The opening of the Dukes/Red Ladder co-production of Glory on Friday was Sarah’s last duty before going on maternity leave. If this baby arrives on the same schedule as our first, it’ll be tomorrow. It’s getting a bit real.
So last week was a good one for contemplating the magnitude of such life choices. Not just because of the heating planet: it was half-term, so between us we needed to find a full week off work in order to look after our firstborn. It being Sarah’s last week, I got very little done and instead mostly spent a lovely week with Dot. Therefore this post will be short.
Glory, though, was a source of great pride. I’m on the board of Red Ladder and it’s been a real thrill to watch them gradually get back to fighting weight after the shock of being omitted from the National Portfolio a few years ago. I joined the board shortly after the company left the portfolio and have watched (and, to some degree, participated) as they’ve shifted their priorities and their focus, re-engaging with their community as well as hugely increasing the ambition of their work.
I wish I could claim some credit for brokering this co-production with the Dukes, but despite appearances, the collaboration between my wife’s theatre and the company on whose board I sit had absolutely nothing to do with me.
Glory was also a terrific symbol of the journey the Dukes has been on since Sarah became AD two and a bit years ago. That was the sixth show the theatre has produced this financial year, which given the scale of the operation and the challenges facing all theatres, is pretty remarkable. Included in that six is the most successful Christmas show the theatre has ever produced, a new kids’ show several of whose tour venues described as “the best show we’ve ever had”, a sensational production of Educating Rita, a play I’d previously thought little of and two major co-productions. Added to which, the family shows have thrived on joyous subversion of traditional gender roles and been built on a basic assumption that a diverse cast and creative team is a given.
And then there’s Glory. Glory is terrific. The plot has the structure of a Bernard Manning joke: a British East Asian, a black ex-squaddie and an asylum seeker go into a wrestling gym. And Jim Glory, the faded former wrestler who owns the gym, is a bit of an accidental Manning, peddling lazy assumptions and backing them up with faulty logic. For the rest of the show the four characters pit themselves against the assumptions they’ve made about one another, and that we’ve made about them. You could describe it as a bit mechanistic, as Mark Fisher does in this excellent review, but as Mark also points out, that’s to overlook the wit and flair with which it’s done. The production is fantastic, the cast is fantastic. The design is gorgeous and the lighting is beautiful. And the wrestling is fucking incredible.
When Sarah became AD at the Dukes, I was obviously thrilled, but I had to mourn the loss of my regular dramaturg. My loss is Nick Ahad’s gain. It’s obviously not all down to Sarah, but I think this is by far Nick’s best play yet. His works sits in the same bit of the spectrum as that of Richard Bean: broad, raucous, hilarious but also bruised and bruising. At its best it has the potential to get into Martin McDonagh territory where there’s real scabrousness and bite. And where both of those dramatists have come apart a bit in recent years through work, (and statements in defence of their work) that comes perilously close to (some would say “is”) deliberate racism, Nick’s experiences as a British South Asian mean that when he gets into this territory he does so with a sense of responsibility and nuance that – believe it or not – doesn’t weaken the jokes. If he wounds, it’s because he’s wounded.
Glory is touring. It deserves a long life. You should go.
Book of the week: I’m still ploughing through the doorstop that is This Land is Our Land; it’s still brilliant and scholarly, but on Sunday I took a break and while Dot was asleep I raced through Vassos Alexander’s Running up that Hill. It’s a breezily enthusiastic account of his experiences in the world of ultra-running, running iconic races like the Spartathlon, the South Downs Way 100 and the Dragon’s Back. He’s tremendous company, Alexander, and I’d happily run alongside him for a long way. Ideal Sunday reading.
Run of the week: It was a fairly light training week last week so I didn’t think I’d have anything to report in this category. For the first time in a while my Sunday long run wasn’t anywhere hilly or scenic so it didn’t seem likely to be noteworthy. It wasn’t even especially long. But it was tremendously satisfying. The same loop was my final longish run before the Yorkshire marathon in October and that time I set out to run it at target race pace, around 7:10/mile. It was a really hard effort and I barely managed to hold the pace. On Sunday I set out to take it fairly easy: not plodding but not racing either, keeping my heart rate in the aerobic zone, which threshold for me is around 155. I have no idea whether I stayed in that zone as my watch died after three miles, but before then I was ticking along at 7:10/mile and the effort seemed steady so I stayed at that pace. So what was a hard workout in October is now a fairly easy Sunday trot. More evidence in favour of making a serious assault on sub-3 at the Edinburgh marathon in May.
Show of the week: I saw four shows this week and I’ve talked about one above. The others were all also excellent and as I’m not watching anything soon, I’ll spread them out and talk about them over the next couple of weeks. But for reference, in case they’re near you, I highly recommend Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange, Rabbit Girl and the Search for Wonder by 154 Collective (touring; which I saw at the Dukes) and Duvet Dancing, a kids’ dance show which we took Dot to at Lancaster Arts. Dot responded by at one point stripping down to her pants. No-one knows why. It's been a lovely week.
This Week In Showbiz - featuring a timebomb, some future projects, several meetings, a 5K race, a dash of hope and a gratuitous swipe at Sir Nicholas Hytner
There’s a timebomb sitting under my working life at the moment. A week on Wednesday, Sarah will be officially 38 weeks pregnant, so the new baby could be born any time. The official due date isn’t until March 13th, but given that Dot was born at 38 weeks and one hour, you’ll understand why we want to be ready. And so I’m trying to get as much as possible done on all my upcoming projects, before this invisible deadline kicks in.
Usually I parent rather than work on Mondays, but in a week like this teaching can form an exception: I spent the morning with the terrific group of students I’m supervising through the creation of their final-year show. Having got back from Devon late on Sunday evening, I’d already been up first thing to unload and return the van (I mean, I was up first thing because I have a two-year-old, but then I had to unload and return a van). So the working week hadn’t started and I was already knackered. I was grateful to spend the morning just soaking up and responding to what my students have been up to since I last saw them. Then I spent the afternoon as Monday should be spent: hanging out with my daughter.
On Tuesday Boff and I went for a run over Kinder Scout. We’re working on a project called These Hills Are Ours and we were retracing the steps of the 1932 Mass Trespass. It seems almost impossible to imagine now that before that action this vast tract of moorland was entirely shut off to public access. As Boff tweeted afterwards, we ran with history clinging to the soles of our shoes, grateful with every step for the actions of those trespassers in 1932 that won us the right to this fantastic run. Don’t let anyone tell you protest never achieves anything.
The core of the project is a series of runs from the centre of the city in which we find ourselves, to the top of the peak overlooking that city. We’re exploring the role of hills and mountains in the urban imagination, the need for escape, and the system of land ownership that places barriers between us and that escape. For me it’ll be the most personal show I’ve yet made: the opening section (as it currently stands) tells the story of me running from Middlesbrough to the top of Roseberry Topping, through scores of memories of my upbringing and background. It’s funny and sad and simple, consisting of little more than me telling stories and Boff singing songs, with a bit of chat between us and the audience between. It’ll be the first show I’ve made where all the stories are true. It looks uncomfortably as though the climactic story is going to be about me running from my house in Lancaster to the top of the Lake District peak you can see from my road - a distance of some 45 miles. Watch this space…
The show is just one aspect of the project, which is also going to involve putting choirs on top of hills and making short films of the process. Community choir projects are what Boff and I have done together over the past six or seven years and this time the community is one of runners. The show itself will hopefully see the light of day a little over a year from now, but if all goes to plan you’ll be able to see some of the choral and filmic elements later this year.
The run itself was glorious. There’s some reasonably stiff climbing on the way up, but it never seems far. And once you’re on top it’s one long gently undulating ridge line. Peaty and rocky, it’s the kind of run that keeps you alert with every step, but it’s incredibly runnable all the same. And it’s hard not to blaze along full of low-level astonishment at the fact that if you did this 100 years ago you’d be shot at by the gamekeeper.
Apart from one excellent meeting each day, the rest of the working week was lower in exhilaration and lower still in fresh air, being entirely about budgets and timelines and applications and project plans. At this point I could wax lyrical about excel and froth mightily about grantium, but perhaps a better way of introducing you to more of these projects will be through the meetings.
Wednesday’s, about These Hills Are Ours, was really positive, and fired me with even more enthusiasm about the project, and will hopefully lead to a partnership with a fantastic organisation who have absolutely no history of supporting any theatre whatsoever. OUTREACH.
Thursday’s was lunch with Jennifer Street, the first work-in-progress of whose show Why Do We Care? I directed earlier this year. Jen is a circus artist and intensive care nurse. (Yes, really.) Her show brings those two things together in a fabulous exploration of the nature of care, featuring an inflatable unicorn costume and audience members as obstacles in a gymkhana. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out next steps for the project, which we did. It’s going to be a further period of R&D later this year, with the aim of finishing the show and getting it on the road in the spring of next year.
And Friday’s meeting was with Aliki Chapple, whose show 666 CommentsI directed in the spring of last year. That show stages an online comment thread in all its technicolour monstrosity. It is terrifying and unexpectedly hilarious. Directing it last year was an enormous pleasure and a privilege and we’re now gearing up for the next stage of activity. This year or next it may go to Edinburgh, but it will certainly tour from this autumn.
AN ASIDE: Last year there was a bit of a furore when it was noted that Nicholas Hytner had never directed a play by a woman. Not just seldom. Literally never. It’s almost incomprehensible. Like, over a career as long as his that can’t occur by chance: it has to be deliberate. Anyway, after meeting Jen and Aliki, I wondered idly how many of the shows I've directed over the past year are by women. Turns out it’s four. Out of four. If this proves anything, it is that I am objectively morally better than Sir Nicholas Hytner. There can be no other conclusion.
Friday finished with a 5K race. I was hoping to do well in this because it’s completely flat and has no sharp turns, so I’d taken a couple of easy days beforehand (by which I mean not running fast or long, rather than taking the day off work) in order to try and run faster than I ever have over the distance. Truth be told, my 5K PB was always softer than my 10K or half marathon times, because I never ran a 5K back in my twenties when I was fast. But still, you don’t get PBs for free and I’m not sure Friday evening, at the end of a week in which I was knackered by Monday morning, is the ideal time for racing.
The race had a cut-off of sub-7-minute-miles - roughly a 21 minute 5K - so it was always going to be fast. A few of the lads could be overheard targeting the course record of around 15:something, for which there was a prize of thirty quid. My goals, by contrast, were: 1) don’t come last; 2) don’t get lapped; 3) go under 18:59 to set a new personal best. It says something about the field that as I stood on the start line I was marginally more confident of #3 than #1 or 2.
The field went off like the gun was firing at them, with the exception of me and one other bloke, who was audibly shocked by the pace. I spent the first half-lap of a four-lap course nestled in second last, just praying that this other bloke wasn’t gaining. Even then, my pace felt a bit hot, but I was feeling OK so decided to stay on the edge. And gradually, people started to come back to me, realising one by one that they’d gone off too fast. As the race went on I must have overtaken nearly half the field, without being overtaken once myself. This must be the definition of a well-paced race; almost the first time I’ve managed that in a 5K. I was pleased with this in itself. I was even more pleased when at the finish line my watch said 18:23, a new PB by over 30 seconds.
Most of you aren’t the least interested in my running exploits, but I have to tell you now that one of my few remaining lifetime goals, and by far the largest, is to run a marathon time in a time starting with a 2. This is right at the edge of what I might possibly be capable of, I am completely obsessed by it, and at 38 years old, it’s soon or never. My last marathon was run in 3:10:54 and I was thoroughly pleased, given that it came off relatively little training. I’m running Edinburgh in May and I'm already fitter than last year. I know I could take five to seven minutes off reasonably comfortably, in so far as anything is comfortable when running a marathon. Or just maybe I'll go all out for sub-3, in which case I might fall apart entirely, or just to aim for five to seven minutes nearer, in which case I’ll be pretty confident.
As soon as I got home on Friday, I entered my shiny new 5K time into this race predictor. It suggests my 5K time predicts a marathon finish of 2:59:08. That 5K was an abnormally fast course, and the marathon is a different proposition entirely, so before making any decisions I’ll see how I do at 10K (three weeks from now) and half marathon (two months). But consider the carrot dangled.
All of this takes no note of the fact that in a couple of weeks my sleep is going to be detonated for at least the next year. But on Tuesday, Boff told me that peoples’ running generally gets a boost after the birth of a child (also after the beginning of a new relationship and the end of an old one). This seems utterly incredible, but it is true that mine kicked up a gear after Dot was born. Then Boff told me that he did his Bob Graham the year after his eldest was born and I lost my last excuse not to go all-in.
Show of the week:I loved the work-in-progress of Leo Burtin’s With Bread. Along with his co-performers Aliki Chapple and Katherina Radeva, Leo tells stories personal and historical that delicately teases out themes of migration and friendship, as we collectively make bread. Then we break and eat the bread together. It’s elegant and satisfying and although we made flatbread, it’s still rising. I was also grateful for it because it was on Friday afternoon, I was knackered, and I was glad of a decent excuse to ease off on work before the race that night.
Run of the week: I've given you two already. What more do you want? OK, Boff and I went out again today.
Telly of the week: I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m excited about the new season of Trapped, which started last night on BBC. The first series was by miles the best TV I saw that whole year, and that was the year I watched Breaking Bad. Crime drama that isn’t predicated on the subjection of women is pretty rare, so it gets points for that from the off. It goes on to playfully upend the genre's tendencies in this regard, right through to the solutions. Crime drama this politically astute is even rarer, and for it to boil this up with real depth of character and feeling, well, I can’t think of another example. And all that says nothing about the twisty intensity of the main plot. Series two can’t possibly match it but if it’s half as good it’ll still be sensational. I can’t give you a tip based on anything I’ve seen because the only TV I’ve seen this week is about seventeen episodes of Hey Dugee.
Book of the Week: I'm reading This Land is Our Land by Marion Shoard, about the history of struggles for land ownership in the UK. If you've read this far you'll know why I'm reading it, so I'll just leave you with an extract:
"For nineteenth-century English labourers, dispossession was the natural state. Their collective memory did not accommodate the idea of land ownership by people like themselves. As a defeated class they looked only to improve the terms of their subjection, and in their own time, they failed even in that."
Heroes of the week: by contrast, I was beaming full and wide this week reading about the schoolchildren striking in protest at what we generations above are doing to the planet they'll be living on long after we've gone. Hope for the future rarely comes in portions this large.
We opened Tiny Heroes in Devon this week, under the aegis of the wonderful Beaford. They co-commissioned the first version of the show, so it means a lot to go back and open this final version with them three years later. It went incredibly well. I’m delighted. I’m also knackered: I write this having driven for eight hours today (Sunday), from Devon to Leeds to Lancaster.
I love rural touring. I love meeting a community in its own place, a community that may have almost nothing in common beyond their shared investment in that place. I love rural communities because their remoteness can mean that they’re that much more reliant on one another despite their differences. In many respects these communities can appear homogenous, and in many demographic respects this is troublingly accurate (I am aware that it's much easier for the feelings I describe to arise in a white man). Even so, it doesn't take long for this surface homogeneity to dissolve into surprisingly different perspectives and experiences.
And most of all, I love the welcome and the hospitality. My schtick is all about hosting, so it's fun to do shows where I'm so manifestly a guest. The space itself and the community's pre-existing relationship with that space do a lot of the work of hosting. Even more so than in any of my other work, I can't get away with pretending to be anywhere other than here, because everyone instinctively knows they have permission to interrupt, like your grandad heckling at your wedding.
It seems fitting to have headed off on a rural tour straight from Slung Low’s new place. There’s nothing remotely rural about Holbeck, but still, Slung Low's approach has a lot in common with that prevalent on the rural circuit. The importance of hospitality, of shared meals, of a sense that community comes not just from shared interests but from a shared place. We can’t build a world together if we only ever interact with people whose interests correspond with our own. We have to meet on shared ground.
But I’m not going to spend too much time singing the praises of Slung Low. I did that last week, and will surely do so again.
While rehearsing this week I stayed at the home of Dick Bonham (among his other qualifications, the director of Going Viral and The Price of Everything). With his partners-in-crime Howard and Choq, Dick recently opened a new venue, The Constitutional, in Farsley, west Leeds. And while I’m generally sceptical about the practice of opening new venues left, right and centre (hemhemthefactoryhemhem), The Constitutional is exactly how this sort of thing should be done. It’s the latest development in nearly fifteen years of work deeply embedded in the community of Farsley. For ten years, Dick and Howard (and later, Choq) ran an annual street festival in Farsley, where they all live. It was made in collaboration with the local community. At its peak ten thousand people showed up.
Then “the people who brought you Farsley festival” started a monthly night in an old mill building, called Trouble at Mill. They put on a piece of theatre and a band, Dick and Howard emceed, there was good food and a great bar. It was basically A Good Night Out (complete with Soviet-propaganda-style marketing). And the local community had learned to trust these people, so they showed up in force. The first year there was some ACE subsidy. For the next four, they didn’t need it. And now, from once a year through once a month, at the Constitutional, they’ve gone to 3-4 times a week.
You can’t do this unless you’ve been having a conversation that whole time. If you just build it without asking anyone if they want it, why the fuck would they come?
(I’ve been thinking a lot about community this week partly because I’ve been rural touring and rehearsing at Slung Low and staying at Dick’s. Also partly because I feel the lack of a community in my life at the moment. I’ve felt it for more than five years and I’m incredibly jealous of Dick’s embeddedness in Farsley. There are loads of reasons for my famished, shallow roots at the moment, and some of them are currently a bit raw to talk about in public. But given how much of my work is invested in the value of a community working together to make a difference in their place, it’s a bitter pill that I’m no part of any such community. There are loads of things I want to do, but for the raw reasons and others, it hasn’t been able to happen. Watch this space. I hope.)
Show of the week: it was last week really, but I don’t see much at the moment so I’m banking them where I can. We had a giddily expensive day out in Edinburgh last Saturday to see Touching the Void and it was a twisty, psychologically acute version of the vertiginous nightmare. David Greig has taken huge liberties in some ways and been startlingly faithful in others and it adds up to a terrific shift of perspective on a well-told tale.
Telly of the week: that last episode of Les Miserables was terrific, wasn’t it? That lingering final shot of children begging in the street: our heroes Marius and Cosette may be happily married, but so what, we still need a revolution. I said last week that I feel the need for optimism in the discourse now more than ever and my love for this bleak ending may seem to contradict that. I don’t think it does. Optimism doesn’t mean a happy ending, it means an ending that suggests happiness will one day be possible.
Radio of the week: everyone was rightly full of love for Bob Mortimer on Desert Island Discs and I commend that episode to you if you missed it. Once you’ve listened to it, go back and listen to this wonderful episode of Chain Reaction in which Mortimer interviews Vic Reeves. It’s deliriously, perfectly silly. It's so far from being like any art I'd ever argue for as to make recommending it irresponsible. And yet here I am. I’ve listened to it eight or nine times and will do so regularly until I die. It's the greatest comfort. It reminds me of home. It feels a little bit like love.
I'm afraid of the level of self-revelation this represents.
We’re just about to enter week three of rehearsals for Tiny Heroes, unless you count the weeks we spent making it the first time, or the second time. Yet despite it being probably the most rehearsed of my shows, I don’t imagine you’ve heard of it, because no-one notices the things that don’t tour to regional theatres. Or indeed, no-one notices the things that don’t tour to London or the Edinburgh Fringe. By which measure, since everything I’ve finished in the last year has been community-focused, you probably think I haven’t made a show in years.
So before I get on to anything else, since you haven’t heard of it: Tiny Heroes is a show about acts of heroism, small and large, and about the dangers of the very idea of heroism. At its core are stories of often virtually invisible acts of heroism, sourced from the communities with whom I worked when developing it. It was originally commissioned by the Bike Shed in Exeter and Beaford Arts in North Devon. It ran for two weeks across those two places in February 2016. The second time round, we made a new version for Leeds and it ran for a week there in December 2017. This third version brings together some of those stories along with some new ones and some we’ll collect along the way, to create a sort of national tapestry of arguments about heroism. It’ll be on the road on and off throughout 2019.
Since The Price of Everything I’ve found political optimism harder and harder to maintain, but I still think it is the only responsible political choice. Yes, we probably are all a bit fucked, but to act on that basis is to do nothing. It’s no coincidence that my bleakest show (or at least, my show with the bleakest ending) is also my award-winningest. That show, Going Viral, was also about grief, so I was finding optimism especially hard. But generally, I think hope, though it’s hard, is worth the effort. So it’s nice to get back into Tiny Heroes, which, while acknowledging that we only need heroes when things have already gone badly wrong, celebrates dozens of causes for optimism. With songs.
Hero of the week: we’ve been rehearsing at Slung Low’s new gaffe, the Holbeck Working Mens’ Club, after an unfortunate double-booking elsewhere left us, at short notice, without a room. I wasn’t going to ask Slung Low, because they’re literally building the venue as we speak. But I did a shoutout on Facebook and Alan stepped into the breach, tall dark handsome stranger that he is. I know a lot of people whose values infuse their work and the structures they build around it. I try to do this myself. But no company I know does it with such ferocious rigour as Slung Low. Heroes all.
Confession of the week: I promised myself I’d do a blog post a month this year and here we are on the third of February. The thing is that imagined posts inflate in my head until they just seem like far too much work. Then I saw Annabel is doing weekly blogposts and thought, that’s an idea. (Annabel is, as ever, an inspiration.) A shorter one every week oughtn’t to be impossible. Sometimes I’ll talk about my work, sometimes I’ll talk about the industry, sometimes I’ll talk about politics, just depending on what’s been going on in my week. I can put a photo from the week at the top, maybe another. And at the end I can do a little rundown of stuff I’ve read/seen/done, like this:
Show of the week: hard to see this becoming a regular feature as parenthood means I see very little at the moment. But I loved Third Angel’s Department of Distractions. In lots of ways it’s a massive departure for Third Angel: it looks and smells like an Actual Play. Despite that, it is stuffed full of all the things you want from Third Angel, with the bonus of an incredibly satisfying plot. It’s choc-a-bloc with Pynchonesque, Twin Peaksy details, my favourite being the bloke who fakes his own death several times a day. About halfway through I found myself thinking it had a curious absence of politics, but then, in the next scene, there they were. And the ending plays out in a few different ways depending on the politics of what you think is going on. It’s a great script by Alex Kelly. The cast are great. The entire design team – Bethany Wells, Heather Fenoughty, Katharine Williams – have done rich things that keep it alive and moving before the story kicks up a gear. I really liked it, and I’m still thinking about it, and I'll be thinking about it for a while.
Third Angel have been a hugely important company for me: their work is really different to mine, three or four of their shows that have influenced me profoundly, and I still carry them with me. The first of them was pushing twenty years ago, but there it still is, in my head, no doubt getting further and further away from whatever it was actually like.
Telly of the week: In about forty minutes it’s the final episode of the BBC Les Miserables. I love it. The novel is overblown and melodramatic and you can absolutely understand how the musical got to be like it is. But this adaptation puts back in all the context and the politics that the musical denuded, and that are what make the novel so remarkable. People often remark how extraordinary it is that a mainstream musical was made about mid-nineteenth century revolutionary French politics – and of course this would never have happened without the subsidised sector. But it’s not really about the politics, is it? What I love about this TV adaptation is that without sacrificing the entertainingly hokey plot, it puts that political context right back at the centre. Every episode opens with an image of widespread human misery that somehow then haunts the rest of the episode. Thirty-five minutes. I should just have time to get this post up before it starts.
Book of the week: I’ve just finished Johnny Muir’s The Mountains Are Calling, which is about hill running in Scotland. It’s fabulously enjoyable if you like that sort of thing (and I’m aware that most people don’t). Most noteworthy to the general reader will be the chapter on Jasmin Paris, who suddenly came to national attention a couple of weeks ago when she won the Spine Race along the Pennine Way.
This week I was in a pub with a friend who expressed irritation about the times when, come the play-offs every year, people suddenly affect interest in her niche sport, basketball. They don’t know these teams and players, they’re just repeating something they saw in the Guardian. Whereas no-one has ever expressed interest in my niche sport, long distance hill and mountain running, so I was delighted when the absolute legend that is Jasmin Paris briefly became a star. She is surely the most impressive human alive and I don’t even think her outright victory and ten-hour course record (while stopping to express breast milk at every aid station) is her most impressive achievement. She’s the fifth fastest ever on the Bob Graham Round, which only about two thousand people have ever even completed. And she’s the outright fastest at the Ramsay Round, which less than 150 people have ever managed. And next month she’ll submit her PhD thesis.
Run of the week: Tomorrow marks the beginning of a sixteen-week training cycle til my next marathon, so this was probably silly. But you can’t turn down the fells in the snow. The photos above were taken on the run.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will