←Back to Stage, Screen & Radio

Live Theatre

‘I have always believed in the ethos of Live,’ Julia wrote in 2005, ‘with its informal close theatre space and intelligent local audience. It has remained loyal to its political beginnings and still is for me the voice of the North East, and certainly the best place for a writer to develop.’

The voice of the North East was established in 1973, when Val McLane and Geoff Gillham founded Live as a company devising plays for pubs, social clubs, schools and community centres. Radical themes were matched by robust comedy, with content often concerning regional identity, spoken by actors in the vernacular. Playwright Tom Hadaway (1923-2005) became involved with Live in 1974 and his defining play The Filleting Machine was instrumental in gaining revenue funding from Northern Arts (now Arts Council England) for new productions. His relationship with the company became the genesis of Live’s new writing policy, in addition to its youth, education and outreach programmes, which remain integral to the company’s work.

Tom’s mentor was writer C.P. Taylor (1929-1981) who also formed a strong connection with Live and helped shape the artistic and literary scene in the North East in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Writing in 2003, Lee Hall pointed out that ‘a lot of the early writing had much in common with the best of TV writing. The poetry of the demotic, the absurdity of the everyday and the music of the cornershop were all useful tools to represent the world.’

In 1983 the ever-innovative Live Theatre made its home in what was then an industrial wasteland, within 19th century almshouses and a derelict bonded warehouse on Newcastle’s historic Broad Chare, Quayside, where it remains today. The venue was designed without hierarchy, in cabaret style, with tables where audiences could drink, chat and, in the old days, smoke. Twenty years later an anthology of playwriting published by Methuen placed Julia Darling alongside the influential playwrights C.P.Taylor, Tom Hadaway and Alan Plater. Plays by her award-winning contemporaries Lee Hall and Sean O’Brien were also included in Live Theatre: six plays from the north east, and it is in this three-generational framework that Julia’s life at the theatre flourished.

Playwright and director Geoff Gillham believed passionately in the power of theatre to humanise and was instrumental in the Theatre in Education (TiE) movement in the North East (and internationally). Julia first worked with Live for a TiE commission Young in 1989 and was chosen to be part of Live’s 4 Starters scheme, for which she devised Dead Skin with Performing Arts students at Gateshead College. The play ‘uses absurd humour and live music to focus on varying notions of “normality”.’

In 1990 Julia was awarded a C.P. Taylor Bursary and her work developed the tradition of highlighting the dramatic universality of everyday situations. Like C.P. Taylor and Tom Hadaway, she made use of no-frills narrative, music and songs, with direct address to the audience. During the 1990s Julia’s writing matured through the meticulous research she carried out for each play, which brought accuracy and credibility to her vivid characters. Her plays made brilliant use of distinctive humour, irreverence and careful observation of human frailties, complexities and inconsistencies. In her introduction to the publication Eating the Elephant and Other Plays Julia explained: ‘It’s hard to say what one’s work aims to achieve, but I suppose I write for and about the invisible, for all the ordinary people, particularly women, who don’t have guns, or even do particularly dramatic things, but whose everyday lives are still incredible, filled with poetry, pathos and small explosions.’

The Women Who Painted Ships, written for Live Theatre’s Twelve Tales of Tyneside (A Modern Cycle of Mystery Plays) in 1997 is brimming with both poetry and pathos. This play was inspired by a meeting with her friend Charlie Hardwick’s elderly aunt Ursula, who had worked at Swan Hunter’s Shipyard, Wallsend. Julia writes: ‘There was this air of magic about her and of otherness. Perhaps it was the ethereal quality of the very old. She was so alive, yet almost angelic, and as excitable as a small child.’ The Women Who Painted Ships (directed by Max Roberts) was a female two-hander performed by Charlie Hardwick and Phillippa Wilson, subsequently broadcast on Radio 4.

Venetia Love Goes Netting was written for Live as part of an NE1 showcase in 2000, at a time when Julia was being treated with chemotherapy. She was inspired to create the character of Venetia Love after being commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society to tell the stories of dementia sufferers and their carers. Working with photographer Sharon Bailey Julia’s interviewees included a psychiatrist who told her: ‘Communication for human beings is about human meaning, and human meaning depends on a shared human world… people with dementia teach us, not only about communication, but about ourselves as human beings.’ The collaboration led to the prize-winning 2001 publication Tangles and Starbursts. Writing in 2005, Julia explained: ‘We would spend time in day clubs or just talking to carers or people with dementia. It was peaceful, interesting work, and it suited my state of mind, as I was a bit blurred at the edges myself.’

Julia’s ‘quintessential older woman’ Madeleine Moffat performed Venetia Love Goes Netting first at Live Theatre and then in 2001 at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. The play concerns Julia’s preoccupation with the ‘plight of the longhand letter.’ She writes: ‘Venetia was a Post Mistress and symbolizes the whole feeling of the British Post Office, which is, I believe, a cultural institution, not a business.’

The play also reflects widespread disquiet in 2001 when the Post Office (a newly limited company) was branded Consignia, only for it to be renamed the Royal Mail Group a year later. As Venetia says: ‘And it’s not just the letters with their firm words forever scratched on paper, it’s the Post Office itself, which is, I would say, a country of its own. With red post offices that don’t change, that stand like decent men on street corners, decent, reliable men who won’t be late or stand you up.’

Madeline Moffat & Gez Casey in The Last Post

Julia was able to research the lives of postal workers as part of the Year of the Artist (2000-2001). This was a lottery-funded nationwide scheme aiming to break down social and class barriers associated with the arts, for which Julia gained a placement at the Post Office. The Last Post was commissioned by Live in collaboration with Durham County Council’s Elements programme and toured rural venues across the north of England. The play opens with a poem based on W. H. Auden’s Night Mail spoken by postie James:

Treasure me in my orange coat
For when I’m gone, they’ll be nothing of note
To brighten the morning, to fall on the mat,
My life has been letters, but enough of that.

Joe Caffrey, Donald McBride & Sharron Percy in the Last Post

The Last Post was developed into Posties, five short dramas for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The series included Lost Letters, inspired by a newspaper story about a letter delivered 37 years too late and Letters Home about the letters between a mother and her anorexic daughter. Letters Home continues to be performed by Operating Theatre which Julia established alongside Dr Dominic Slowie and writer Carol Clewlow with Live’s support. A special performance of the play was held in 2015 as part of the Rendezvous celebrations at Live Theatre.

From 2001 to 2003 Julia was a writer in residence at Live Theatre alongside Sean O’Brien, and during this time she expanded her writing, while building up an enthusiastic audience for her work. Writing in 2003 Live’s artistic director Max Roberts commented that writers including Julia had raised the theatre’s profile nationally and ‘figured prominently in the cultural development of the Northern region, gaining an international profile in recent times and having a significant impact on Tyneside’s economic and social regeneration.’

Julia often developed her plays with specific actors in mind and she noted in 2005: ‘My happiest moments in theatre are working with actors, hearing the range of possibilities that an actor can give to a script, and delving deeper into a character’s motivations and pre-occupations.’ The one-woman play Personal Belongings was written for actor Zoë Lambert, who played a cast of six eccentric characters (and one guard) travelling together in carriage D of an East Coast train. The highly energetic play was produced by Live Theatre with songs performed by Zoë, guitarist Dave Scott and musician Nev Clay.

After a successful run at Live Theatre in 2001, Personal Belongings transferred seamlessly to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe the following year where Zoë’s virtuoso performance was critically acclaimed. As Julia wrote, it had a ‘happy few weeks’ at the Gilded Balloon Teviot. Reviewing for the Festival newspaper Three Weeks, Ruth Marsh wrote: ‘What’s to be found in abundance is a human warmth that neatly side-steps any note of tweeness. Rather this is a sharp character study taking place within the described confines of a train carriage.’ The show was directed by Live’s Jeremy Herrin, who, writing about Julia’s work in 2005, commented: ‘Characters are presented with humour, they all have surprises under their wrapping and they always reveal their better natures sooner or later.’ Zoë and Dave performed an excerpt from Personal Belongings at Rendezvous… Wish You Were Here at Live Theatre in 2016, in support of the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship.

Bursting with black humour, Attachments was written for actors Charlie Hardwick and Trevor Fox in 2002. The play was presented by Live Theatre as Double Lives alongside From the Underworld by Sean O’Brien. It tells the emotional story of anesthetist Davina’s meeting with doorstep hoover salesman Bobby as she grieves the sudden death of her boyfrien

Trevor Fox and Charlie Hardwick in Attachments

‘I mean, here I am chopping up sodding boiled eggs and the love of my life has been blotted out, and what happens? A salesman comes round and tries to sell me a hoover, tells me that my house is dirty and that I live like a pig.’

Attachments was adapted into a TV comedy Cold Calling, and was published by Live Theatre in Six plays from the north east. As Max Roberts noted in 2003: ‘Cold Calling is a fine example of Julia’s ability to fuse superb characterisation, inventive comic situation and dialogue with an intriguing and surprising storyline – qualities that are winning her an ever-increasing audience.’

Poems from Julia’s first collection Sudden Collapses in Public Places (published in 2003) were set to a jazz-influenced score by Dave Scott and Neil Blenkinsop. Presented as a song cycle, Sudden Collapses in Public Places was performed at Live Theatre in 2004 by a six-piece band fronted by singer Zoë Lambert. Also that year Julia began to research a play provisionally titled Red Spot Babies for Live. This was based on a 1940s health survey of 1000 babies in the North East, commissioned due to the high rate of infant mortality in the area.

Many of Julia’s plays for Live were collected in Eating the Elephant and Other Plays, published in 2005 by New Writing North (NWN). This project, which Julia referred to as her ‘bitty bob book’ was begun in the last few months of her life and she worked closely with editor and NWN chief executive Claire Malcolm to select theatre and radio plays for inclusion. Former Live Theatre associate director, Jeremy Herrin observed: ‘These plays were written as gifts: always offerings for an unsuspecting but invariably charmed audience; often specific treats for particular performers or companies; and always given with an almost casual kindness.’ He added: ‘Her relationship with Live Theatre has been an effortlessly favourable one; the inclusive feeling of the auditorium perfectly reflects the warm give in her writing.’

Jeremy also wrote how he hoped that Julia’s work would be presented again and again and true to his wish, Live remains committed to her plays, ideas and spirit of generosity. A Writers’ Room within Live Theatre is dedicated to Julia’s memory which is a valuable place of sanctuary for established and up-and-coming writers.

In 2007, Julia’s powerful novel set in Newcastle, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter (published in 2003), was adapted for the stage at Live by Carol McGuigan. It was performed as a ‘script in hand’ in collaboration with Live’s Youth Theatre. The story of Julia’s characters Edith and Edna in The Women Who Painted Ships was woven into Michael Chaplin’s successful play Tyne, which mapped the epic history of the river and was first produced by Live in 2012. Michael, who based the play on his richly researched book Tyne View, also incorporated stories by Tom Hadaway, Alan Plater and Sid Chaplin.

Throughout her life Julia was passionate in her encouragement of emerging writers, performers, directors and artists. This commitment continues to be reflected in the ethos of Live Theatre, which remains a powerful voice for the region. To mark the tenth anniversary of Julia’s death in 2015, Live Theatre was at the heart of celebrations surrounding her legacy with a collection of events called Rendezvous. The theatre commissioned five writers to create short plays sparked by her work. These new plays were presented alongside a programme of theatre, poetry, music and film, as Live’s literary manager Gez Casey noted: ‘To inspire the next generation of writers.’ At Rendezvous 2, a cabaret style evening, Chloe Daykin was awarded the inaugural Julia Darling Travel Fellowship. In 2016 at Rendezvous… Wish You Were Here, the fellowship, which is supported by Lee Hall, Jackie Kay and David Almond, was given to Michelle Green. The Travel Fellowship commemorates Julia’s love of travel and continues her ethos of giving support to other writers.

Compiling her plays into the anthology Eating the Elephant and Other Plays, Julia reflected: ‘Like all theatre, my work has been of its time, depending on the spirit and the possibilities of the moment.’ Julia took all her possibilities and gilded them with warmth, wit and wonder.

Copyright Tamzin Mackie

Photographs Copyright Keith Pattison