A journey to the Empire of Makemland*

I haven’t really been to Sunderland very much. My Mum worked there for about a year in the late 1960s, in a shop on Fawcett Street, the main retail street of the town. (It was still a town then, it became a City in the early 90’s). Living in Newcastle, Sunderland was a 2nd rate place by comparison but one saving grace was the vast Empire Theatre. I had one theatre trip as a Teenager to see Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1974 and I wasn’t to know it, but my friend Mervyn was working there as the Board operator at the time.

The auditorium of the Empire is unusual- it doesn’t have conventional boxes either side of the stage, instead, it has tiered seating that resembles staircases sweeping down to the stage, although they don’t actually go anywhere. Bizarrely, there are substantial cupola topped boxes above at upper Circle level which have zero view of the stage and way too high for those who would have gone there in order to be seen.

Back to Mervyn, who worked seasonally at the Empire for much of the 1970s and researched much history of the building. He persuaded the then theatre Manager to let him take several artifacts that were otherwise going to be thrown away and he always wished that the Theatre Museum would accept them after he died.

Alas, the Theatre Museum (in the form of the V & A) were not particularly interested but the Theatre were delighted as they have gradually been recovering some of the treasures lost over the decades. So yesterday, we returned four items from Mervyn’s collection, namely a plant stand, an occasional table, a gallery ticket box and a mirror, along with some memorabilia in the form of Box office Cards and early programmes.

Here is the car loaded for the journey. The plant stand is on the passenger seat in this photo and we rearranged it several times to ensure the mirror was protected.1907 artifacts from (and destined to return to) the Sunderland Empire
The mirror is very special- there were two very large and two small mirrors in the auditorium at Circle level and if you look closely at the lower photo on the front cover of this 1913 Programme, you can see the large one on the left below the swags and you can just see one of the small ones on the wall to the left of the curved box-like arcade frontages. (Obviously there is no way of telling which side of the Auditorium Mervyn’s mirror was hung).

When I visited in the ’70s, the theatre was green and cream, it is now red and cream, as can be seen from my camera snapshot. (We stayed for the show!) Much of the fine detail has been painted out and from talking to our host any form of historic restoration sounds unlikely, although there was an extensive stage house expansion in 2004 so that the venue can take the biggest touring shows.

By the way, the term “Makem” is mildly derogatory by Geordies but the Wearsiders obviously take it in good spirit, judging by these sweets spotted in an excellent sweet shop spotted in Fawcett Street.


RIP the King of Bling

(For the background to this Photo, see an earlier blogpost here)

For all his faults, he was very sincere in his charity work, as confirmed by my Auntie who was a Nurse; he wasn’t precious about emptying bedpans. He actually had an Office (or at least a room with his name on the door) on the top floor of the Wellcome Wing at the Leeds General Infirmary, Karen had seen it when she was working there for the Ethics Committee.

Under the Spell

I became enthralled by the musical Godspell back in the early 1970s. I regularly used to go to the Newcastle Theatres to see all sorts of shows, by myself or with my Mum. (I was still a teenager back then!) We thought we knew what to expect with Godspell as we had seen Jesus Christ Superstar a few months earlier on a trip to London (my Dad had declined, as although he was an atheist, he regarded it as blasphemous!) Superstar was a very slick show with a striking set, colourful costumes and elaborate dance routines whereas by contrast Godspell was much simpler, just a three sided steel wire mesh fence reminiscent of an American urban neighbourhood playground. (It may have even had a basketball hoop).

Whilst in Superstar the musicians were onstage in view (embedded in the set), the musicians were out of sight in Godspell, not even in the orchestra pit. The cast, however, were onstage practically all the way through the show, including the interval (but more of that later!)

I remember sitting near the back of the stalls centre aisle the first time I saw the show, having noticed a rather intrusive vertical scaffold pipe (with a Strand Electric Pattern 263 at the top) at the very back of the centre stalls on the way in and thinking it looked rather out of place amongst the gilt and velvet.

The opening number for Godspell is rather odd- the cast in drab costumes reciting philosophers, then singing about them in counterpoint. The first impressions of both myself and my Mum were along the lines of “Oh no! Pretentious Crap!” …when suddenly, a horn sounded behind us and the John the Baptist character marched down the aisle preparing us for the way of the Lord and joy was unconfined. (Or at least it was until Jesus got crucified near the end of the second half, which put a temporary dampener on things).

The big twist in Godspell was that in the interval, the cast invite the audience up on stage to share in a demijohn of wine. I remember my first time doing this, gazing out at the auditorium with an audience in, noticing all the stagehands loitering downstage either side to prevent punters straying into the Wings and then the cast sloping off five minutes in for a rest and possibly a quick fag. (They could still smoke in their dressing rooms then).

I only recall being invited onstage as an audience member (rather than being singled out!) for one other show- Chaucer’s Pilgrims Progress at reading Hexagon, where the cast were holding a market before the show, actually selling cakes & nick-nacks from stalls .

Godspell is more of a happening than a performance and it has a lot of songs in it, performed in a variety of styles. We did it at school of course and people still talk about my lighting. (Well, my Mum mentioned it recently!) I ended up seeing the 1970s touring version three times, first at the Newcastle Theatre Royal, second at the Nottingham Theatre Royal (which coincided with a backstage visit shortly after re-opening so we had crawled all over the building earlier). The third time was at Coventry Belgrade Theatre, when I saw for myself how low the grid there was. (The Belgrade is the same vintage as my good self, money was a bit tight back then and most of it went on the public spaces).

The movie version completely passed me by for some reason and the next opportunity to see it again was a revival at Leeds Grand in the mid ‘90s. Having talked it up to Karen, the show was a big disappointment. Firstly, it was half full, with the raising of the House Lights for some enforced clapping during song number 2 being nothing short of embarrassing. Secondly, the songs had been souped up for the era, which worked well for the slow ones but the fast ones sounded like Kylie & Jason synth-pop. The sharing of wine at the interval had been dispensed with and whilst the show was still good, it felt like a hollow shell compared with the original. (Sometimes being dated is more preferable than being brought up-to-date).

The irony of the 90s show was that we had gone on a Saturday night; we were back in the Grand on the Monday evening to see Return to Forbidden Planet and the place was full to the rafters & rocking…

Anyway, fast forward many years, during which time the Greys migrated from a Couple to a Family. We had stumbled across a small amateur society from Whitworth performing the Madness musical “Our House” in Rochdale last year and decided that they were one to keep an eye on. This year, they were doing a double header of 42nd Street and Godspell performed over two successive weeks. As it happened, we noticed on their Facebook site that they were giving a platform performance of Godspell in a Church Hall in Whitworth a few weeks before the show so we went along out of curiosity. Anyway, they blew us away. Whilst by no means perfect, they gave spirited performances of all the songs, the only let-down to me being “On the Willows” which was sung in a rather shouty way by the backing guitarist. We were surprised to win a minor prize in the raffle, and even more surprised to find that it was a signed photo of one of the cast members who was famous even though we’d never heard of him…

On to the show itself, and in the third row of a packed but intimate Curtain Theatre sat just behind the Town Mayor (complete with Ponytail). The show seemed to be the best bits of the original, with skilful adaption of all the successful twists that are around on YouTube. The stage was a simple decking set with a somewhat over the top lighting rig (for such a small venue) but it remained tamed and restrained such that it never stole the show. It played with the usual cast of ten (Jesus and nine disciples) in what could be called a hybrid of modern dress and fanciful clothes (the original show had a bit of a hippy clown theme to the costumes but the Superman T shirt logo for Jesus was retained for this production). two songs were particularly memorable- “All for the best”, originally a soft shoe shuffle but played in “Diddy Dick & Dom” style with puppet bodies & oversize heads, the other was “All good gifts” which was performed as a boy band number, with the five earnest singers with microphones on high stools. How they managed not to corpse I have no idea, one in particular was looking so earnest and he swapped his mic for a recorder in one fell swoop to near hysteria from the audience!

As to the Celeb- it was Mr. C.J. De Mooi who is well known from a TV show called Eggheads and he was playing the  role of both John the Baptist & Judas. When he entered to sing “Prepare ye…” I noticed that the Band provided an abundance of musical cues for the start note and I quickly realised why, when he started to sing he was a semitone flat, which of course backfired on him nine bars later when the band started playing along correctly, sharp to his flat. To his credit, he recovered and sang very well the rest of the show. It seems that he would like to diversify his career into musical theatre and he awaits his West End calling.

One noble tradition was retained in the show- the audience were invited onstage in the interval to partake in the wine, although it has to be said that there wasn’t very much of it- one bottle and ten tiny shot glasses, props for the communion scene later in the show (bottle topped up of course). There weren’t too many of the audience joined the cast onstage, they mostly went to the bar or to get an Ice Cream.

I did wonder how much the staging of the show would prove to be better than the already very good platform performance and the answer was it improved it a hundred fold; the cast were happy, sassy, tight and were obviously enjoying themselves immensely.

Digging into the history of the show I realised that the 1973 film was available on DVD so I ordered it on Amazon. Whilst rather twee and dated (the cast look and behave like hippies way after their time) it was still pleasantly watchable, unlike the contemporaneous film version of Superstar which is widely detested by many lovers of the show.

Onwards a few months and a chance browse of some brochures revealed that another small amateur society was performing Godspell, this time, a lot closer to home. We had never heard of the Goodwood AOS but we decided to go and see them as even if the show was terrible it was a night out and the opportunity to visit a new theatre in the area.

The Lawrence Batley Theatre is in Huddersfield and is a conversion of a very large Methodist chapel into an intimate 400-ish seater courtyard theatre. The external walls were retained and it has an excellent forecourt setting in the street scene. I had seen the technical write-ups from when it opened in the mid noughties but the only thing that stuck in my mind about the venue was that there was no access to the grid above the stage. (I think the reasoning behind that was that there was normally no reason to go on the grid outside of routine maintenance. However, if nothing else, occasional cleaning prevents dust cascading down during 1812 Overtures complete with Cannon & Mortar orchestration!)

The only obvious compromise to the theatre (& only obvious from behind the building or if the stage is clear) is that the stage has a curved back wall, something shared with the People’s Theatre in Jesmond, although they did it like that deliberately when they converted it from a Cinema in the 1960s in order to get a permanent curved cyclorama, which was still in vogue at the time. (By the way, happy centenary guys!)

So- to the show. We were in the front row and for some quirky reason the first few rows were fairly empty but the rest of the Stalls was fairly full, along with people on the two three-sided galleries and side tiers. The stage setting was a bit urban looking- a park bench, some road signs, some toys, some graffiti on scenic flats, a few seats, two potted bushes and a lamp post. A staircase disappeared down into the (empty) orchestra pit. To the rear, a scaffold structure created a balcony and five tarp screens (3 up, 2 down), a centre entrance below.

Perusing the programme, we were surprised to see that the cast had a full company, the ten principal actors and a chorus. The show was performed in modern dress (Judas looking a bit like the Terminator with his long leather coat, shades and water pistol) but the way it was performed was very close to the original show as I remember it, including soft shoe shuffle for “All for the best” (along with the Chicka-boom chorus) and mainly Female voices in “On the Willows”.

We weren’t invited onstage in the interval but they got round the lyric encouraging us to “let’s have some wine!” by getting a Wino to shout it on the park bench, a clever bit of direction.

The show was very well performed and the second half became dramatically very dark as it progressed towards the inevitable kerfuffle towards the end. The cast came back with a lively “Megamix” and certainly left us wanting more. There were times when it felt that there were too many people onstage who weren’t really adding value to the show between the numbers though, not uncommon in amateur shows. On a positive note, Goodwood are now on the list of Amateur Societies worth going to see, along with Halifax, Sheffield, Leeds and Whitworth. The trouble is, the more we see, the higher the bar it sets for our local Morley AOS to raise!

Australian Christmas Trees

Two within a week! The first one (atually a pair) were suspended from the truss either side of the stage at our Christmas do. The second was hung from the rafters at Morley Folk Club.