Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner raises the curtain on Wearside’s rich theatrical heritage.
THERE’S no business like show business for stage-struck Sunderland folk – as these shots from the Echo’s archives reveal.
The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd have proved a show-stopping combination for thousands of Wearsiders over the decades.
“Sunderland and East Durham have a rich history of amateur dramatic and operatic societies dating to Victorian times,” said Echo photographic archivist Susan Swinney.
“I was sorting through the archives the other day and came across dozens of images from shows through the years. The photos shown here are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Among the oldest theatre groups is Seaham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, which produced its first show – HMS Pinafore – at Seaham Theatre Royal in 1908.
Shows such as Kitty, Yeoman of the Guard and The Mikado soon followed, with the 7th Marquess of Londonderry serving as the society’s patron in the early years.
“When the society staged its first show you could still buy sixpenny packets of corn-removing silk from the chemist F.A. French in North Terrace, Seaham,” said Susan.
“Rather conveniently for the aspiring thespians, Mr French also supplied grease paints, crepe hair and make-up-removing cold cream – as well as other theatrical requisites.”
Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society – this year celebrating its 120th anniversary – also boasts a rich musical and theatrical pedigree.
Formed in 1893 by George F. Vincent, whose family owned a music shop and organ factory, generations of members have taken part in scores of shows over the years.
“The group’s first performance was HMS Pinafore as well – just like at Seaham – but this show was held at the Theatre Royal in Bedford Street in 1894,” said Susan.
“Sunderland Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society came about somewhat later, in 1943, after what must have been a very rousing performance of Merrie England.
“Several of the town’s music and drama organisations joined forces for the show, which was part of the wartime Holidays at Home programme, and it proved a huge hit. Apparently Sunderland’s mayor was so impressed that he suggested keeping the company together and an appeal for subscriptions to help out was then launched.”
Other groups hitting the high notes over the years include Vane Tempest Amateur Operatic Society – which had EastEnders star Peter Dean as vice-president in the 1980s.
Seaham Drama Group, St George’s Drama Group, Fulwell Methodist Church Drama Group, plus Washington and St Benet’s operatic societies have also enjoyed top billing.
But one group has probably survived more ups and downs than most – Sunderland Drama Club – which lost its own private theatre to Hitler’s wartime bombing raids.
“The roots of the club date to the autumn of 1922, when a scratch cast of enthusiastic actors presented Somerset Maugham’s Jack Straw at the Victoria Hall,” said Susan.
“Such was the show’s success that the actors started a private club, called Sunderland Thespians. Members rehearsed and performed shows in church halls for two years.
“But eventually, in 1925, the group was opened up for everyone to join. The new Sunderland Drama Club was launched at an inaugural meeting on October 1, 1925.”
Success after success followed for the club and, in 1932, members opened their own “Little Theatre” in Tavistock Place – within a former house – with seating for 130.
Sadly, just a few years later, the theatre was destroyed in the same air raid which left the Victoria Hall in ruins. Members refused, however, to give up their stage dreams.
“The group used church halls and the Royalty Hall for shows throughout the war and, when peace was declared, took on the Royalty as their permanent base,” said Susan.
“Today the club continues to entertain the people of Wearside – as do so many of our other long-standing and very well respected local music and theatre groups.”
* To order any of these photos contact Susan Swinney on 501 5152.