‘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.’