On Sunday 1st May 2016, ‘The Point’ Nightclub in Sunderland City Centre was transformed into a glittering dream space, filled with local heroes and community talent. For the past year we worked with local people to discover their stories: tales of epic journeys, of football and celebrations, battles for beliefs and of community and aspiration.
Our guests arrived in their finery and jewels and walked along the red carpet, up the spiralled staircase surrounded by 100s of balloons and seated to their table with a glass of bubbly in hand. With scrumptious canapés delivered to the sequined tables, guests were silenced by a huge projection of the opening to 1930’s film Swing Time, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Our wonderful cast then proceeded to introduce our MC for the night, Mr Ray Spencer (“Ray Shine…the hair is all mine!”), who after some searching, emerged from the gents instead of centre stage…
Music was a heavy feature throughout the night. We had performances from local ukulele band, The Hylton Ukes (all 22 of them!) who got the crowd up and dancing with their renditions of ‘I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore’ and ‘Teenage Kicks’. Sunderland legend Ross Millard, lead singer of The Futureheads, took the lead in our house band along with ‘This Little Bird’ Beccy Young and Lake Poet, Tom Fletcher and drummer James Hutchinson who amazed the audience with beautiful heart-written songs including ‘Just An Ordinary Girl’ and ‘Len’s Song’, all supported by Victoria Abbott’s wonderful volunteer choir, the Sunderbolt Singers.
The stories of the night were truly touching, and beautifully acted by a cast of selfless and brilliant local people. They told tales of hardship, morality and community, with support from incredible designs in both makes and lighting and sound.
The first tale of the night was a tale of shipbuilders. During war time, it was natural for local men and women from South Shields, who had grown up by river listening to the ship launches and the work of the yards to go and join that trade. The banter and camaraderie was an asset that drew young people down to the yards, safe in the knowledge they would be taught how to weld and braze metals, and send newly built ships off down the river. The feeling of a ship launch, and all the hard work that led to that moment is one that stays with those who built it for years and years to come. However, once a ship had launched, the yard had too many workers and not enough work, making many men and women redundant – a tough part of working in one of Sunderland’s thriving trades.
Our next story was given to us by a wonderful man named Dennis. Despite desperately wanting to go to art school, his father was already disappointed that his brother had left home to practice ballet professionally, and so he joined Westoe Colliery as an apprentice. Barely legal, Dennis was sent down into the coal mines. In the cramped, hot, dirty and dark conditions, timber creaked and cracked and suddenly, the timbers split. Trapped, unable to hear, speak or move, his comrades worked tirelessly to dig him out. The venue is plunged into darkness throughout this piece, with no light bar the headlamps the boys wore down the pits. Dennis dreamed of ice, a ship breaking through a frozen sea and the Northern Lights. Later in life, after surviving the terrible conditions of the mines, he sailed to Newfoundland and observed whales and sea life, and later on to Chicago and then on to Thunder Bay, near Niagara Falls. Here, Dennis’ ship encountered a deep freeze, and he was reminded of the mine props cracking as his ship crashed in to the ice. Dennis imagined his frozen dream from stories of older miners and their adventures of the ice run to Canade – he achieved his dream, and this local inspiration took his rightful place in front of the crowd in amongst the Hylton Ukes.
Focus shifted to Beccy Young, who then sung her beautifully touching song about Maureen, ‘A Girl From Alice Street’. She was the first woman in her family to go to university and went on to pursue an incredible career as a teacher, councillor, activist and later on elected as a Magistrate. Maureen dedicated her life to public services and her family, and is an inspiration to women everywhere. Maureen was also there on the night, and received a huge round of applause from a doting audience.
The first half ended with an impressive sketch of the miner’s strike and introduction of the Metropolitan police into Sunderland. This story was told from two perspectives, Florence and Norman. Florence, played by the wonderful Angela Hannon, was one of the main organisers of the Woman’s Support Group in Hetton during the miner’s strike, 1984-85, which fought to protect their men and children during the horrific violence between the MET and miners. A year of hardship was conquered by solidarity and community spirit, with a wonderfully uplifting ending of the 1984 song ‘ Women Of The Working Class’, by Mal Finch, written during the miner’s strike. The choir and cast of this piece paraded the stage and through the venue with their banners and chanting, and as an audience member you couldn’t help but really feel their anguish and determination, and get involved with the energy. Norman was a local policeman during the strike, yet came from a mining family. He told us this story with sorrow and regret for the introduction of the Metropolitan Police, who “didn’t care for the North East” and brought unnecessary violence and more hardship to the area.
George Shovlin and The Radars performed 2 of their classics during the interval, which led to the daring but hilariously funny Speak And Spell comedy duo act from David Callaghan and Lee Ridley.
In writing this production, we realised that no show about Sunderland would be complete without a tribute to the Lads. Darren Palmer and his son Darren junior’s memorable tribute to the unique and unbreakable bond between SAFC and the city was just what was needed. Against a backdrop of footage from the 1973 cup final, Darren told the story of his love of the club and how the team should always reflect the nature of Mackems – work hard, never give up. Ending with a cracking goal from Darren Junior, the section ended with a raucous rendition of ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’.
After a night of laughter, pride, tears and singing, came Len’s story, in an emotional tribute to a modern hero of the area, Len Gibson. This tale opened with the reading of a letter from a fellow soldier Len met on his travels:
“To Len Gibson Sunderland Boy,
Lennie! Dear unforgotten, no! Never forgotten, ever close and dear.
I remember the moment when we first met…do you remember?
In that terrible hut in Tarso, when I, half dead and drifting into a coma, was brought back to life by you playing the guitar, you so sad because a friend of yours from Sunderland had just died.
There and then, in the middle of a Siamese jungle, at such an hour on such a day our quite wonderful friendship began.
Len, the proud owner of a banjo, joined the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment of Sunderland at just 16, and was shipped off to Singapore following his training. On approaching Singapore, his ship was attached by Japanese bombers, and sank, though he miraculously made it to land (his banjo did not), only to be captured by the invading side along with 30,000 other men and kept as a Prisoner of War for four horrific years. Len watched his friends die of starvation, thirst or the firm hand of the Japanese, but he wanted to bring his mates back from the brink and charm death so he built a new banjo. Using plywood from a crate, phone wire from the Japanese and bamboo cane for the frets, Len created a guitar, and used his music to help get his comrades through the days. An organist from Taunton taught him the right chords, and in the jungle he wrote ‘Monsoon’. Things only got worse for young Len. He caught typhus whilst looking after his sick friend and in the same night was bitten by two scorpions, and he played his guitar through the night – he learned not to say that things couldn’t get worse after this. When Len eventually arrived home weighing just 7 stone, after four years abroad he could not recognise his family or eat for crying. He collapsed due to malaria, and fell in love with his nurse, Ruby, with whom he has been married ever since. This performance was supported by the beautifully moving song written and performed by Ross Millard, based on the poem by Mercedes Kemp. This night was in remembrance of Ruby, who passed away recently. Now 96, Len got to his feet and performed the song ‘On The Street Where You Live’, a song he frequently sang to his wife. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, over 300 people absolutely gobsmacked by his story and his excellent performance.
The night came to a fitting end, with explosions of confetti cannons across the whole venue, as the band and choir performed David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – a tribute to the great legend and the local legends whose tales were shared on this blinder of a night. Audience, cast and crew danced and sang and created the most ecstatic atmosphere, of a truly ‘great night out’.