There is a lot of inspiration in Sunderland, and if you didn’t know it already the football club is woven into our culture everywhere you look…
ACT ONE – the build-up
Sunderland’s cultural side is booming right now.
Just this week the next edition of the Summers Streets festival was announced and the superb Seventeen19 venue won a further batch of awards, this time from the Royal Institute for British Architects, as the resurgence of the former Holy Trinity Church continues to bring this historically important building back into regular use. The developments are just two of several outstanding projects that are bubbling away in the city, with various groups working tirelessly to push our vibrant arts scene forward.
Two of the most significant focal points stand at either side of High Street West and show the vast range of offerings; Pop Recs are currently celebrating a decade of community and independent shows and activities, whilst the magnificent Sunderland Empire has long been known as one of the finest theatres in the land. Locals can rightly be proud of both, and since manging to get tickets a few months ago I’ve been looking forward to attending both this weekend and taking in a double bill of entertainment.
First up was a superb matinée by Frankie & The Heartstrings, the people originally behind Pop Recs. Guitarist Ross Millard, organiser for Summer Streets as it happens, was on brilliant form as were his bandmates and guests, and the group of course has a big Sunderland AFC link – Frankie Francis, the ultimate front man, also happens to be the club’s commentator and presenter.
It was a brilliant show and I was able to enjoy it with my eldest child, who as she starts to think about what she wants to do in life is realising the talent already within our city. A day before the gig I’d grabbed tickets for us to see Tom A. Smith later this year - she’d first started following him when he’d performed on the pitch at the Stadium of Light during half time against Blackburn Rovers last Boxing Day, and it is these different artists and co-ordinators in our community that are showing her that there are opportunities to thrive.
That show, which sold out almost as quickly as play-off tickets, will be at The Fire Station. The venue is another example of Sunderland’s ever burgeoning scene, but after a bite to eat following the Heartstrings we were off to its grand neighbour for a new production that has already been receiving favourable reviews.
ACT TWO – Story time
Playwright Nicky Allt already has a couple of football themed successes under his belt, having written stage shows centred around both Liverpool and Celtic. He has now taken on the tale of another passionate and substantial supporter base to create ‘The Sunderland Story’, which opened last Wednesday to a great reception – a feat in itself given the pain felt 24 hours earlier at Luton.
Featuring a local cast, the play come musical is the perfect answer to any post season blues as it takes us through a whistle stop tour of the life of the club and the lives of a typical SAFC supporting family whose own history is merged with the area and the team. There were plenty of one-liners and nice ad-libs to keep things moving along towards what is a rousing end, and with a cameo from a former player, supporters go home in high spirits.
Ironically, the player on duty this time was Micky Horswill, who I had first met in the 1990s when he was guest of honour at a Sunderland themed play at my school. Returning to the stage at the end as he and his co-stars received a standing ovation, children from the front rows of the audience were also invited up to take part in the finale. I would say on that note however that those thinking about taking youngsters should be cautious; there is a bit of bad language and a few inferences so be prepared to put your hands over their ears. I must also warn anybody hoping for a history lesson to lower their expectations – there are several disappointing and unnecessary errors within the script and on a large supporting screen that do detract from an otherwise engaging performance.
A little bit on supposedly handsome and unattractive former players was another misstep, but that screen and the staging were clever ways of interweaving the footage, images and memories around which the story hangs. Having a live band, the ‘Black Cats’, added greatly and the music, songs and crowd participation hit the target fantastically well. There is plenty to see and do in Sunderland, and if you want a fun trip out tickets for this are still available at The Sunderland Story Tickets | Sunderland Empire in Sunderland | ATG Tickets