featured Box of Tricks’ Adam Quayle, Amy Fisher, creative producer at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, playwright Luke Barnes and Newcastle’s own Caitlin Evans, whose show Talk Propa was just at the Vaults. It was a fascinating look not just at what it means to be northern – are there characteristics that unite us, and a certain type of work we prefer? – but also the challenges that venues and creatives face operating outside of London. The post-panel audience Q&A also threw up some interesting points (and, with a front row seat and a couple of glasses of wine inside me, I was delighted to be able to, ahem, contribute), and I’d love to see more of these kinds of discussions – it was clear from the audience reaction that there’s a hunger to talk about these things.
While my playgoing was curfewed by the ongoing crisis, I did see the opening double bill – and the level of quality on display promised much both for the festival and the theatre. All the work at Elevator is designed to be a work in progress, aimed at having a longer life – last year’s Wank Buddies made a return trip to the theatre’s recent Queer and Now Festival, and is also touring – but both Samantha Neale’s Last Seen Bensham Road and Lewis Jobson’s Redcoat already felt polished and slick.
Developed from a 10-minute piece debuted at Live, Neale’s self-penned one-woman show (tautly directed by Holly Gallagher) was a moving monologue from a struggling single mother. Deeply affecting and beautifully performed, there were enough moments of levity to stop it being oppressive without downplaying the struggles of trying to raise two kids alone and on a budget. Neale is an accomplished performer – she was equally impressive in Bobby Robson Saved My Life – and on this evidence, a writer of real promise, too.
Written and performed by Lewis Jobson and directed with flair by Melanie Rashbrooke, Six Twenty Production Redcoat was a very different beast. Fuelled by a likeable and energetic performance by Jobson – who it’s pretty much impossible not to be charmed by – this delightfully upbeat piece was an absolute joy. Tempered with enough shade and nuance to stop it being too saccharine, it’s nonetheless not afraid to just embrace the joyful silliness of having a job where ‘swanning’ is an actual requirement, and you spend a lot of your time hanging around with workmates dressed like dinosaurs.
The third piece I saw was much more obviously a work in progress, but nonetheless felt like something with considerable potential. Written by Juliana Mensah and directed by Rosa Stourac McCreery (with dramaturgy by Keisha Thompson), Faster than Bolt is the story of an asylum seeker who decides to travel to the 2012 Olympics in the hope that beating Usain Bolt in a race will illustrate the kind of sporting prowess that will get her the British citizenship she craves. With a powerful central turn from Anna Ajobo, this piece was particularly good at puncturing British attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers, and how our ‘sympathy’ and welcome is too often conditional on them trading their trauma for our acceptance.
The quality of the work I did manage to see made me sad about missing the rest, though I’d like to see future programming go a little beyond this year’s emphasis on solo shows. But even with all of the uncertainty around the theatre world right now, this kind of talent – and Live’s ongoing commitment to support it – made me optimistic. And we could all do with some of that right now.
Elevator Festival ran at Live Theatre from 11th March. More info here.