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The cast of Our Friends in the North
Our Friends in the North
One of Tyneside's autumn cultural highlights is the stage revival of Our Friends in the North, which inspired the acclaimed television series, at Newcastle's Northern Stage. Director Erica Whyman talks about the ambitious project.
There's a definite buzz about this autumn's staging of Our Friends in the North at Newcastle's Northern Stage.
Most people will be familiar with it through the award-winning 90s television series, which was a springboard for now well-known actors such as Christopher Eccleston and current James Bond Daniel Craig, who was almost unrecognisable at times in his role.
What less people may know is that it started life as a play first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company 25 years ago and written by North East-born playwright Peter Flannery.
Sonia Beinroth and Joe Renton rehearse
It is an epic story, following four main characters across more than a decade and set in Newcastle, London and Zimbabwe.
Our Friends in the North director and Northern Stage chief executive, Erica Whyman, admits that it is a massive undertaking but says it has been exciting and challenging.
It also extends the theatre's reputation for ambitious projects. Last year they staged Dennis Potter's Son of Man, which tells the story of Jesus.
Erica said: "When I arrived at Northern Stage we decided because of the fantastic facilities that actually we were best placed to do big epic dramas.
"I was looking for something for the second year which had the same level of ambition and something to connect with people in the North East."
Erica met Peter Flannery, who she said had wanted to see a revival of Our Friends in the North for a few years. They both decided it would be a perfect opportunity to stage it in Newcastle.
Erica looks on it as "bringing the play home".
The cast outside the Free Trade
The story is set in the 1960s and 70s and follows the fortunes of four friends with one of the main themes corruption and the abuse of power.
The cast and crew have spent a great deal of time on research, including picking the brains of experts in local government and the politics of Zimbabwe, and Erica said they have "immersed ourselves in history".
She said: "I think what I found exciting was although it's 25 years old, how timeless it is."
Among the issues she gives as examples are the difficulty of getting on the housing ladder and the use of spin and PR in politics.
The play's vast scope brings its own challenges - there are more than 40 characters, which leaves some of the 14-strong cast playing more than one role. And Erica said the costume room is pretty much bulging at the seams.
She said: "It is daunting, but exciting."
And she said the huge success of the television series has not cast too long a shadow over the play.
"We have taken the attitude that the play is a different beast. It's a play which inspired the TV series and we quite rapidly put it out of our minds," she said.
All of the Geordie roles are being taken by North East actors and the cast includes Craig Conway, Neil Armstrong, Joe Renton, Rod Culbertson and Sonia Beinroth.
Erica believes the play will appeal to a whole variety of people of different ages and people who remember the television series and those who have never seen it.
She said: "I hope it will be controversial. I hope it will be sentimental and get people talking.
"I hope people will be very proud that a brilliant piece of writing was made here.
"It has been an unforgettable experience."
The playwright, Peter Flannery, has been very involved with the play's revival and was with the cast and crew for the first week of rehearsals.
Erica said it is an exciting time for theatre
He has also written a new ending, so even those who are familiar with the story will find something new.
Erica is also excited because it reinforces Northern Stage's links with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in terms of reviving a play it performed first and that Our Friends in the North is a big, epic, Shakespearean-style drama.
Two years since she took up her post at Northern Stage, Erica believes it is an exciting time for theatre in Newcastle.
She said: "I think it's a brilliant time for theatre in Newcastle. There is a lot to be proud of.
"We have got some of the best facilities in the country. It does feel like a very exciting time."
Our Friends in the North runs from Saturday 29 September until Saturday 20 October 2007 at Northern Stage.
last updated: 26/09/07