Geordie - The Musical

Tom Kelly

Customs House

Customs House, South Shields

From 21 August 2015 to 05 September 2015

Review by Peter Mortimer

Outside the theatre, a small brass band was tugging at the heartstrings while the interior was thronged with people.

Almost every seat was taken, a sense of great expectancy and within minutes of the start the packed audience was clapping along; some fine north east acting talent on view, a script written by South Tyneside’s leading living playwright and, at the end, the kind of enthusiastic standing ovation few theatres witness these days.

No wonder the Customs House executive director Ray Spencer was beaming like the nearby Groyne lighthouse. Only a few months ago he resembled more a walking ghost, his beloved venue in dire financial straits.

And despite its problems the Customs House is a gem; a theatre, cinema, art gallery, restaurant, café, perched with staggering views across the Tyne and up and out towards the North Sea—all this in South Tyneside, one of the country’s most deprived boroughs.

My own North Tyneside can only stare across the river in envy. Spencer, locally born, is the kind of committed practitioner who eschews the modern trend for detached arts administrators working their way inexorably up the career ladder. Hard to think of him simply ‘moving on’.

Difficult times for the Customs House, then, so when South Shields born and raised, but now Texas-based businessman Andy Bogle walked through the door a few years ago wanting to invest in a musical theatre piece based around the region’s local songs and dialects, it’s likely he was greeted with an excess of the usual north-east  hospitality.

Such ‘angels’ fly in rarely. The result is full-length piece, a cast of nine (almost unheard of for a professional production here of late), two live musicians (Adam Nyberg and Dan Rogers), Kate Unwin’s striking semi-naturalistic set and a lively and affectionate treatment from director Jamie Brown.

The play trots out all the region’s best loved tunes—"Water of Tyne", "Keep Your Feet Still", "Geordie Hinny", "The Keel Row"—and many more, almost inevitably finishing with "The Blaydon Races".

One of the characters is Micky Cochrane as the songwriter Tommy Armstrong (the play’s based in 1890) and a highlight is Cochrane’s powerful rendition of Armstrong’s song "The Trimdon Explosion", a lesser-known haunting piece about the 1882 Trimdon Colliery disaster. I’d have liked the play to unearth a few more lesser-known gems. The musicians’ live performance is excellent.

Andy Bogle 'invested' in other ways too. The publicity bears the lines "written by Tom Kelly, story by Andy Bogle", an unusual combination. Kelly is an accomplished playwright and poet with 15 Customs House productions alone.

Bogle’s plotline centres round the threatened closure of and fight to save the local Wheatsheaf pub, a target of the nasty developer (James Hedley). This slightish story-line is interwoven with the visit to Shields of the Oxford language expert John Thompson (Adam Donaldson), keen to investigate local dialects.

Thompson becomes romantically involved with Eleanor Chaganis’s Maggie—much to the chagrin of Luke Maddison’s torch-bearing Michael. Maggie’s parents (Shaun Prendergast and Viktoria Kay, who also co-directs) run The Wheatsheaf. Donald McBride plays local dialect expert Oliver Heslop with Phil Corbitt as pub local Robert Charlton.

Good acting and much warm humour throughout, even if some of the characters remain mainly ciphers. Despite some interesting journeys into the dialect culture, the play’s component parts do not always sit comfortably together and the insertion of the songs at times seems arbitrary.

I sensed a theatre piece often pulled two ways, perhaps inevitable with two creators maybe not always with the same creative instincts. And though there’s a great sense of local identity and celebration in the auditorium—not to be sniffed at, I add—it is a often a self-referential nostalgic piece which it would be difficult to imagine being staged outside its own locale.

None of which mattered a hoot to the packed audience who walked away with a spring in their step. Audiences are flocking every night and the Customs House is buzzing.

The production is dedicated to the memory of Jackie Fielding who died earlier this year following a brain aneuryism. Jackie was to have directed the play. Her early death (aged 47) was a huge shock to the region’s theatre world and it’s to the production's credit that it has recovered so well from this shattering blow.