I have to say, when I walked into the concert hall of the Witham, on Wednesday 26th October, I was excited by the cleaner’s station in front of me, complete with mop & bucket. I was amused by the added touch of the recognisable ‘this floor is wet’ yellow signs. The soundtrack playing was a wonderful mix of jazzy classics, including ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and ‘Reach for the Stars’. The seats were already pretty full, and the room got busier and busier. We all eagerly anticipated Mavis Sparkle’s arrival.
As she entered, Mavis began to sweep the floor and entertainingly created quirky items out of litter on the floor. She also made sure to clean up the audience - we needed disinfecting and then dusting. She announced that, because of cutbacks, this was her last day of the job here. She also told us about her lifelong ambition to see the Northern Lights, and how they sparkle through the sky. Her obsession with glitter becomes more and more obvious throughout. Cuckoo disturbed us, telling her that it was Tea Time. She marks this occasion by using a makeshift flag pole from a broom. After hearing about her life as a little girl, she demonstrates how she may not have the best things in life, but she has certainly made her life the best it can be.
We are then introduced to Spike the hedgehog, who is fed worms for his tea. During the last moments of tea time, Mavis shows us snippets from her father’s old magic show. She also tells us the story of how her parents met. There is a rather magical moment before Cuckoo once again interrupts us, telling Mavis that it was time she started mopping. After another flag was hoisted up; it was time to begin.
This scene was certainly one of my favourites because the bucket wanted to have some fun and would never go where Mavis wanted. There was wonderful choreography in this and the facial expressions of Eve Robertson (Mavis) really made the performance. After the floor was mopped and fun had been had, it was time for another reflective moment. Mavis told the audience about how packing up this job reminded her of the last ever time she packed up her parents’ show – the Sparklers. Through the use of shadows, lighting, and of course, magic, she told us the story. This made her remember her mum’s wish for her, which led to her deciding to make a big career move. Mavis decides to move up to Scotland (taking a job she had ben umming and ahing about) so she could see the Northern Lights and fulfil her dream.
The flag read On the Move, and after Spike leaves his mini house, Mavis is of course devastated, but understands that life must go on. So she gets out her helmet and gets ready to ride away on her cleaning station. But who is laying in her helmet, but Spike and so there is a happy ending after all.
After watching Mavis Sparkle, I was definitely inspired and had a smile on my face. The production was truly magical and all the children in the room, young and old, had had a great time. Thanks must go to Eve Robertson, who portrayed Mavis to us so well, and to Joss Matzen, who controlled the lighting, and designed the set. The whole team behind M6 Theatre Company should be very proud of their creation, and I do hope I get to see another show in the future.
On Tuesday 18th October, a Wind Octet from the Royal Northern Sinfonia performed. I was there to see it and can say it was very interesting. They started playing as a harmonie - 8 wind players in instrument pairs made up of two oboes, two French horns, two bassoons and two clarinets. The harmonie played Mozart’s Harmonie Musik from Il Seraglio arranged by Wendt. This was performed with ease with a really colourful bled of sound within each section. Next to be played was Chansons et Danses by D’Indy. To play this, they took away one oboe and one horn to make room for a flute. Adding a flute to this made the piece very light. Notably, the horn also blended nicely with the woodwind. D’Indy was very influenced by French folk music, and you could hear this in the piece. It really made you want to get up and dance, and the ending was very sweet. To bring us up to the interval, a wind quintet (a flute, an oboe, a horn, a bassoon and a clarinet) played Trois Pièces Brèves by Ibert. These three short pieces were very joyous and had tuneful melody lines. In the first piece, the flute and the oboe were having a conversation with the other instruments providing a backing. This was slightly comedic in fashion and made the audience laugh. The second piece played was very peaceful, and was carried mainly by the flute. This piece resulted in an enriching chord to finish. The third piece reminded me of a film score and was played with ease. There was a blend between all five instruments and the piece was playful from start to finish.
After the interval, we heard Johnathan Dove’s Figures in the Garden, which is based on The Marriage of Figaro. Dove is an opera composer normally, and these themes and variation on Mozart were simply stunning. This was played by the harmonie again. It was very lively and there were many different colours of sound, blending very well. The two horns and two bassoons worked together, as did the two clarinets and one of the oboes. The other oboe, we were told, was the lost ballerina. I thought that the two oboes worked particularly hard to produce a steady tone. To finish the concert, they played Mozart’s Serenade in E♭ major. There were 5 movements to this, which all opened with a pulsating E♭ chord. We were quickly into the main tune, which was uplifting and energetic. There was great dueting within the pairs of instruments and the whole serenade, as you would expect from Mozart, was divine.
On the whole, I really enjoyed the evening, and found it very inspiring, being an oboe player myself. I would like to thank the Witham for showcasing it, and Katherine Henry for the wonderful program notes. I do hope events like this happen again in the future.
by Evie Brenkley
Billed as ‘a wonderful and lively sensory performance’ Dough! certainly was a hoot. From the beginning, a background of classical music became the base to a spectacular show. At their first entrance, Lizzie and Alice presented us with their homemade parcels of joy – a lovely dollop of strawberry jam on a bed of bread. The conceit of the performance was that they were workers at a bakery, under strict instruction not to touch the rising dough. If they did, then the whole world would turn to dough! Unfortunately, they were soon living in a world of flour, and became quite fed up, but they soon learnt to have some fun – especially with all the puns they could make! The whole Witham Room (and indeed the audience within it) was completely covered in flour by the end of the hilarious performance. All of us, young and old were beaming with smiles afterwards, and of course the invitation to have fun with the dough was a hit with everyone.
Thanks must go to Alice and Lizzie, and of course their brilliant director Olivia who first thought up the idea. ‘The Dough! Project’ originated in Dewesbury, just outside Leeds. The project was answering a call for more family friendly entertainment in the area and so was tailor made to the town. This meant that what we saw wasn’t the same performance, and the girls spent just two days completely re-writing it. Olivia told me that she wanted to do something with dough because it is such a simple and relatable media – in almost every culture and country there is a dish made with dough, whether it be Yorkshire puddings or naan bread. This means that dough is also one of the most unifiable substances out there. Who would have thought it?
by Young Theatre-Goer and Arts Lover, Evie Brenkley, aged 12
The concept of Teesdale Christmas Art Fair, which will take over The Witham between 8 and 20 December) came about as a consequence of a conversation between The Witham’s Executive Director, Katy Taylor, and local artist Ann Whitfield. Ann remarked that opportunities for local and regional artists to exhibit together in a showcase of fine art talent were few and far between. Katy did a bit of research, and realised that this ought to be addressed, particularly given The Witham’s pivotal location with Barnard Castle in County Durham a stone’s throw from Scotch Corner, and so close to Cumbria and North Yorkshire.
In short, it was realised that the concept of Teesdale Christmas Art Fair presented a fantastic opportunity to put The Witham’s new visual arts strategy at on the map.
Since starting work at The Witham as Visual Arts Coordinator a couple of months ago I have been incredibly busy researching regional artists, I’ve been to open studio events, exhibitions, and art fairs galore. I’ve gone back through press releases I’ve received and articles I’ve written for the Darlington and Stockton Times reviewing exhibitions across the region. I’ve drawn up innumerable lists of exhibition ideas and artists whose work I’d like to present to audiences at The Witham.
It’s been an intense and nerve-wracking period. Turning what has previously been a ‘room for hire’ into a carefully curated programme of exhibitions that presents some of the best, more innovative and exciting fine art that the region has to offer. The process has required introductions, and explanations, which, given The Witham’s long history, will inevitably continue for some time.
However, the past couple of weeks have been nothing short of thrilling. To receive so many emails and phone calls from incredibly talented artists eager to exhibit at The Witham is filling my heart with joy. Many of these artists exhibit nationally, some internationally, yet are excited to find an ambitious, commercial gallery on their doorstep. I've heard from several artists whose work I’ve long since admired, and also fantastic artists whose work I’ve never come across before. As a curator, art critic and artist myself, the latter really puts a bounce in my step. I have always felt passionately about offering regional audiences access to first class art (some of which will hopefully be new, and some at times challenging), and now I can see that happening at The Witham as I put together the Teesdale Christmas Art Fair and programme for 2017.
A few years ago I interviewed the Director of Modern Art Oxford, Paul Hobson for a newspaper article. Paul spent his formative years in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire before going on to study at Oxford University and carving out his career in the arts. He joined Modern Art Oxford from the Contemporary Art Society where he had worked as Director for six years. The Contemporary Art Society is a charity that purchases important works of art to place in collections across the UK; in interview he spoke at length about the importance of developing the economy and ecology of art in the regions.
What I’m getting at is that Paul knows only too well what rural means, and he also knows only too well the importance of providing a platform for artists to display their work, and providing a shop front for people to buy artists work. That may sound trite, but if we (by which I mean you, me, our friends and neighbours etc.) don’t invest in original works of art, we won’t have artists, and what a dull world we’d live in without artists to seduce our senses. Plus, what’s more exciting to own, an original work of art created by an artist who lives down the road with all the visible, smudges, smears, precision, time care and attention at its very core, or a pixelated print picked off the shelf in a generic department store owned by a multimillionaire whose funds are safely stowed away in a tax-free off-shore bank account?
Buying local doesn’t just apply to cheese and chutney, it's about supporting the local economy, and artist and cultural tourism play a part in that… make Teesdale Christmas Art Fair a date in your diary this Christmas – I guarantee something to delight everyone!
by Sarah Mayhew Craddock
Visual Arts Coordinator