The afternoon before I head over to see Tyne, I’m approached by a giggling gang of tourists in the underpass at 55 Degrees North. “Excuse me, excuse me! Could you give us directions to the bridge, please?”
“Well”, I say, “You’re going to have to be more specific: there’s loads of bridges in Newcastle.”
“Just the one with, y’know, the views!”
Walking down to Live Theatre on Friday evening, after the day’s rain has given way to an uplifting brightness, I realise that my directions were spot on – I’d led them down Broad Chare, out onto the Quayside by the Millennium Bridge, to one of the best views in the country: the river Tyne.
Michael Chaplin’s play of the same name (proving that simple is often best) posits similar conclusions: that up and down its length, you will always find someone staring into the river, waiting, watching, wondering.
Siblings Mark and Kate play the lead roles in a “fragmented Tyneside”. Mark has moved to London, to find his own life; Kate has stayed at home, apparently comfortable in hers. The play opens with the pair mourning the loss of their father, Ralph, at the banks of the Tyne in Hebburn, where the mid-Tyne ferry would make its tri-point journey. Mark, lost and confused on his return to Tyneside, seeks solace in his father’s journals – a home-made diary of his life and times on the river. Instructed to read the book by his sister, Mark delves into his father’s past and begins a physical and metaphysical journey along the banks of the Tyne.
Tyne is partially based on – or, I would prefer to say influenced by – Michael Chaplin’s other recent work, Tyne View, produced as writer-in-residence for the Port of Tyne. The proximity and overlap of the two works feels deliberate, though I would suggest Tyne is a more complex, if slightly less enjoyable play, because of that. As such, it is very self-aware, but it comes across as earned because of the key message it conveys – that the river is part of a natural cycle; that good times follow bad just as low tide follows high.
For those in the know, Ralph’s diaries are effectively some of the best tales in the real book, Tyne View. In the first part I was dubious as to how wise a decision this was on Chaplin’s behalf. Supplanting real life tales onto a fictional character seemed somewhat disingenuous. But by the second part, I realised that is almost the point of the play: a mapping exercise; a palimpsest in which real life is often more surprising than fiction.
A perfect example is that of Drag Milton, a Serbian exile who survived three years in fascist militia camps in Central Europe before finding a new life as a miner in the little village of Clara Vale, where he has remained since. Drag’s tale, which Chaplin serendipitously stumbled upon in Tyne View, is just one of many brought to life on the stage in Tyne. Conjured for him by the spectral presence of his father, Mark begins to see this patchwork of people and stories linked to the river for what they are: part of his communal past.
That same patchwork principle is echoed in Tyne’s tipping of the hat to other writers and artists who have depicted the Big River. Julia Darling’s The Women Who Painted Ships – portrayed elegantly yet grittily by Zoe Lambert and Jane Holman – was a personal highlight, but other short extracts from well-known Tyneside artists, including Tom Haddaway, Alan Plater and Michael Chaplin’s father, Sid, added to the general feeling that Tyne is as much a homage to Chaplin’s peers and predecessors as it is to the river itself.
The overall effect, punctuated as it is with a range of upbeat, melancholic and wistful music, played with gusto live by the cast, is to present the audience with a series of vignettes that can be digested as well individually as they can as part of the greater fabric of the narrative.
I must confess that it wasn’t until the second half that I began to feel much empathy for Mark – his dialogue and general presence in the opening felt a tad prosaic – but that’s a small complaint in an otherwise genuinely touching story of a man returning, literally and figuratively, to his roots.
The final ten minutes are really what made Tyne for me. Ralph, appearing again as a vision, tells his son that he has faith in the future, but that he must harness the spirit to make the world a better place, in the face of greedy politicians and corrupt tax systems. In another play, this might have felt ham-handed, but in Tyne it felt absolutely spot-on; here in the region hardest hit by unemployment and austerity measures, I feel that we could all do with a bit of Ralph’s fighting spirit.
The closing scene, which I won’t describe for the sake of spoilers, does tread a fine line between sentimentality and surprise, but much like the rest of the play, it gets the balance right. Like Tyneside and its residents, there is good humour and light-heartedness to this play, but underneath it is like the river itself: deep, unyielding and always evolving. Tyne is a play that I feel will only reveal more on further viewings, which I now feel are essential.
By Jake Campbell
July Guest Reviewer