Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Review: 'River Runs' at The Customs House, South Shields, 29th January 2013

It’s hard not to be taken under the spell of the river Tyne. River Runs, a celebration of the ‘big river’ in song and spoken word, certainly makes you think so.

Performed in the main auditorium at The Customs House in South Shields, a venue which, I must admit, I had my doubts about (more because of its size than anything else), the 8 performers managed the impressive feat of playing to a largely empty auditorium and drawing the focus to the front of the room so that it felt like a cosy gig in the back room of The Steamboat.*

In narrative terms, River Runs is a song and verse line for the journey of the river Tyne. From its source in the hills and valleys of Northumberland and the Borders, to its confluence (the rivers North and South Tyne meet near Hexham) and subsequent journey through various towns til it spills out into the North Sea, this show is concerned with what the river gives and what the river leaves behind.

Personal narratives overlap with common histories; tragedy overlays euphoria. How this translates into a stage show is masterful in its simplicity. The 8 performers seem to conjure the river, picking at it for stories, for anecdotes, for truths about life. Kate Fox tells us about training for the Great North Run down at Newcastle Quayside; Jeff Price remembers fights in the Bigg Market; Degna Stone worries about a Samaritans sign on the High Level Bridge; Alfie Crow remembers the smells of Wallsend; Aidan Clarke recalls his youth in the North Tyne Valley.

It would be unfair and unnecessary to dwell too long on individual stories: the performances worked so well because of their chemistry – because of the democratisation of the stage. It would have been tempting to allow ‘names’ to dominate River Runs, so it was to the show’s credit that – despite each of the performers being well-respected within their own respective artistic circles – it resisted such easy billing.

Highlights for me (which now feels slightly arbitrary), include the story of Tommy the Swing Bridge busker, a wily singer who avoided arrest by moving between the police jurisdictions of Northumberland and Durham in the middle of the river, and Simma’s ‘Hexham Song’, where he “left for Hexham with one girl and came back with two”, a song jammed full of soul but not reductively sentimental for being so. Ben Holland and Bridie Jackson bookended the other performers, showing that basic stagecraft often works the best. Wielding acoustic guitars and ethereal vocals, their folky vignettes punctuated the other performers’ works, bringing a sense of collectivity to the more introspective numbers. As Jeff Price noted, introducing his ‘sins’ poem, rivers are well known for hearing our confessions and drowning them: the personal becomes part of the universal.

Running for just over an hour, including a short interval, River Runs is a welcome addition to the canon of mythology that surrounds the great river. There were no props, no sets, no gimmicks: this was simply 8 people connecting with each other and with their audience. I hope this show gets the wider audience it so very much deserves.

L-R: Ben Holland, Aidan Clarke, Alfie Crow, Degna Stone, Jeff Price, Simma, Kate Fox, Bridie Jackson
 *The Steamboat, just over the road from The Customs House, is the best pub in South Shields [according to JC and CAMRA].

Monday, 21 January 2013

Blogging elsewhere for now

I’m properly getting stuck into my Changemakers project at New Writing North now, so that is where you will find most of my online ramblings at the moment. Uncertain Times seems to be becoming more culturally relevant as the days pass and our government announce yet more measures to shaft the general population. I’m not just using the project as a means of ranting: I’ve begun a series of posts thinking about where creative writing begins; what it is that urges us to try and sculpt our feelings into words and sentences.

I suppose, in a way, that links to my previous blog and thinking about what future my writing has. How do I take these feelings – which I’m certainly not alone in harbouring – and turn them into objective, but still emotionally resonant, expressions?

One of the ways to help do that, I think, is to come out of your comfort zone. Recently I’ve been working as a shadow poet coach, teaching primary school kids about poetry slams and how to write, edit and perform their own 12 line epics. Just last week I took the responsibility up a gear and started leading my own sessions with a class of year 5 kids. There’s a fairly cynical (but probably quite honest) maxim in TV/film production which says “never work with kids and animals.” When it comes to literature, though, I’m finding that some of these kids, as young as 9 and 10, are coming up with ideas that are so fresh, so pertinent and so alive. To get off our high horses from time to time and to work with people on this almost visceral level is really quite refreshing. It’s certainly made me think about the way I write: whether what I’m saying needs to be said in quite so many words.

The workshops that I’m organising with New Writing North for Uncertain Times will likely provide more opportunities of a similar ilk; chances to hear work in its rawest form, when all the intricacies of thinking about metaphors and line breaks and dialogue come much later, after the guts have been spilled. Please do follow Uncertain Times for a more in depth flavour of how that project progresses as it’s where most of my creative energy is currently being spent.