Customs House, South Shields
There should be something like this in every town!
The Customs House in South Shields is a theatre, art gallery, cinema and Local Arts Development Agency. As a theatre, it is primarily a receiving house, but it does originate some productions: its own pantomime (of course!), a major production (usually a musical) in August, and a February Drama Festival.
Ths is the second year of the Drama Festival, which, like the summer musical, is an innovation introduced by the director, Ray Spencer, who was appointed two years ago. These productions all have two things in common: they are written by local writers and feature local actors, both amateur and professional. This year's festival features writers David Cook, Ken Reay and Tom Kelly. Cooke and Reay organised their own productions - casting, design, direction - and simply brought the package to the theatre, financed by a box office split. Kelly's production, however, was commissioned by the theatre itself, which paid the actors and picked up all the production costs.
Secrets is, in fact, four short plays: John Wayne and Me, Poor Woman, Neighbourhood Watch and Autumn Days.
John Wayne and Me is typically Kelly, a nostalgic look back at the past. In fact, he told me afterwards that the son (Paul Dunn) was him, in most particulars, except for the horrifying ending. Featuring Donald McBride (who is one the North East's most experienced actors, having worked in radio, TV and film, local companies such as Live Theatre, as well as the RSC) and Hazel Temperley as the parents, the play is a short, neatly written domestic tragedy.
The performances are all of a high standard, with Dunn changing back and forth from seven years old to adult with convincing ease.
Poor Woman reminded me strongly of Claire Dowie's work, in that, even in its most intensely emotional moments - and it is a very intense piece - it also has moments of (as far as the character is concerned) unintentional humour. Kelly, however, disagrees about the Dowie influence. It's a long monologue, in which the details of the woman's life, and, in particular, her husband, are slowly revealed, and the picture gets blacker and blacker. However there is no resolution at the end: in fact, we become more and more aware of the mental problems of the woman herself and begin to realise that her picture of the husband could be totally distorted. But we don't know, and therein lies the unresolved nature of the piece.
It's a little too long, but Hazel Temperley sustains the intensity admirably in a very convincing performance. I spoke to another local writer afterwards who suggested that the monologue form was not really suited to this kind of subject matter but I have to disagree. It is, I think, a lot easier to use the form in a humorous manner, but when the tragic monologue works - and manages to avoid descent into melodrama, which, to his credit, Kelly does here - then it can be very powerful.
The following piece, Neighbourhood Watch, another monologue, is a total contrast. It is hilariously funny and Donald McBride's performance was absolutely superb. His timing was always spot-on and his County Durham "pitmatic" accent simply added to the fun. His character is the ultimate Neighbourhood Watcher, "on duty twenty four hours a day". To live next door to him must be hell on earth, but we, the audience, can sit back and enjoy his self-satisfaction and self-delusion to the full. This was exactly the right piece to take us into the interval - the bar was buzzing!
Autumn Days is the name of the residential home in which Margaret, Irene and Ruby live. Ex-performers, they are attempting to liven up the dullness of their declining years by planning and rehearsing a show which they will take on the road - to other residential homes! Each is a gem of a character, and it was perfectly obvious that the three actresses - Gwen Doran, Helen Russell and Jean Southern - relished every second of the play. And so did the audience, for it had everything: a little pathos, a lot of humour, singing and dancing. Of course, the age of the actresses had a lot to do with it - all three started their careers entertaining troops, munitions workers and hospital patients during World War II - because it allowed some wonderful sight gags. I shall long remember the yodelling song in which Russell and Southern did a Bavarian "slap" dance (what is the proper name?), sitting down so they could slap their feet!
All four plays were directed by Chris Elphinstone, in his first professional engagement. He has been a major figure on the amateur theatre scene in the area for more than twenty years, responsible for some of the best amateur productions in that time. He had, of course, superb professional actors to work with but his direction was deft, sensitive and imaginative. We shall, I think, be hearing more of him in the professional theatre.
Well done, Ray Spencer, for taking the risk, for we all know how dodgy it is to put on a series of new plays. This is British provincial theatre at its best. Every town should have its Customs House!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan