Since falling out of love with Simon Le Bon in 1986, I’ve never considered myself to be much a ‘fan’ of anything or anyone. Joining a fan club, following an idol or developing a slavish devotion to something usually involves both financial outlay, travel or inconvenience. None of which I care for.
But … I’ve seen the light now. I’m a born again evangelical filled with missionary zeal. A fan – burning with desire to tell and sundry about the object of my affection.
Nope. Not a man, a band or even a footie team. It’s actually a theatre company. Northern Broadsides to be precise. Surely you’ve heard of them? (Call yourself a Northerner? Or an honorary one? Shame on you!)
‘Merry Wives’ as performed by NB at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield marked the fifth time that I’ve left one of their shows muttering; “Ruddy hell! I could have watched that some ten times over!” (which, from a woman with the attention span of a gnat’, is no mean feat.)
This particular Halifax-based theatre company have this knack of keeping you pinned to your seat. Even – and especially – when it comes to one of their Shakespeare performances. Because let’s face it, much as we’d all love to aspire to be a Bard-freak, the dude from Stratford isn’t always the most readily accessible of writers – especially to those of us who are more au fait with text-speak than with the iambic pentameter.
And this is why Northern Broadsides have proved themselves to be wonders of the world of words. You don’t need to have a degree, to be a Guardian reader, to be bessies with Boris Johnson, to have had an inordinately patient English O Level teacher (cheers though, Mrs Fidler) in order to be utterly spellbound; catapulted into the 17th century – because this theatre company do all of the legwork for you. Established in 1992 by artistic director Barrie Rutter OBE and aiming at ‘a distinctive northern voice’ the company tour the land with productions both classical and new – but always with one eye on making the patter of dialogue and complex storylines more accessible to those of us who are a bit shakier with the likes of Shakespeare.
Broadsides excel in adding a modern twist to the almost-ancient thanks to their designer, Lis Evans. In ‘Merry Wives’ for example, the backdrop is formed via a 1920’s style country club. And even if you were fretting about following the multi-layered twists and turns of a Shakespearean comedy-farce, every single member of the cast makes it easier for you, thanks to their formidable acting (for example – we all came away knowing the exact meaning behind the phrase ““I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man.”)
Barry Rutter himself plays the greasy, ageing wannabe-philanderer Sir John Falstaff. And inevitably, he steals the show. Closely followed by a sparkling double act of the Merry Wives themselves, played by Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson. The duo beautifully brought to life the Bard’s quite feminist intention of celebrating middle-aged women as being the stars in society; capable of being warm, witty and wise.
My eleven year old daughter attended the production with me; her second Shakespeare at the hands of Broadsides and she was itching to contribute to this review. Her favourite performer turned out to be “the guy who played the French fella who was clearly in need of Ritalin” (otherwise known as Dr Caius played by Andy Cryer). She found it to be hilarious – Shakespeare writing a French accent so that the character pronounces the word ‘third’ as ‘turd’ (“I shall make a de turd!”) – meaning that a 21st century audience could unite with the Elizabethans in having a good old slapstick-chuckle at those annoying French-folk. She also admired John Gully who played “the welsh vicar-bloke” (Rev Evans). “But why was Shakespeare so horrible about the Welsh? What did they ever do to him?”
And this is the thing about Northern Broadsides. Without such down to earth but consummate professionalism and their desire to bring the entire audience along with them – someone who isn’t classics-savvy might miss the in-jokes and the social commentaries. Plus there’s another ingredient that they toss into the melting pot, with my girl describing it as; “And the best thing is, that they do it all in a proper, northern accent – like us. Without making us sound thick. Like what the media do, innit?”
“In fact,” came her final conclusion post-performance; “I reckon that every kid in the country should have to go and watch Northern Broadside do Shakespeare and stuff like that. It’d be money well spent for the Government. We’d learn way-more. And it’d be way less stress for us – and for the teachers – than making us do SHATs.”
“Ha. I heard you saying to Dad that ‘SATs’ should be renamed SHAT’s. Take it, that ‘shat’ is a bad word?”
“Yes. And quite northern too. So maybe I’ll let you off for once.”
“Good. And I bet they’ll use it in the next Northern Broadsides show. You just wait and see, Mum. Have you bought the tickets yet? You’re like one of them groupies now aren’t cha…?”
***NB If you’re up north and want the chance to catch the Broadsiders before the tour ends – there are two more venues left – York and Liverpool. See www.northern-broadsides.co.uk for details ***