On 10 January, the Royal Court became one of the first London theatres to open its 2005 season, in the Theatre Upstairs, with a piece called Tim Fountain: Sex Addict. While this was undoubtedly spot-on in terms of the Trade Descriptions Act, it does seem to have limited qualities in some other departments. Mr Fountain, who has written several scripts and advised on many others, nightly recounts his, of necessity, one-night sexual encounter following the previous show.

He then proceeds to set up the next evening’s (theatrical) performance by asking the audience to consider the offers made in real-time hits to his website and choose one for his next show’s fodder. Alternatively, a member of the audience can propose themselves for this role.

Whether this is all as genuine as it seems has made at least one critic doubtful (though as Mr Fountain set up his own site after complaints from the established gay-site he’d previously used, some reality at least is suggested).

Leaving aside the potential argument between moralists who could surely be found to spout anything from homophobia to fears over AIDS etc. and folks who say a few dozen fun-lovers nightly should be allowed to have as much fun as they can, with or without their clothes on (not that the theatre itself becomes the scene of an orgy it’s not that kind of royal court), there is the question of whether this is the best a new-writing theatre has to offer.

At one of the few times of year when reviewers have a bit of breathing space, and in one of the theatres that always attracts a clutch of copy, is there no playwright who deserves their own, dramatic, exposure? More than one review has called the show a waste of a space. But reviews there undoubtedly were.

Move now to Friday, 21 January and some 175 miles north, where the New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme opened its spring season with a brand-new play Kitty and Kate by Claire Luckham. This 3-hour drama is based on the early life of prolific novelist Cathleen Cookson, who becomes Luckham’s Kitty.

I have never read a word of the many millions Miss Cookson wrote, assuming they belong to what, late in her long (1906-1998) life, became known as airport fiction. But her early life, the basis for Luckham’s play, is far from romantic. An illegitimate Geordie who fled her mother and managed a workhouse laundry in Hastings, Cookson in this play is a strong, determined, independent spirit

Wagner’s operas have been said to have magnificent moments and tedious quarters-of-an-hour. It’s the opposite here. Luckham provides some excellent sustained scenes with a trio of memorable performances from Becky Hindley as Kitty’s close friend, Michelle Newell as the dogged, drunken mother and, notably, Johanne Murdock as Kitty. But there are far too many brief in-fill scenes, not helped by Sue Wilson’s old-fashioned production.

Yet it is a proper’ play written by a dramatist with a good track-record. Luckham’s work includes the once ubiquitous marriage-as-wrestling-match Trafford Tanzi and a fine play The Dramatic Attitudes of Miss Fanny Kemble whose Southampton premiere helped launch the careers of Joe Dixon (later in the RSC Jacobethan’ season) and Josette Bushell-Mingo (The Lion King and about to be Shakespeare’s Cleopatra at Manchester’s Royal Exchange).

According to the listings in Theatre Record’ there was no other show, in London or the regions, opening the same night. Yet only one national newspaper (The Times’) seems to have made it to the New Vic.

Perhaps others will manage it later in the run. And north Staffordshire is a long, expensive way from where most national critics live. In a crowded theatre schedule it might be even a new play has to give way if it dares show its face so far from the capital.

But we are still, just, in the calmer New Year period where there is no obvious reason for the lack of coverage. Most papers have more than one theatre reviewer each. When Mr Fountain’s metropolitan sex addiction is splattered across the review columns while Kitty and Kate can hardly find a nook from the Midlands, what when it comes to theatre – exactly does it means to be a national newspaper?

Timothy Ramsden

2005-01-23 23:14:19

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