A story with, as yet, no end
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil begins with the MC talking directly to the audience and explaining what is going to happen in the performance: ‘we're going to have a few songs like that one – if you know the words, join in – and then we're going to have a dance, and in between we'll be telling a story’. What could be more natural in the Live Theatre auditorium, where the unusual horse-shoe shape and the cabaret seating mean that the audience are never really separated from the performers, than for everyone to ‘join in’?
Live Theatre has always tried to make theatre that reflects the real lives of its audiences. In 1973, when Cheviot was first being toured by 7:84 Theatre Company, Live Theatre was also beginning to make ‘theatre for working-class audiences on Tyneside about their own experiences and performed by working-class actors’. The company started out by touring variety shows to local venues like community halls, schools, and working-men’s clubs. It had no fixed base, just an old white van to transport the set, the costumes, and the performers. The performers, who included Val McLane, David Whitaker, Sammy Johnson and Annie Orwin, were folk musicians and comedians as well as actors. Even when the company started to perform new plays written by local talents like C. P. Taylor, Tom Hadaway and Leonard Barras, they quite often featured little quirks that reflected the interests of their audiences, such as the ‘Bingo break’ that’s written into the storyline of Taylor’s Some Enchanted Evening (1978) so that the play could stop and everyone in the club could enjoy a game of Bingo as usual. This early work of the company subscribed to the qualities that John McGrath (author of Cheviot and founding member of 7:84 Theatre Company) associated with popular theatre for working-class audiences, including: directness, comedy, music, emotion, variety, and localism. In other words these plays told a good story which was easy to understand and relevant to the real lives of the audience, and which made the people watching it laugh, cry and tap their feet along with the beat: all of the things that you can expect of Joe Douglas’s new production of Cheviot.
Live Theatre has changed greatly since those early days of touring in the white van. It now occupies a building of historic and architectural significance. When the company tours these days, it is as likely to be to Broadway or the West End as to local and community venues. And it has made a name for itself as one of the leading new writing theatres in the UK. But many of those qualities of popular, working-class theatre are still evident in Live Theatre’s programme: comedy and music are still a central part of the theatre’s repertoire and, whatever the play being performed, it is difficult for performers not to be direct in addressing the audience because there is little room to hide. There’s no place for shy bairns on the Live Theatre main stage – as Joe Caffrey puts it, ‘it’s a great stage for showing off on’. And if Live Theatre has changed, so has the world around it. This is a theatre company which over the course of its life has seen the rapid de-industrialisation of the North East, the miner’s strike, the emergence of a new ‘cultural industry’, and the regeneration of the quayside. In the plays that it puts on Live Theatre is still ‘telling a story’, but that story is now rooted in the 45-year history of a company with what looks like a pretty secure position going forward. Just as Cheviot tells a story that has a ‘beginning, a middle, but, as yet, no end’, Live Theatre’s story has a past, and a present, and a future that is yet to be written.
Dr Rosalind Haslett, is a Lecturer in Dramatic Literature at Newcastle University. She is also leading on Live Theatre's archive which will be held at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.
Photo: Sirrka Lisa Kontinen – of The Killingworth Play by C. P. Taylor (c1975). The play is about the rehousing of people from Byker to Killingworth, and was written with and for the kids who had to move. The performance, which took place at a school featured Max Roberts, Val McLane, Sammy Robson, and Annie Orwin. Sammy and Annie in the van – gives a real sense of life on the road!