Sunderland’s new £11m 460-seat Auditorium, which can hold up to 800 standing, opened on 10 December. Built as an extension to the existing Fire Station (which was Sunderland’s main fire station for as long as I can remember), this new addition to the venue will host music of all kinds, as well as dance, theatre and stand-up. Already the Fire Station is the Sunderland home of Live Theatre and Dance City and houses a bistro and bar; now it has what the city has needed for a long time: a flexible, central, mid-scale performance space.

I was privileged to be invited to the opening to hear Tamsin Austin, Director of The Fire Station, say how excited she was about the new venue and its opening programme.

“This is a venue the city and the region can be proud of,” she said.

Her words were echoed by Wearside-born singer-songwriter The Lake Poets (aka Marty Longstaff) who spoke of his pride of being the first musician to play at the venue. He thanked Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust and Sunderland Culture for delivering “an amazing, unbelievable venue for the city.”

What struck me as I entered The Auditorium for the first time was the similarity to Sage One in Gateshead, although on a much smaller scale (Sage One seats over 1,600 people) with the bulk of the seating on floor level and two galleries on three sides. Also, like the Sage, the walls are wood panelled.

On inquiring further, I realised that this was not surprising, for it was designed by architects Flanagan Lawrence, who were responsible for Sage Gateshead and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Again, like the Sage, acoustically the auditorium is excellent.

There was one thing that came as a surprise, something very new to me and, I suspect, to the people of Sunderland, and that is the ventilation system. We are used to having the air brought into a space above our heads but here the air comes from under our seats. This, it was explained to me, is part of making the place as COVID-secure as possible. Breathed out COVID particles rise to the ceiling and, if air is blown in at ceiling level, it will tend to blow the particles back down towards the audience. Blown from foot level, however, it will blow the particles upwards and prevent them from descending to audience level.

Not a lot of people know that! I certainly didn’t.

There’s a foyer, box office and bar on the first level and a spacious foyer with seating on level 2. There’s a lift, so both levels are accessible for people with mobility issues, and that perennial theatre problem, the number and location of toilets, has been taken seriously.

Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust Chair Paul Callaghan, who told me about the ventilation system, is justifiably proud of the first new professional theatrical venue in the city for very many years. In fact, the last was Sunderland Empire which opened in 1907.

Certainly the people I spoke to at the interval and after the show, both those professionally involved in theatre and ordinary audience members, were hugely impressed.

Following the Lake Poets, the first night audience was treated to a set by the doyenne of Northumbrian music, Kathryn Tickell, and her band The Darkening. This 5-piece—Tickell on Northumbrian pipes and fiddle, with Joe Truswell on drums, Amy Thatcher (accordion and vocals), Kieran Szifris (octave mandolin) and Josie Duncan (vocals and harp)—gave us a mixture of traditional (a slip jig, for example) and modern (Tickell’s response to Holy Island) instrumental pieces as well as a range of songs which included a couple in Gaelic.

It took me back to my folk-clubbing days of the late '60s / early '70s and that warm glow stayed with me long enough to eclipse the damp cold of a Sunderland night as I made my way home.

The venue has announced a programme through to April 2022, along with a couple of dates in May and June, shows which include the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Mica Paris, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, along with Elysium Theatre Company, Southpaw Dance, Rendez-Vous Dance, Gary Delaney and Jane Godley. And already, before the venue had opened, one show, the return of singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé to her home town, had sold out.

The Fire Station Auditorium, just a short stroll from the Empire Theatre and within sight of the Dun Cow (comedy club and buskers’ nights) and the Peacock (music venue), is the final piece in the Sunderland Cultural Quarter jigsaw.

The signs are good!