Sunderland AFC and Sunderland Empire are two of the city’s best-known and most-loved institutions. They attract thousands of locals and visitors to the city every month, and now the two are joining forces for ‘The Sunderland Story’, a production that is set to appeal to match attendees and theatregoers in equal measure.
Anybody that has been in the area around the Empire will have surely noticed the amazing regeneration that is currently underway there.
To have not only the Empire, but the superb Fire Station auditorium next door and further projects on the horizon is extremely exciting – particularly at a time when the football club also seems to be on the up.
Bringing the two together would always be a popular move and following the launch on Monday, the May 2023 performances are already highly anticipated.
The shows will coincide with the anniversary celebrations of Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup win – a tale worthy of its own blockbuster that will undoubtedly feature prominently alongside some of the other famous moments and names from 143 years of footballing joy and despair. It is clear from the press release that this will not just be a history lesson though, with the long-running soap opera that is SAFC being interwoven with the day-to-day stories of the Carters, a fictitious family maybe, but one that should be very recognisable.
Through their eyes we will see how the football club sits within the lives of many generations of people that have lived in the town and now city, touching on the industries and passions that have made Sunderland and forged lasting relationships. We have been promised music, comedy and emotion and let’s face it, there will be plenty of material to go on.
The Sunderland Story is already getting a big build up. There were teasers being released before a formal announcement that featured the club hierarchy and has prompted a lot of online buzz. A new edition of SAFC Unfiltered was released shortly afterward too and having listened to that it is clear that this is a venture that writer Nicky Allt feels closely attached to already. Speaking to presenter Frankie Francis and club historian Rob Mason, he has already been researching the club seemingly and is trying to get a feel for the supporter base that will form his script.
Allt is part of Birkenhead-based producers Alterean Media who are putting on the show and are already well-versed in bringing a football club onto the boards. It will be directed by Howard Gray, who alongside Alterean worked on ‘Celtic, the Musical’ at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at the Royal Court in Liverpool and ‘One Night in Istanbul’, which has since been turned into a feature film.
It is an impressive résumé for the group, with One Night having become the Liverpool Empire’s fastest-selling show after Allt’s 2006 piece ‘Brick up the Mersey Tunnel’ was credited with keeping the Royal Court open having been seen by over 160,000 people. Now he is turning his hand to a club for whom success has not always been seen as regularly as at Liverpool or Celtic, but one that is just as important to its supporters.
The news has brought back vague memories of the time in either late 1997 or early 1998 when I woke up one morning to the sound of one of the teachers at my school talking on national radio.
As head of the drama department at Monkwearmouth he was defending the decision to award substantial lottery funding I think to create a play about Sunderland AFC and their move from Roker Park - a series of performances starring pupils were subsequently put on, and each one saw a member of the 1973 team attending as a guest of honour.
Other than the fact Micky Horswill was the representative when I went along and that I got to speak to him afterward, I cannot remember the exact details now. It was surreal though that the same hall in which we were given talks on things like personal hygiene and anti-drugs messages, and shortly afterward would sit out GCSE exams in, was at the centre of a bit of a furore but it is hard not to feel that this latest production is going to be something else entirely, and on a much bigger scale.
Unlike the somewhat dated school hall, the Empire is a stunning building and will be a fitting venue to tell the most dramatic of tales. With Christmas coming I dare say a few tickets will be finding their way into Wearside stockings, and anybody that will be in attendance is set for a treat.