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REVIEW: The Disasters of Johnny Armstrong and Other Daft Tales, Northumberland Theatre Company, Bamburgh Pavilion

From left: David McCarthy and Louis Roberts, in Lancelot Errington and his Nevvy Mark and the taking of Lindisfarne Castle. Picture by Keith Pattison
From left: David McCarthy and Louis Roberts, in Lancelot Errington and his Nevvy Mark and the taking of Lindisfarne Castle. Picture by Keith Pattison

It’s been a time of upheaval for the renowned Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC), after recently upping sticks from Alnwick Playhouse – their home of many years – and moving to Amble’s Dovecote Centre.

But while the group’s HQ may well be different, there is one thing that certainly hasn’t changed – and that’s the high standard of their shows.

NTC’s latest production – The Disasters of Johnny Armstrong and Other Daft Tales – was yet another triumph. I saw it at Bamburgh Pavilion on Saturday (March 31), the last of a fortnight’s tour.

This pop-up show was a treat from start to finish – a fast-paced and energetic romp packed with plenty of humour.

And, as has become the norm for NTC productions, there was an array of face-pulling, silly walks and men playing the parts of women!

The show was made up of three short stories – The Disasters of Johnny Armstrong; The Monks of Dryburgh; and Lancelot Errington and his Nevvy Mark and the taking of Lindisfarne Castle.

The production was adapted from Wilson’s Tales by NTC’s Stewart Howson and Louis Roberts, who both starred in the show, and Karen Hirst.

Wilson’s Tales of the Borders are, as their title suggests, a collection of some of the tales, stories, history and ballads, principally of the borders of Scotland and north Northumberland.

They were first drawn together and published in weekly instalments from October 8, 1834, by John Mackay Wilson, at the time also editor of the Berwick Advertiser.

This was a common method of publishing at the time used by, among others, Charles Dickens and Walter Scott.

They became a minor publishing sensation of their day with the original runs of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within a year.

Sadly, Wilson died on October 3, 1835, less than a year after the first edition, which contained two stories.

Wilson had contributed 66 tales to the collection before his death. His executors and family continued the process of publication after his death to ensure his widow was not left penniless. They therefore recruited a further collection of contributors to continue the publication of these tales.

A further 18 identified contributors together with nine unattributed contributors added to the collection. A total of 485 were eventually published.

The Tales offer a rich cultural insight into Borders life and NTC more than did justice to these fabulous stories.

Certainly, the term quality over quantity rings true with NTC. Using just three actors – Howson, Roberts and David McCarthy – the Tales were brought to life in splendid fashion, with the talented trio juggling a whole colourful cast of characters wonderfully well.

For me, The Disasters of Johnny Armstrong was the highlight, with the story’s lead actors – Howson and McCarthy – in sensational form.

McCarthy, in particular, was a joy to watch, with his energy and intensity, as well as his seamless ability to play a variety of parts, including an elderly Dutch man, a fleet of sea captains and various female characters, and mastering all of these different accents and voices perfectly.

The experienced Howson, meanwhile, was first class as the hapless Johnny Armstrong, giving a real slapstick feel to the part.

Roberts didn’t really feature in this story, but came into his own in the next two tales, which were shorter in length.

His portrayal of Lancelot Errington was particularly memorable, giving real authority to the part and adding his usual dose of humour to the proceedings.

All three cast members also proved they were masters of ad-lib, rolling with the punches and reacting well to distractions that happened around them – from making a gag when a younger member of the audience rattled a crisp packet to dealing with an unexpected lights failure.

It just added to their professionalism and the humour of this feel-good show, which had me laughing out loud from start to finish.

All of this was woven together wonderfully well by director Gillian Hambleton.

NTC boasts a proud history of nearly 40 years, and on this evidence the company will be around for a long time yet.

And frankly, the group’s recent relocation to the Dovecote Centre is Alnwick’s loss and Amble’s gain.

Sadly, The Disasters of Johnny Armstrong and Other Daft Tales has finished, with the performance in Bamburgh being the last leg of the tour.

But work is ongoing for the 2018/19 season, including the pieces Heartspur, by Robert Shannon, and The Little Maid who Danced to Every Mood, by Laura Jane Ayres.

For more details about NTC, and to support the company, visit northumberlandtheatre.co.uk