Two long-standing stalwarts of the NE theatre scene since the Seventies died during the year.
(29 June 1939–9 April 2020)
A Londoner by birth, Mike attended E15 and, inspired by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, he and his younger brother Roy Marsden (best known for playing Adam Dalgliesh in the TV series based on the novels of P D James) set up Bruvvers Theatre Company in 1969. In 1973, he came to Newcastle to join the company at the University Theatre (now Northern Stage) and he stayed, restarting Bruvvers here.
Bruvvers, a co-operative which took productions into schools, colleges, community centre and working men’s clubs, became a major theatrical force and gave a whole generation of NE actors their first professional jobs. It was funded by Northern Arts, as the northern branch of the Arts Council was called in those days, but lost that funding, as did a number of other similar small theatre companies on both Tyneside and Wearside, to subsidise the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Newcastle season. As a co-operative, the company was able to survive in a way in which the other companies, which paid Equity wages, were unable to.
Bruvvers was originally based in Shields Road, Newcastle, but had to move from those premises in 1983, just at the time that the old Cluny Warehouse in Lime Street, Ouseburn, was being offered for sale very cheaply so, not having the money himself, he borrowed it from Roy, set up a rehearsal room and offices as well as a flat for himself, on the top floor, and rented the rest of the building to other creative businesses at very reasonable rents.
36 Lime Street is still the creative hub of Ouseburn—indeed, some might say of Newcastle—and includes the Cluny music venue, restaurant and bar and the theatre-in-the-round The Round, which Mike built but which never quite took off as a theatre.
He knew theatre inside out and, kind and gentle as he was, would always speak his mind. I remember sitting next to him in a theatre about a year before he died.
“Mike,” I said at the interval. “Is this as bad as I think it is?”
“No,” he said. “It’s worse.”
Ouseburn is really his legacy, along with the careers of so many NE actors. He was much loved. At his funeral—held under COVID restrictions, of course—the road leading to the crematorium was lined with theatre folk applauding and saying goodbye as the hearse passed.
(27 November 1952–19 October 2020)
Davy Whitaker was born in the small County Durham town of Hetton-le-Hole (now part of the City of Sunderland), where he was a chorister at the local church (St Nicholas’) for many years. He was a self-taught pianist—and a damned good one too.
He began his career, as a teenager, playing the folk clubs of the region, sometimes solo and sometimes with his mate Pete Thompson. That’s when I first met him. But it was theatre he wanted to be part of and he was one of the first members of the Live Theatre Company (now just Live Theatre, of course) in 1973 and remained part of it for the rest of his active life.
He played in most of Live’s greatest successes, including plays by Sid Chaplin, Michael Chaplin, C P Taylor, Lee Hall and Tom Hadaway, all of whom were (and some still are) as much a part of Live as the actors. He had a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company (he was in the original production of Our Friends in the North which was written by another North Easterner, Hebburn-born Peter Flannery) and was one of the original cast members of The Pitmen Painters, appearing in the show at Live, Newcastle Theatre Royal, The National Theatre, two national tours, on Broadway and in the West End.
I remember, on the evening of the press night of Pitmen in 2007, I was sitting at a window table of a café, a few doors from the theatre in Broad Chare, (eating sausage, egg and chips, as I remember) when I heard a tapping on the window. I looked up and there was Davy with his face and hands pressed up against the glass pulling funny faces! It wasn't long before the half, but that didn't stop him dropping in for a chat.
He had a massive stroke moments after coming off stage at the interval of a production of Utopia at the Soho Theatre in 2012 (it was a Live Theatre / Soho Theatre co-production). He lost his speech and the use of his entire right hand side. After emergency treatment and after-care at University College Hospital, he was transferred to the RVI in Newcastle and then to the Stroke Unit at Newcastle General before moving to the Pavilion Care Home in Houghton-le-Spring where he spent almost eight years until his death in October this year, just a month short of his 68th birthday.
His funeral was held at Durham Crematorium and it was a great comfort to his friends that we were able to attend virtually, as it was broadcast online, and hear his two oldest friends, Donald McBride and Tim Healy, pay their tributes.
An ordinary lad from the Durham Coalfield, Davy Whitaker was an example and an inspiration to many other working class would-be actors who have followed in his footsteps. A lad from Hetton on Broadway! Could anything be more inspiring to any North Easterner looking for a career in theatre?