5 Things I Learned From A Book Launch (Number 6 Will Amaze You!)

God loves an independent bookshop, yes she does, especially the self-help section. Independent bookshops are places of love and beauty, so small that thirty people assembled for an author talk is as good as a stadium crowd. (The best ones, like mine, also have a coffee machine.)

My local independent bookshop is Drake in Stockton, where I went to hear Stephanie Butland read from, and talk about, her sixth novel ‘The Woman In The Photograph‘ *

I loved the extract she read (enough to buy the book), but it was the Q&A session that delivered treasure – because, dear Reader, I am that unhappiest of creatures, a First-Time Aspiring Novelist.

Stephanie Butland at Drake Bookshop

Here are the marvellous titbits of inspiration I took from Steph’s talk, all of which I will immediately try to apply to my writing life:

1. There are no RULES for the writer’s working day, only PREFERENCES 

Oh joy, you mean I’m not failing if I haven’t written 1000 words by 8am? No! Steph works when she feels most able to sit down and focus on the work. As it happens, for her that is first thing. A 2-hour morning might yield 1000 words that would take twice as long to squeeze out if she started in the afternoon. BUT – if the morning is taken up with other, unavoidable things, then a long afternoon of writing will happen. The woman has professional persistence.

2. 1000 words a day for 3 months = “a bad first draft”

I love that “bad”. If I could fixate on completion at the expense of perfection, I might be in with a shot of writing this damn thing!

3. Novels will bring their own ways of being written

Now, I’m working with a formulaic genre (cosy crime), which Steph is not, but I still found it inspiring to hear how each time she writes a novel she comes up with a different way of ‘how to write a novel’. This current book was meticulously planned using a spreadsheet. Her previous book, ‘The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae‘, was written in a huge outpouring and then sculpted into shape. It’s OK for me to not know exactly how to write this first book of mine. Even better, it will be OK for me not to quite know how to write the next one, and the next – better to be interested in the process than the product!

4. Don’t read inside your own genre while you’re writing

I’ve been a reading a lot of my genre, because as a first-time writer I need to spend a bit of time working out how it’s done. But now that I’m into the actual writing, I can see the sense of giving my brain some space. Should probably lay off the cosy crime TV dramas, too! Steph reads Young Adult fiction, and dystopian fiction, so this could be a great excuse for me to widen my reading landscape.

5. Editing is great, but after a while you’re not making the book better, you’re making it a different book.

I haven’t reached this stage yet, but I’m going to bear it in mind when I do…

And the bonus bit of info is this:

6. The presenter for uber-macho TV show Top Gear was actually Angela Rippon!


*’The Woman In The Photograph’ is a story about feminism and fierce friendship. It is out now from Zaffre Books and if you buy it online via Hive then you can nominate a local bookshop to collect it from. The bookshop receives a small fee. This is massively better for authors and booksellers than going to Amazon, but doesn’t make it any more expensive for you – please make Hive a habit! 

StAnza – possibly the perfect poetry festival

I spent the weekend in St Andrews as a performer at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. Lucky, lucky, lucky me! Collected from the station, treated with unfailing courtesy and unflappability by every staff member and volunteer, fed at the poet’s buffet for free throughout the weekend, delivered back to my home-bound train in timely fashion – bliss!

This was my first time to StAnza, and even had I not received the perks of performer status I would have been bowled over by the finely-tuned balance of the programming, the range of poetic styles encompassed, and the inventiveness of the ‘extras’ such as table-side performances and hashtag poetry. (By the way, my set -collection launch went very well. There are reviews here and here, which I don’t expect anyone but my mum to actually read. Hi Mum!)

In one day you could attend: a serious breakfast talk about the concept of the body in poetry, led by a diverse panel of poets including multi-award winning Andrew McMillan and arch-innovator SJ Fowler; an intimate gathering in a graceful oval drawing room, hung with green watered silk wallpaper and garnished with immaculate white orchids, listening to Pascale Petit fill it with hummingbirds and jaguars; a lunchtime hour of sheer entertainment from a spoken word show like Jemima Foxtrot‘s Melody; an afternoon of splurge-buying beautiful small press poetry collections and chapbooks;  a double-bill main stage presentation of classic readings by Jo Shapcott right next to multi-lingual near-operatic sound poetry from Nora Gomringer (complete with jazz drummer); and then round it all off with a poetry slam hosted by current BBC Champion Scott Tyrrell.

Frankly, what this kind of programming says to me is that the team who put this festival together know their poetry, widely and deeply, and are passionate about it in all its various glories – at times to the point of fangirldom! If you have any love at for poetry, you should go. And it doesn’t hurt that a. St Andrews is charming and b. it has both gelaterias and second hand book shops. Perfect.


Review – Be Brave And Leave For The Unknown (RedCape Theatre)

imgresDo you remember those wire puzzles? The ones with all the beads at the joints, that you could push through themselves, squeezing and weaving and warping them into spheres and orbitals, bracelets and columns? That’s what it was like watching the characters in Be Brave And Leave For The Unknown at ARC last night.

In the centre of the stage there is a large table, with cunning extra functions – flaps lift, lids uncover holes, objects emerge from the hollow interior. It becomes a piano, a baby bath, a tank, a bar to dance on, a train platform to jump from, a bomb shelter. The actors thread themselves around and under and through it, and around and about one another, in a beautiful cat’s cradle of intention and interplay, constantly making and undoing and re-making their worlds.

Will Dickie plays Chris, a concert pianist with extraordinarily expressive fingers and a bad case of stage fright. Philippa Hambly plays Fleur, a war photographer adrenaline junkie who can’t sit still. We see them meet, fall in love, become a family. Then we see them fall apart under the strain of the worst tragedy that can happen to new parents. The bravery they have had to use on a daily basis to overcome the fears inherent in their professions is not sufficient to see them through – they must discover a different order of courage within themselves as individuals, and as a couple.

For me, what was most interesting was the relative absence of dialogue. This is an incredibly visual piece, made completely effective by coherent lighting and sound design. I recently saw Into Thin Air by Precious Cargo, and had been expecting this kind of physical image-painting, but on that occasion I was disappointed – the play is beautifully written by Allison Davies, but had failed to take life in the bodies of the actors. It occurs to me now, having seen Be Brave, that the key is to leave enough space in the writing for the enactment to happen (if that makes sense). The text of Into Thin Air could exist by itself as a short story, but Be Brave is absolutely a piece of theatre, reliant on the presence of actors, the story entirely expressed through their actions.

Oh, and best ever use of a glass of water. Stunning bit of visual metaphor. It’s on again tonight at ARC, and continues to tour venues in the north east through the REACH programme for new writing for theatre. You should go.

Read widely, read deeply

SunderlandHere’s a few thoughts for National Poetry Day…

In his pamphlet-essay, ’13 Ways Of Making Poetry A Spiritual Practise’, award-winning Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu advises reading widely, from the classics to contemporary to work in translation; and also reading deeply, because “if reading is to give us genuine pleasure and fulfilment it needs to be a kind of meditation”.

Which is why I’ve been trying out three ways of deep reading lately.

Firstly, I’ve been reading Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lit Prize-winning collection, The Bounty, which starts with his return to the Caribbean for his mother’s funeral and then expands like a storm front to encompass all of European culture and his relationship to it. So much bounty – that of God, in whom his mother took refuge. The bounty of nature, the endless moods of the sea and sky and vegetation which underpin every memory of his boyhood and every turn of his grief. The bounty of his homeland, which of course was plundered. The bounty of European civilisation and literature, which he has made his own but with which he sits in a sometimes uneasy relationship, a self-aware black intellectual in a white tradition. The poems are dense, their thought processes profound, their sentences compound and folded clause over clause into oblong packages that sit on the pages like blocks. In fact, they remind me of wood-printer’s blocks, as if they were artefacts produced by Albrecht Durer, each word a clean, sharp, chisel mark, a simple enough  vocabulary creating through the intensity of focus and repetition a series of perfect complexities.

In order to read this amazing collection, I have had to read a maximum of three cantos a day, out loud, after meditation. It’s taken me over two months, allowing for gap days and repetitions. It has been utterly marvellous, and every other poem seems a bit flimsy in comparison, but I’m starting the process now with Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘I Speak For The Devil’.

Secondly, I gladly accepted an invitation to join a little, informal book group with the purpose of discussing Claudia Rankine’s collection ‘Citizen : An American Lyric’, which has just won the Forward Prize. A dazzlingly contemporary, genre-busting piece of work, it is a forthright exploration of everyday racism in America, told via a collage of prose poems, essays, free verse and photo-art. Some pieces are presented as companion texts to videos, though we weren’t sure whether those video pieces were imagined or if they exist. The visual art is taken from a number of other artists. The prose poems are incredibly similar to Facebook status updates of people I know who record daily incidents of their experiences with prejudice, while the free verse is darker, more a case of fluidity, interiority and sub-bass emotional synapses connecting across white page space.

It was great to discuss ‘Citizen’ with a group of writers, both British and American, although it was different from the kind of close textual response I was expecting. We spoke less about form than about the issues raised and our own experiences of prejudice, which was equally enjoyable but perhaps a little surprising given how formally iconoclastic the book is.

Lastly, I have signed up for an online course with The Poetry School all about close reading the work of Alice Oswald. Every week we can download a PDF of selected works, accompanied by reading notes, questions and creative prompts. So far we have looked as her sonnets, the long poem ‘Dunt’, and some works from her collection ‘The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile’. I chose this course because I LOVE Alice Oswald, but I’ve only read the book-length poem ‘Dart’ and her collection ‘Woods, Etc’, so I wanted to expand my knowledge. She’s some kind of pantheistic dowsing-rod of a poet, channelling the music of nature and all that is immanent into poems so uniquely crafted they are like fantastical hand-blown glass bottles filled with liquid godhead.

The poems selected and the prompts to thought are good, but I feel like I haven’t yet got to grips with the idea of conversing via a chat-room. Although there are no ‘real-time’ chats, people are encouraged to post up thoughts and responses, and add comments to other people’s posts. I find I am continually behind with the work of this course, never finding the time to write my responses. Maybe this is because I am an extrovert, so I prefer to think with my mouth, and often don’t know what I think about something until I talk it through – face to face works far better for me.

So there you go. Hope this is interesting to anyone wondering how they can start thinking about the poetry they read, hope this encourages you to read some of the poets mentioned if you haven’t heard of them before.


Ekphrastic project – Conflict and Conscience

The second of my poems for art crit magazine Corridor 8 went live a couple of weeks ago, but I’d like to bring it back to your attention now. Why? Because it’s a response to the exhibition ‘Conflict and Conscience : British Artists and the Spanish Civil War‘, running at the Laing Gallery until 7th June, and May Day weekend seems an appropriate time to nod in the direction of socialist struggles past and present.

I’d really just like to encourage you to see the exhibition if you can. Not only are there some really strong works, including Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’, but it is full of inspirational women. Women artists who fought and died, women who served the rebel camps and fed the insurgents, women who were passionate political and military leaders, women who sewed vast celebratory tapestries in remembrance of their comrades, women who made the heart-wrenching posters that ensured aid went to the victims of the conflict, women who got off their arses and started charitable foundations to secure the safety of orphans when our pathetic government of men refused to take in refugees, women who learned how to run ambulance services in blitzed cities, women, women, women…

Atlas was a woman…

Poems I Have Been Reading… Forugh Farrokhzad

In English we say ‘out of the mouths of babes’, meaning that children often say out loud the unpalatable or indiscreet truths that the adults all know but are trying to ignore. We say it with a hair-ruffling air of indulgence, the implication being that children can get away with statements that would be embarrassing or even dangerous when made by an adult.

On Tuesday evening I went to a workshop on Iranian poetry led by Javaad Alipoor, from theatre company Soroush, and we looked at a poem from the mid-1960s written by iconic female poet Forough Farrokhzad. It was written in the voice of a young girl, and with devastating simplicity it lays out all kinds of unspoken truths like open palms – what it is to be poor and to want things, what it is to mix up desires and needs, what it is to live in fear of police in your own homeland, what it is to put your faith in a messiah. It is wonderfully subversive, all the while wearing the pigtails of innocence. I loved it.

You can read it and find out more about Forugh by clicking here.

Forugh’s brother, the equally iconic poet, broadcaster and singer Fereydoun Farrokhzad, is the subject of Soroush’s new play My Brother’s Country, which comes to ARC Stockton on 23rd and 24th February – but I believe 23rd is sold out already, so you’d better get your Wednesday tickets sharpish! Click here for information and booking. It falls under ARC’s new ‘Pay What You Decide’ initiative, so really have nothing to lose.

Mamela and other reviews (Gosling Watch)

Recently I was selected to be one of ten intrepid amateur theatre reviewers for the North East Artist Development Network. My first review is now online here; I decided to start with kindness. It would have been possible to be much more scathing, as the show I saw was billed as drama but really was a whole heap less sophisticated than that. However, I’m just finding my feet, see what you think.

Perhaps one day I’ll manage to feel secure enough in my theatre reviewing to do it in the same style as my now surprisingly popular ‘Gosling Watch’ on Facebook. For those of you who are not FB friends, here’s a round-up of my pearls of wisdom to date…

September 13 2014, Only God Forgives

So I watched Only God Forgives, hoping for some close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s beautiful face moving almost imperceptibly from one state of beautiful blankness to another, subtly different state of beautiful blankness. I was rewarded with many such moments, and also – a prescient, machete-wielding cop-nemesis, several sub-Lynchian scarlet-drenched dream sequences, an unrecognisably brassy Kristen Scott Thomas playing a castrating-mother-cougar-gangster-matriarch, and Thai karaoke. This film teeters on the brink of cult genius, before plunging slow-motion into the abyss of the truly fucking awful.

September 14 2014, Ides Of March

Still on the eternal quest for Gosling-satiety, I watched The Ides Of March, which is a typical late-period Clooney political noir featuring the Cloonster himself as a charming senator racing for the Democratic presidential candidacy, with Gosling our hero as the rising star in the campaign office. Fans of the Gosling School Of Facial Acting will be delighted to know that there is a decent quota of wordless, faintly enigmatic blank-face moments. Excitingly, there are also several moments in which his face does much more complex emotional stuff that I am forced to call acting. It’s a story of lost innocence, and yes I know there may not seem to be much innocence left to be lost for a spin-doctor with all the hallmarks of a political and emotional player, but lo! the labrador tail of idealism still wags in the soul of our hero, until actions and their consequences dock it for good. Most satisfactory as a film all-round, just what I’ve come to expect from Clooney as a director, although it scores quite low on the Gosling-Kit-Off scale. Which of course doesn’t exist, that would be puerile of me.

September 16 2014, Drive

Many of you will be asking ‘why the Gosling fetish, Kirsten? when did this all start? did you accidentally watch The Notebook or something?’ The truth is, I did wade through that particular tide of treacle some years back, and had managed to expunge the experience from my conscious memory. At the time, the divine Ryan moved me not one jot, the Face being at that time far too fresh, plus there was all that lying in the road whiffling at traffic lights bullshit to contend with.

No, good friends, it was Drive, Drive the magnificent, the moody, the mesmeric, a film with the racing lines of an urban heist movie but powered by pure Western. Gosling is literally the man with no name, drifted in from some modern high plains wearing not a poncho but a scorpion bomber jacket, laconic (naturally), and operating sometimes outside the law but always within his own code, driven to extreme violence only to protect the innocent. The whole film is fucking gorgeous, but it’s the interaction between him and Carey Mulligan that did it for me. She’s a pretty deft exponent of Facial Acting herself, and I was hypnotised by watching them watching each other, speechlessly allowing their faces to suffuse with – love? Attraction? Soul-recognition? Ah! The yearning….

September 23 2014, Crazy. Stupid. Love.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. Mid-life loser (Steve Carrell) gets booted out by his wife (Julianne Moore) and winds up sitting like a saddo in a pick-up joint, where he is taken under the wing of spectacularly successful Game-playing womaniser (Ryan Gosling). The inevitable happens – loser rediscovers his mojo through taking up anonymous sex, man-whore rediscovers his heart through giving up anonymous sex, but both end up re-affirming that All You Need Is Love. This is a modern rom-com of the knowing variety, one which makes slyly subversive digs at the very tropes it inhabits. Gosling is the focus of a few clever little camera-shot turnarounds where this objectifier of women becomes the object of the lens-eye. We meet him from the feet up, like Cameron Diaz in The Mask; we even get a full-length shot of him posing in slow-mo with orgasmic backing music. He falls in love with a girl who is incapable of playing The Game by the standard one-night rules. Gosling playing a man in love reads a lot like his ‘real self’, by which I mean the small-screen persona he projects in TV interviews. It’s a good look on him, and he seems to have some shit-hot deadpan comic timings in both arenas. There is really no Enigmatic Blank Face time in this film at all, but this is balanced by a solid six on the (non-existent) Gosling Kit-Off Scale. Yeah, you heard me, a six. I can take more. On a more worrying note, I seem to have refined my adoration of the Face into a specific obsession with his nose. Dammit, that’s a fine nose.

September 26 2014, more about Crazy. Stupid. Love.

Still slightly obsessing over Crazy, Stupid, Love and the rom-com genre in general. I believe rom-coms are equivalent to glossy magazines – they promise us (women) some light if slightly guilty pleasure, some ‘me-time’, a little harmless escapism. But they always seem to leave an aftertaste of depression. So much shiny fantasy undermines dull reality, throws our cellulite into sharp relief, and in the case of rom-coms propagates an impossible notion of love. Who was I meant to identify with when watching that film? My love was not the lightning strike of seeing my soulmate in the school corridor. My love was not a Photoshopped asshole transformed instantly into ideal family man by my unique personality. My love was a friend who forgave my faults, because if I was in that film I would have been the crazy-eyed, self-destructive teacher whose heart and genitals provided the arena for Loser-Hero Steve Carrell to grab back his confidence. And of all the characters, she was the one left still loveless at the credits, because she’s broken, right? And the mad ones don’t get the rom-com redemption. Directors, throw some crumbs to the broken bitches, there are more of us than you acknowledge, and these films are to love as cupcakes are to food.

September 28 2014, The Place Beyond The Pines

There are films which are novelistic in scope, introducing us to a protagonist and then following them through unfolding circumstances and personal developments to some kind of conclusion, resolution, redemption even. We stay with them, and are invited to care, even for the anti-hero. (There Will Be Blood, for example). Then there are films which play more like a collection of short stories, linked by theme or frequently by the daisy-chain of chance interactions between characters. There is no one protagonist, the focus of our sympathy shifts, the cast is vast and the effect is looser on the emotions, meditative even. (Short Cuts, for example). The Place Beyond The Pines sits somewhere between the two. A more conventionally structured version of this film would feature Bradley Cooper’s character, the cop Avery Cross, as the lead. Instead we are tricked into thinking Gosling’s mysterious and misguided motorcyclist is going to be the hero, and given almost an hour to give a shit before he gets a cap popped in him. As a Gosling-junkie, I feel cheated and used. Sure, lure me in with an opening shot of his immaculately chiselled torso, but then to abandon me with and hour and twenty minutes of your ‘meditation on fathers and sons’? You mean I have to read this film as art, not entertainment? I have to seriously ask myself what is this place beyond the pines, metaphorically speaking? Oh ffs.

October 11 2014, Lars And the Real Girl

“Quirky, heart-warming comedy” is such a devalued phrase, isn’t it? Like “luxury flat”. It could easily be applied to Lars And The Real Girl, the latest outing for Gosling Watch. Lars is socially crippled by shyness – hahaha! He orders a life-sized, anatomically-correct doll from the Internet – hahaha! He truly believes that she is real, and the whole town joins in with his delusion – oh, hahahahahahahahahaHAHA! Played differently, hilarity could indeed ensue. But it doesn’t, because even though there are funny moments, the point is definitely not ‘let’s laugh at Lars’. This film has way too much heart for that, and in fact it is about love in the widest and realest sense – intimate love, familial love, community love and I would say also Christian love. “Love is God in action” says the local priest, and we see the ripple of it extending out through the town in a most beautiful way. The town itself is a bastion of simple decency in the far north, probably where the cop from Fargo grew up. Of course. The northern small-town is the new shorthand for old-fashioned values, now that the mid-west picket-fenced hamlet has become so subverted (Lynch, I’m looking at you).

Loved this film. Loved Gosling in it, he’s superb, especially the panic attack scene. But when searching for it, Netflix suggested Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and I advise you not to mix up the two when choosing your Sunday morning viewing, photomontages of flaccid penises can really put you off your cornflakes.

November 2 2014, Drive (again)

BBC Radio 1 have re-scored Drive. I haven’t watched it all yet, so I can’t comment on the whether or not I can tell the difference – I suspect the main change for me will be noticing the music at all, as the original score is minimal and seamless. But I did check out the scene by the river when Gosling takes Mulligan and her son for an idyllic outing. This montage is cinematic shorthand for ‘and over time the two fell deeply in love’. In the original soundtrack, it is the first incidence of ‘the theme from Drive’ (A Real Hero by College & Electric Youth), which has the hook ‘what does it mean to be a real human being and a real hero?’.

Now I was recently arguing with a good friend of mine about Drive. His assertion was that the entire film is a piece of cheesy nonsense, exemplified by this section and this song. After vigorously reminding him that Gosling is playing not a character but a FREAKIN’ ARCHETYPE, DUDE, I got to thinking about what I actually meant by that.

So I think the archetype is The Hero, and I think it’s as impossible an ideal of masculinity as any film portrayal of femininity. That whole strong and silent – yet feels deeply – yet is a loner – yet is a family man – yet is brutally violent – yet is tender….even his faults presented as virtuous. How is anyone meant to combine all of that and still be plausible? You can’t do it, men – you can’t be a real hero AND a real human being.

Which is why I prefer the original soundtrack, cheesy as it is, over the new (and equally cheesy) ‘aaaaaahhh, you’re amazing’. Pur-lease. Give me an existential question over a breathless assertion any day.


Review – Dead To Me by Greyscale Theatre

Do you believe in the spirit world? If you could talk to the dead, might it change your life?

Steven (Gary Kitching) is a small man in a stifling job, who visits a psychic (Tessa Parr) because someone gave him a gift voucher. He’s sceptical, uncomfortable, hunched and nervy and literally wrong-footed by her fey new-age mannerisms. She pulls his aura like taffy, twinkles about like a ballerina doll and jumps off furniture. Their interaction is a hilarious mismatched tango – until a final piece of abrupt advice from her spirit guide tips him into anxiety. When the prediction seems to come true, he comes back and we see their relationship evolve over several meetings, as Steven becomes more enamoured with the psychic and her beliefs. Each time he leave, he sheds his jacket, putting on a new one when he returns. They lie around the stage like skins he is shedding, or parts of himself he is losing. Each meeting is separated by a strange red-washed interval where Steven paces out his discomfort at the margins of the stage while the psychic occupies it, dancing her weirdly naive dance to the sound of Elvis (that great ambassador of the Realm Beyond). It’s clear that this is not going to end well. Maybe you can even guess what might happen if an emotionally vulnerable person is encouraged to believe that they too have the gift of communication? The audience can see where it is headed, not with the stale predictability of a cliche but with the dreadful inevitability of a tragedy.

Kitching and Parr are both tremendous in this, their physicality is pitch-perfect. Kitching in particular basically gives us a masterclass in how to ramp up status just through body language. Initially, he is so far down the food chain that it is easy to ignore him, the whimsical Parr is so much more charming and compelling. But by his character’s final manifestation, he is as riveting and chilling as a psychopath. This was a flawless production, as far as I’m concerned, worth every penny.

Review – North East Rising by Rowan McCabe

I was recently one of ten people selected to write theatre reviews for the North East Artist Development Network, which of course has made me very happy and has also forced me to admit that I know very little about reviewing. So my cunning plan is to do some warm-ups on here.

Rowan McCabe
Rowan McCabe

I’d really like to tell you about ‘North East Rising’ by Rowan McCabe, and I will, I will – but in all fairness, I must declare an interest. I’ve been working with Rowan in my capacity as Apples and Snakes co-ordinator since he started as a performance poet. He’s come up through Scratch Club, had performance mentoring from me, been programmed and commissioned by me on a range of projects and most recently I acted as a freelance mentor helping him edit the text of this show. Fairly obviously, I think he’s good, but then so do all the other people who have supported him to write this first solo pice – Arts Centre Washington, Arts Council, ARC Stockton and the like.

North East Rising is based on a simple observation, that the portrayal of the north east and Geordies in the popular media is unfairly skewed towards negative, vulgar or impoverished stereotypes. It’s grim up north, always has been. What McCabe sets out to do is to use his own experiences as a north-easterner to set out a stall of alternative exemplars, exploring what for him is the true ‘essence of the north east’. He does this through a series of character sketches in poetic form, ranging from poignant to lyrical to comedic, linked loosely together by an imagined walk through Newcastle and beyond, up the Tyne valley. The overall tone is one of relaxed, chatty comedy, as he moves from poem to poem via links that are scripted a little like stand-up routines, and this all works extremely well. He’s an affable presence, the audience is always on his side and happily jumps up to twerk with baked goods for his Stottie Rap! And the final piece, stretching out its fingers towards this new positive ideal of north east community and culture, is truly moving.

If I have any reservations, it’s about the support acts. In keeping with the stand-up nature of his delivery, the show is presented within a cabaret format, with a first half consisting of music from Alix Alexandra (who was sublime) and poetry from Jess Johnson, all hosted by Robbie Lee Hurst. This is a fantastic format, it really makes sense as a structure given the feel of Rowan’s piece, but I was a bit taken aback by Jess’s set. She’s a tremendous actor, incredibly vivid on stage, and I’ve seen her in late-night cabaret settings and laughed until I hurt. But the same material shifted to early-evening theatre struck a different note. Her themes are sex, jealousy, domestic abuse, drug-use, drunken brawling and council estate slaggery  – so, many of the negative stereotypes that Rowan’s show is trying so hard to move away from. Her set seems to undermine his in its content, but this could be mitigated if the pieces were delivered with more invitation to empathise, and there’s plenty of space to do that as she’s writing with heart and not to judge or mock. Instead they are spat at us, obscenities lobbed like bricks, angry and confrontational. It’s like being blasted with a flamethrower.

I know there may be tweaks made to the support set for the next three performances, so I really wouldn’t let my responses put you off, not least because you may enjoy Jess’s piece very much, there were plenty of others around me finding it funny. And the main show I wouldn’t have you miss for all the pasties in Greggs.

North East Rising can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 21 October and at ARC, Stockton on 23 October

Fringe review 3 – I Felt I Had Earned The Curry

Well that was a strange old day of shows missed and shows abandoned. Having delivered a command performance-slash-dress rehearsal to Sophia Walker in the basement of Forest Cafe, I proceeded to loiter on the wind tunnel that is the Royal Mile in a vain attempt to thrust my flapping flyers into the hands of Swedish tourists just looking for shelter. I then arrived at my venue ten minutes too late to exit flyer Tina’s show, and just in time to miss ‘Yeti’ by Gary From Leeds due to the pressing need to change into performance clothes, warm up, go and do last minute flyering, warm up again and do my first show.

I then went to see ‘Raj Rage’ by Charmian Hughes, which had the exciting premise of a personal pilgrimage to India following the footsteps of her great-grandmother, who escaped the Indian Mutiny and left behind letters containing a species of eye-witness account. Ten minutes into the show and we were still listening to tepid jokes about middle-aged women’s mandatory pixie haircuts and the tribulations of travelling with a friend only to be mistaken for lesbians. When the ancestor appeared it was via the theatrical device of a faintly Victorian looking headband, which was donned before the action continued with no alteration of delivery or language whatsoever. Are these letters real? Was Hughes’ forebear simply an incredibly dull correspondent with no epistolary panache? A thousand words of this painted no picture at all. I left, sadly before the human banana sacrifice promised in the blurb.

I then perched at the back of the Banshee’s torture chamber to sneak a peek at Rob Auton’s ‘Face Show’, which follows the now-familiar Auton format of drawing us in with endearingly awkward whimsy before nearly losing us in a slightly unravelled middle section and then finally approaching what he’s actually talking about via an extended emotional crescendo. In this case, he literally draws us in, as in, draws faces for a while. It’s charming and a bit funny. There’s some energetic facial workouts. It’s absurd and a bit funny. There are a lot of baffled silences. He makes them longer, until they’re a bit more funny. There’s something about mice and aliens, but I was getting a bit tired at that point and had to have a little sit down. Auton is a genuinely lovely and unique performer, and to watch him is to walk a tightrope between confused, bemused laughter and delighted, surprised laughter. Whatever he talks about – the wonderfully poignant interconnectedness of all humanity for example – he talks about from the bottom of his strangely vulnerable heart, often all but breaking mine. I wouldn’t bill him as comedy, though. Not sure it’s spoken word either. It’s Rob.

A swift spell at JibbaJabba ensued, with sets by Jim Higo, Mandy Maxwell and a rather inspired open mic bit from a guy selling his services as a hit-man exterminator of stray helium balloons. Then back across Waverley Bridge to the Banshee for Stand Up Tragedy. An opening set form comedic storyteller John Harding was genuinely funny – it takes some tightly-managed delivery to tell a tale of explosive diarrhoea without being off-puttingly crass. But the next three acts left me and my companions cold, so we absconded in favour of curry, running the gauntlet of Niddry Street after the watershed, when all the people outside venues are suddenly aggressively flyering for shows called ‘Yank Me’, “Phone Whore’ and ‘Sex With Children’.

And now it’s tomorrow already, and I must get some sleep before seeing Jack Dean’s ‘Threnody For The Sky Children’, which may well have just beaten my ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ for the coveted ‘Most Pretentious Title’ award at this year’s Fringe…