A NORTHERN ODYSSEY
by Shelagh Stephenson.
Live Theatre To 22 May 2010.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 May.
Lives from the past given new intensity.
A history of Tyneside could be told through scripts staged at Newcastle’s Live Theatre. Now Artistic Director Max Roberts follows Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters with another exceptional new work involving painting, and a local community visited by an outsider. Shelagh Stephenson’s play focuses on the fishing-village of Cullercoats in 1871 when, for almost two years, it became home for self-assured American artist Winslow Homer.
It’s a wistful world in its opening song, the gently-sung harmonies of three maidens evoking a near-Celtic mistiness, soon broken when they’re revealed as the Jefferson sisters, Zita Frith’s acid-tongued Belle, Sally, the one least developed by Stephenson, (though well-played by Catherine MacCabe) and helpful Maggie, drawn repeatedly by Homer.
Helen French shows Maggie’s willingness to be artist’s model as part of a happy nature. Roberts’ production shows her posing, unnaturally still, against projections of Homer’s drawing, where her figure contains a sense of forward movement.
Stephenson gives full measure even to those who might be easily mocked, the middle-class family who bring a wider context to meeting Homer, even seeing them through drunkenness without derision. Lizzy McInnerny’s self-consciously dignified, Dublin-born Rosaleen welcomes Homer’s sophistication in this village, while trying pointlessly to find him a wife. As her husband, Deka Walmsley’s Frank grows in frankness when drinking, but makes justifiable criticism of the painter’s profiteering from his model.
As their special needs daughter Amy McAllister is innocently sharp, her sudden repetitions of others’ words not mockery but the sincerest form of flattery, showing her instinctive appreciation of language.
There’s a comic edge to much of this, but not to Philip Correia’s young fisherman, who recognises in Homer the attraction he cannot express in this small place, tragically finding rejection in the American for whom his art is everything.
Ron Cook brings Homer’s inner life to light economically through inflections of voice and face as he fends off advances, or stifles feelings. As a picture of those who leave, those who stay, and those who can do neither, Stephenson’s play is finely-drawn, strong in its sense of place and of dislocation, with a terrifically-acted, tightly-directed production.
Maggie: Helen French.
Belle: Zita Frith.
Sally: Catherine MacCabe.
Winslow Homer: Ron Cook.
Fanny: Amy McAllister.
Rosaleen: Lizzy McInnerny.
Joe: Philip Correia.
Frank: Deka Walmsley.
Director: Max Roberts.
Designer/Costume: Gary McCann.
Lighting: Charles Balfour.
Sound: Dave Flynn.
Musical arrangements: The Unthanks.
AV Design: Owen Evans, Paul Aziz.
Choreographer: Lee Proud.
Hair/Make-up: Chris Carr.