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2018 …and all that jazz

2018 …and all that jazz

418 posts so far this year…making the North East Theatre Guide the busiest forum solely dedicated to theatre just in our region. It has been a fun year. Some of the best shows we have seen have literally involved one person in a small room, others have been massive spectacular events. We are lucky to have such a wide range of venues capable of handling very small fringe events up to full scale productions direct from the West End. In the background, funding/income continues to be a major issue for everyone: venues, production companies and the audience. Having said that, the people of the North East love the escapism of a good show.

We started the year whilst completing our panto marathon. We still had shows to see as some opened in January. This also gave us a chance to pay our first visit to the Boulevard in Newcastle to see an adults-only reboot of the Tom Whalley’s Aladdin. Funnily enough we also saw the normal version at the Westovians too. It was strange seeing a panto, that we’d seen in Gateshead the previous year, softened up for a younger audience at one venue and made as you as you can go at the other on 2 consecutive days.

We love our comedy and January was our first review of Lee Kyle’s tour. You’d imagine that comics are all living the lifestyle of a Peter Kay or a Michael McIntyre – the truth is far removed from that as people like Lee work extremely hard to earn a living. Lee would set up the Working Class Fringe website for the Edinburgh Festival in order to highlight the many shows that are not created thanks to the deep pockets of rich sponsors or parents.

The month finished with opera in the form of Ellen Kent’s La Traviata. We had the opportunity to discuss the issues of creating large scale shows with Ellen on the evening. Memorably the conversation turned to difficult shows to produce in the politically correct 2018. King and I was mentioned and, that too will be appearing in the region in 2019 when it comes to the Sunderland Empire.

The North East Theatre Guide has covered lots of children’s shows this year. Puddle’s Adventure featured one of our panto heroes, David Jon Hopper.  He does a brilliant job keeping the kids entertained and the reaction from the audience is a delight to watch.

Showstopper is an improvised musical that has no script or music before the suggestions fly in from the audience. It is returning to the Northern Stage in 2019 and even if you saw it in 2018, you’re guaranteed a different show next time you see it. Comedy also continued in February with the huge Sunday For Sammy event at the Arena. A cacophony of talent from the region put on the stage for a good cause. The charity helps fund a number of projects that we have seen during the year.

2018 was a great year for Northern Stage. A steady flow of wonderful shows ensured the venue was punching above its weight. Hamlet, from the Royal Shakespeare Company was the first of the big productions that we saw there. The use of one of the medium sized venues in the city may have raised a few eyebrows but the venue showed it can be as a great place for theatre as some of its more historic neighbours.


We paid another visit to the newly refurbished Darlington Hippodrome in March to see one of our favourites The Play That Goes Wrong. I’m losing count now of how many times we have seen it, yet we’d happily see it again. We also had a trip to London around this time and clocked another show by the same company. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is a wonderful farce and it comes to the Theatre Royal in January.

Another show we saw for a second time was Pete Peverley’s Bobby Thompson Story at the Theatre Royal. A one man show that kept the audience in the palm of his hand. It is one of a number of shows that keeps the memory of North East legends going.

The Northern Stage had another big blockbuster when Sting’s The Last Ship sailed in. The venue is not known for its musicals but this production showed how adaptable the space can be. In the same way The Bobby Thompson Story recognised an individual from our region, the Last Ship celebrated both an industry long gone and the spirit of the North East. I will remember the press night as we literally bumped into Sting.

We got to see Suggs twice this year. In December, he appeared with Madness at the Arena, but in March he appeared in a solo show at the Tyne Theatre. A show telling his own story with a few songs chucked in for good measure, it was one of the many one night shows at the Tyne. They attract a strong line up of comics, and March included Dave Spikey. There is always a rich variety at the venue and 2019 is already shaping up to be another successful year.

I have to confess…we didn’t see as much dance as we had in previous years. Nothing deliberate on our part, it was just the way the diary filled up. Having said that, we still got a chance to see some ballet. Coppélia filled the Sunderland Empire with its large orchestra and the talented ensemble from the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Another form of culture that we normally see much more of are spoken word shows. For some reason it has been a funny old year. April did see us head to Stockton to see the door-to-door poet Rowan McCabe’s show about creating poetry for random strangers around the region. Joanne was so motivated by the show that she wrote the review in verse.

We’ve already mentioned that it was financially a tough year for everyone. This was reflected in the case of Thoroughly Modern Millie.  Whilst it received good notices, this wasn’t translated into ticket sales. So, whilst we got to enjoy it at the Sunderland Empire, the tour was cancelled before it rolled into Darlington. Fortunately, other musicals such as Legally Blonde had more success.

We are not known for our amateur musical reviews but occasionally we take a gamble that a show will have professional values. One such company is the Darlington Operatic Society. Their interpretation of Priscilla Queen of the Desert was as good as the last professional  tour that we saw.

Live Theatre continues to support new writing and one of their highlights was in April/May with My Romantic History. It was a well observed adult comedy.


The day job hits its peak, work wise, during May to July. The Theatre Guide, at times, goes on life support with just the odd excursion out, as the bills need paying. As I write this on Christmas Eve, a contract for work next June has literally just landed on the door mat this morning – joy!

May was a historic month for the region’s premiere fringe venue. Alphabetti hosted its first musical. The Last Five Years was not your usual sort of musical and it fitted in well with Alphabetti’s brief for doing things differently. This was an opera for the Tinder generation. 
Lightning would strike a second time at the St James Boulevard venue as Tom and Bunny Save The World would be the first time Fat Rascal Theatre swept us off our feet with their mix of fun and inventive musicals. In August we would catch Vulvarine The Musical in Leeds en route to the Edinburgh Fringe. It is probably the best show to miss the North East and it is a massive shame that the 2019 tour also misses the region out. If they get around to producing a cast recording then we’d be buying it too.

Perhaps the close proximity of Alphabetti ensured a number of visits during this busy time. Suffragette celebrated the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. It was an interesting mix of new and old writing.

Don’t work with children, they say. Not a problem if you consider the cast of Matilda at the Sunderland Empire. It was wonderful to finally catch up with this show that had done so well in the west end.

Across in Newcastle, one of the press pack witnessing the latest production of Evita at the Theatre Royal suggested it was the best one that they’d seen. Certainly the power and pose of Madalena Alberto during the big hit Don’t Cry For Me Argentina was memorable.

With both the audience and actors on the large main stage, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was classic Northern Stage. This live production was much better than the Hollywood film.

Two trips to the Tyne Theatre were the highlight of the busy month of June. Two very different events kept us entertained. Jason Cook’s Comedy Club included our long time favourite Gavin Webster in support of Andy Parsons. The evening reinforced our opinion the comedy is much better in a high quality space like the Tyne Theatre rather than on tv.

A very different event at the Tyne was Cirque Berserk. The room stank of petrol from the matinee as you entered. The big question was – how do you do motorcycle stunts on a theatre stage? With skill was the answer as the audience was encouraged to get their phones out. I can still smell that petrol.


We love computer games. We love Shakespeare. Obviously Super Hamlet 64 was written with us in mind. Wee man agreed that it was better than a night on his games console.

David John Hopper was successfully entertaining the kids again at the Customs House with Dale Jewitt, in Arbuthnot and Puddles’ Pirate Adventure.  Our travels took us, as we’ve already mentioned, to Leeds and then to Bolton to see another South Shields based entertainer Stephen Sullivan playing Fleshcreep again in another production of Jack And The Beanstalk. It was a surprise to have our wedding anniversary mentioned by the dame. You could tell who the “Geordies” were as we left the Albert Halls: it was raining and whilst everyone else hesitated to step outside – the 3 of us confidently strode out. It was only summer rain after all.


We managed a trip to Edinburgh in August. Lee Kyle was packing them in at 10:20 am; Simon Jay was causing a riot in Trumpageddon and Janey Godley was straight talking in her popular show.  You go to Edinburgh for that unexpected unplanned treat and for us it was Alex McSherry’s one man theatrical performance in The Tanner.

The Customs House prides itself with shows of a local nature and it created a corker in 2018 with its reboot of When The Boat Comes In. A cast of local talent was headed by the talented Jamie Brown as Jack Ford. The plans are to keep going with the tale and do sequels – lets hope they retain the features that made this show work so well.

You really look forward to some musicals, like Matilda. Others, especially with new writing, come with no preconceived notion before attending press nights. Other shows worry the reviewer ahead of press night. A feeling that they could really mess it up – that a musical may not be the best format for the story. Anyhow, Madagascar was a pleasant surprise. It was family entertainment that didn’t disappoint.

The back end of 2018 had a number of great major shows at the Sunderland Empire. Big productions that took full advantage of the generous proportions of the Empire stage. The venue lived up to its handle of the “West End In The North East”. Wicked is a popular show with younger musical fans. I had previously taken a bus load of teens to London and they all loved it. The adults in the group had their reservations. The show that arrived in Sunderland had undergone some revisions and they made for a much slicker production. Gone were the elements of the story that had caused issues for me and I really enjoyed this version.

October began with ballet and comedy in the form of The Trocks at the Theatre Royal. It was a show that shows how precise good comedy has to be.

Comedy continued at The Tyne Theatre with Sarah Millican. We have watched her grow into a household name over the years. This show really worked well. No wonder she sells out multiple nights.

A highlight for the North East Theatre Guide? Probably getting quoted by Adrian Edmondson on television when he appeared in Vulcan 7 at the Theatre Royal with Nigel Planer. “The funny version of Waiting For Godot for Generation X” indeed.

Elvis met Evil Dead 2 in The Elvis Dead at Northern Stage.  A parody about a parody? It worked and did brisk business on Stage 3. In total contrast, the same venue had a poignant show on about the final evening of Martin Luther King. The Mountaintop falls in that category of shows that make you ponder long and hard on the way home.

October finished on a high with Miss Saigon. We had said Wicked was the best musical we had seen up to that point and then Sunderland Empire plays its trump card and puts on a superb show that is Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular production. 


Before the Panto season started we had a number of notable shows to enjoy. This included the other notable am-dram musical of note this year: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Tyne Theatre. It was really entertaining.

Putting its audience on an emotional rollercoaster was the powerful Open Clasp production of don’t forget the birds. Rather than using actors, the actual people in the story played themselves in the show. Just like 2017’s Rattle Snake, we were really moved by the performance.


Panto season. Oh yes, it is! Between the pantos, though, are some straight theatre shows: Christmas Carol is another classic Northern Stage family show. It may not follow the panto format but it knows how to entertain the family. As the Muppets proved: Charles Dickens know how to put together a story that is as relevant today as it was then.

We also had shows about Christmas. Christmas Crackers at Live Theatre and Christmas Cabaret at Alphabetti both had an ability to point the mirror back at the audience and ask what it is all about.

So, which panto floated our boat the best this season?  The big shows delivered: Goldilocks has shown there is life in the Danny and Clive show and Louie Spence is making Darlington laugh in Aladdin. The Sunderland Empire has delivered the best panto that has appeared on Wearside for a number of years with Peter Pan – it is a real cracker.

The ‘smaller’ shows are just as entertaining and have just as many laughs. Durham Gala’s Snow White is very well written. In Westerhope, Aladdin was making the audiences very happy too.

The Tyne Theatre’s Cinderella has a great mix of higher production values, plenty of laughs and good value for money. They’ve really hit the spot this year. Charlie Richmond is one of our panto heroes.

What will 2019 bring?

Stephen Oliver


  1. I love your highlights of the year posts. Usually reminds of shows I'd forgotten I'd seen - this year it's a reminder of how many I missed! I need more hours in my days, more days in my week... Heres to theatre in 2019. Chhers! 😊

    1. I wouldn't mind but you see a lot of shows that we much choice, so little time! Merry Xmas from the Gateshead Gang

  2. Ack...typos! Sorry! 😂


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