The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series begins with Tracey Sinclair’s immersive jaunt across Newcastle’s arts spaces.
Audio version, read by Hannah McPake:
Standing in an ungainly huddle outside Newcastle’s Central Station, the audience looks like it’s just disembarked from a long, unhappy journey. A delayed and overcrowded train, perhaps, one with little catering and too many stops. We’ve emerged blinking uncertainly into the daylight, relieved to have finally arrived at our destination, though not really sure where we are.
At first, there are only a few of us, and we cast wary looks at one another. As someone who’s not generally a fan of immersive or ambulatory theatre, I would normally be anything but keen to be here, but strange days make for novel tastes. I shiver with the thrill of being outside, in a crowd, and I know that it isn’t just me. It feels conspiratorial, as illicit as an affair, and there is a buzz of excitement as the three men approach us.
They are singing, these men, and I recognise the songs. It was only weeks – aeons – ago that I sat in an auditorium and listened to the Young ‘Uns as they sang odes to sacrifice and valour, and if I cried then, I am crying more now, as I hear them repeated, here in open air. We are bid to follow, and we do, past bemused pedestrians, the odd taxi driver honking as we pass. I hate silent discos – those selfish, disruptive, headphone-clad cliques – but with music sung aloud this feels festive, inclusive and inviting. By the time we are halfway up St James’ Boulevard, our little group has swollen – no ticket-only invite, this.
The bar at Alphabetti Theatre is small, lined with books and fairy lights. We cram ourselves inside it, such closeness unfamiliar after weeks of careful distance. The stage is dark as we file in, and there’s a figure at a table, patient, their head bowed. Matt Miller is wearing a dress I’ve seen before, from a show that I remember. Their hands are flitting, quiet, the makings of a magic trick. They smile softly, voice low, and when their hands part, light sparks. Suddenly the stage is tinsel and glitter: music, a cabaret. Bonnie and the Bonnettes are regulars at this venue, and I am charmed by their camp and drama. Their energy is a baptism.
Next, we are disgorged, trailing the swelling band of performers whose mismatched tunes are merged. We look like one of the stag and hen parties the city used to be so famous for – will be famous for, again – albeit one that has collided with a folk band and its fans. Cutting through Pink Lane – once known for sex workers, now for artisanal coffee – we crocodile into town. Veering sharply by Haymarket station, we’re now at Northern Stage.
Stage One has been thrown open. It’s Rhys Jarman’s set, from Snow Queen’s icy reign back at Christmas time, frozen further since it graced this very space. We watch, transfixed, as children emerge from the shadows, dancers and acrobats and aerialists at their flanks. They start slowly, pulling at an icicle here, kicking through a snowdrift there, gathering speed and purpose as they go. Before long, before us, winter is dismantled.
After drinks and a break for those who need them, we take to the streets again. The shoppers have returned to Northumberland Street, and they stare as we pass the city’s landmarks, even occasionally cheer. Past Fenwick’s, whose annual Christmas window is a theatre all of its own, the alley lit by twinkling lights outside the Tyneside Cinema. Beyond that, the architectural glory of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. A place of big plays, this – of Shakespeare and ballet and opera and Les Mis – and there, crammed at its doors, someone has tried to stage them all at once. Northern Ballet dancers nimbly skirt sword fights, as battling RSC players loudly declaim treachery, all but drowned by the sound of opera, rescored to mesh with the showtunes that send us on our way.
It shouldn’t work, this chaos, but our growing group is giddy. We’ve gathered people at every stop, and as we head downhill towards the river, momentum gets us more. Some of us pause to take photos, the shiny shell of the Sage always Instagram-ready. Above us, kittiwakes call, loud as football chants, muscling in on the performance from the sky.
In Live, the ghost light is shining. Three women on stage in prison uniforms, expressions solemn, a sharp reminder that not everyone is toasting freedom today. Joining these Open Clasp performers are Sam Neale and Anna Ajobo. Their fledgling shows were among the last performed here, and each spoke, in its own way, of a far worse constriction than most of us know: via poverty or displacement, careless discards of an uncaring system, here to emphasise that no celebration is uncomplicated.
Lights, the women melt away, and once again there’s music. A ceilidh starts up, riotous, joyful, flecked with righteous anger. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a hit here, Before, and its fierce vigour extols us to join in. There’s whisky for those who want it, #theatreetiquette rules abandoned, we’ve gone from audience to actors, the lines blurred streets ago.
There’s one final stop before we disperse into taxis and buses and Metros, and the performances come to an end. We’re singing a number from The Last Ship, a foot-stomping anthem of defiance, catchy enough that as we weave our way past Quayside pubs, the outspill of drinkers join in.
Metal clatters beneath us as we file onto the Millennium Bridge. I’ve lost track of who I came with, who joined us on the way, and it no longer seems to matter. I’ve brought to mind another day, when this bridge was thronged with bodies – a Spencer Tunick photoshoot, the city’s citizens stripped naked and stood alongside one another, vulnerability made communal, and through that somehow made strength. Around us, the cityscape flaunts its night-time finery, silhouettes sharp enough for the fussiest set designer, and I know that is what we are: together, vulnerable, strong.
From somewhere, a woman starts speaking. An actress that I don’t yet recognise, from a show that I haven’t yet seen. This, then, is our fitting finale. Tonight, we’ve had a tour of old glories. Tomorrow, we create something new.