Beggar's Opera (York Theatre Royal, 23rd March 2011)

When going to a Belt Up production I wouldn’t expect something in a specific genre or tradition. For example, when buying tickets for their Beggar’s Opera, I didn’t expect a twee musical set firmly in the eighteenth century with lovely eighteenth century costumes and sets. As some members of the audience near me considered whether to leave at the interval and I heard someone declare that they had never seen anything like this before in their lives, I think that when buying tickets some members of the audience on the evening that I went may have not experienced the Belt Up approach to texts in the past.

I wasn’t disappointed by Belt Up’s Beggar’s Opera nor surprised at their approach, but I was entertained by what they did with it. It was fun, experimental, eclectic and full of surprises. The production layered timeframes, so we had a play set in Thatcher’s Britain with references back to the original eighteenth-century setting, and a commentary on today’s society. Margaret Thatcher became a madam in suspenders who privatises the brothel because funds have been withdrawn by Peacham.  Other characters commented on contemporary roles. Lockit becomes the prison’s minister for example.  Actors moved easily between character roles, but at the same time were able to draw attention to this. What Belt Up does well is draw attention to their work being a piece of theatre and break down some of the barriers that theatre presents such as using the auditorium space to great effect.  They had some nice moments using the audience, which I won’t discuss in case they put this production on at another venue. Throughout the production there was an ironic comment on being a musical and there was an in joke built up through the production as characters burst into song at key moments in the narrative.

Belt Up is a young company and this is one of their real strengths. They bring a breath of fresh air to theatre as well as bringing in a new audience, which can only be a good thing.  There’s still lots of traditional musical theatre for those who those who want that as well.

Best of 2010

Theatre: Shakespeare

1. Romeo and Juliet (RSC).

2. King Lear (RSC).

3. As You Like It (West Yorkshire Playhouse).

4. Measure for Measure (Almeida).

5. The Winter’s Tale (RSC/Roundhouse).

6. Henry IV part 2 (Globe).

7. Macbeth (Globe).

8. Antony and Cleopatra (RSC).

9. Antony and Cleopatra (Liverpool Playhouse).

10. Hamlet (The Crucible, Sheffield).

11. King Lear (Donmar).

12. Henry VIII (The Globe).

13. The Tempest (Old Vic).

14. As You Like It (Old Vic)

15. Macbeth (Belt Up/York Theatre Royal).

Theatre: Not Shakespeare

1. Jerusalem (Apollo).

2. After the Dance (National).

3. An Enemy of the People (Sheffield Crucible).

4. Women Beware Women (National).

5. London Assurance (National).

6. Enron (Theatre Royal, Newcastle)

7. The Habit of Art (National Theatre).

8. Corrie! (Lowry, Salford)

9. The Real Thing (Old Vic).

10. Canterbury Tales (West Yorkshire Playhouse/Northern Broadsides).

11. La Bete (Comedy Theatre).

12. Death of a Salesman (West Yorkshire Playhouse).

13. Three Sisters (Lyric, Hammersmith).

14. The Misanthrope (Comedy Theatre)

15. Beating Berlusconi. (York Theatre Royal).



1. Gauguin (Tate Modern).

2. Van Gogh (Royal Academy).

3. Renaissance drawings (The British Museum).

4. The Book of the Dead (British Museum).

5. Venice. Canaletto and his rivals. (The National Gallery).

6. Sargent and the Sea (Royal Academy).

7. Rude Britannia (Tate Britain).

8. Summer Show (Royal Academy).

9. Beatles to Bowie (National Portrait Gallery).

10. Chris Ofili (Tate Britain).



1. Andrea Levy The Long Song.

2. Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall.

3. AS Byatt – The Children’s Book.

4. Rose Tremain – Trespass.

5. Colm Toibin Brooklyn.

6. Ian McEwan  Solar.

7. Paul Magrs Diary of a Doctor Who Addict.

8. Tony Blair The Journey.

9. Kate Atkinson Started Early, Took My Dog.

10. Alexander McCall Smith The Double Comfort Safari Club.


1. Coronation Street –  especially for Jack’s Death and the Live episode (ITV).

3. Ashes to Ashes (BBC1).

4. Doctor Who – The End of Time part 2 (BBC1).

5. Doctor Who – especially for the eleventh hour (BBC1).

6. Downton Abbey (ITV1)

7. I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV1).

8. Macbeth (BBC 4).

9. Luther (BBC1).

10. Silent Witness (BBC 1).

and my guilty pleasure of the year

Peter Kay at the Studio, Lowry (and again at the Manchester Evening News Arena).

Macbeth (Belt Up, York Theatre Royal, 8th October 2010)

I must admit that this production of Macbeth was very much in the Belt Up aesthetic and contributes to an oeuvre which experiments with using space in inventive ways.  In a proscenium arch theatre this involves the breaking down the fourth wall and any divide between auditorium and stage in using the space in the performance.  Belt Up take some of their ideas from the theatre of the absurd and surrealism.  Now when I go and see Belt Up, I know more or less what I’m going to experience.  On this occasion their approach was to transform Macbeth into a grotesque comedy, but unfortunately this production seemed to over play the joke and the clowning,  and ignored some of the interpretations of the text that could have been highlighted with a more subtle approach.   

The production worked when it was building on the grotesque rather than being  funny ha ha.  There were some clever comic moments for example when we are supposed to feel horror watching Duncan dying on stage (normally he dies off stage),  the joke being he doesn’t die easily even though he is a frail man.  It felt that Belt Up were working hard to blur the lines between comedy and tragedy so in a moment they became the same thing and this worked well here.   There were some other interesting ideas in this production such as a pregnant Lady Macbeth and  the birth in the second  visit to the witches scene was a thoughtful way of taking the pregnancy idea through the play to a conclusion.  Women with beards can be funny  and a Lady Macbeth that changes gender from man to women through a striptease on stage was very entertaining.  This is a reminder that Lady Macbeth was played by a man originally, but probably not a man with a beard.  Indeed, at times, I felt that I was watching a Monty Python approach to Macbeth, but for  nearly two hours it was just a little long, especially as the  joke was evident from the start and was continually repeated in similar ways. 

There were bits of this production which I didn’t think were successful. I didn’t get the clowning at the start of the play, which felt under rehearsed and indulgent and some of the playing against the verse rhythms for effect was irritating.  For example, in attempting to make some of the verse sound like it was being delivered by a WWI general through a loud hailer felt really contrived.   Belt Up have already used the device of a character dying on stage and the actor continuing to lay motionless on the stage for the curtain call in The Trail.  This worked much better in the space used for that production than on a proscenium arch stage where an audience expects a curtain call and playing against this, rather than being innovative, feels just chaotic and confusing.  I found the use of the  Theatre Royal stage which exposed the back wall and the ruins of the roman hospital, with the clutter on stage,  just a little frustrating, because all this suggested the backstage area of the theatre and  made me want to see a ‘backstage’ version of the play.  In setting up this expectation with the set it becomes slightly disappointing when this only happens in part. 

I am pleased that the Theatre Royal is taking chances with the productions it puts on and giving young companies like Belt Up the support it needs to establish itself.  Though some of this production worked for me, and other bits didn’t, it was much better seeing this than another dry ‘traditional’ approach to the play.

Saffron on Macbeth at York Theatre Royal

Reviews and Previews

Review: Macbeth, Belt Up Theatre, York Theatre …

A Ghost Walk (York Theatre Royal, 10th February 2010)

Ghost walks are popular in the city of York.  The walks combine performance and a tour guide experience.  The ingenious Belt Up Theatre take this tried and tested format and added a twist to it.  The performance starts from York Theatre Royal and moves onto the street of York.  The night that I went is was snowing lightly and the footpaths were a little icy, so I set off with some trepidation.  As the walk progressed, I found I was really enjoying walking round the streets of York on a winter evening.  This wasn’t something, I’ve done very often and you do see the city  in a different way.  The performance consists of the usual stories told outside particular spots.  However, Belt Up Theatre bring a little extra in the characterisation of the ghost walk leader.  I don’t want to go into details and spoil the experience for those who haven’t been on the walk yet, but to say this is another excellent Belt Up performance, which asks the audience to work hard and participate to get the most out of it.

The Trial (York Theatre Royal, 8th October 2009)

As I stand outside York Theatre Royal in the chill of the evening, I have no idea where I am going.  The interval crowd from Equus has inhabited the foyer bar and it is clear that Belt Up’s The Trial will not be using the front of stage of the Theatre Royal as mentioned on my ticket.  There’s only a few of us waiting outside with an odd smoker from the main house production.  Then the bowler hatted  little man  carrying his umbrella and brief case whistles as he walks by us.  We start to follow him and we must have looked like a strange group of people following this funny looking man down a street in York.  Of course this is Josef K and the story has just begun….

I don’t want to blog about this piece of theatre in the usual way, because the whole experience builds on tension surprise and challenging the audience.  To try and explain, or even offer my own thoughts on how I experienced this work, would spoil it for other theatre goers.  It was a piece of theatre which considered the use of space and the audience’s role in theatre.  It, like Shared Experience’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, made the story telling central to what it was trying to achieve.  I was gripped and would recommend anyone to see this production of The Trial if the opportunity arises.   I didn’t have nightmares, but the images keep coming into my head and I keep thinking that I might just see the little man walking by as he whistles on his way to work. and it will all start again.

Reviews and Previews

The Trial (Belt Up) Guardian review
York Press on Trial and The Tartuffe