REVIEW: The Duke in the Cupboard, Customs House, South Shields

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Stephen Gregory as John Bunton and Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton.
The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Stephen Gregory as John Bunton and Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton.
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Every reporter has had a Kempton Bunton.

By that I mean an eccentric, unworldly pest, full of righteous indignation and obsessed with their cause – but who is worth coping with because they will usually give you a good story, and a worthwhile one at that.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields.

Few of us are as lucky, however, to have one become as big a story as Bunton did.

The retired bus driver and TV licence campaigner from Tyneside was found to be behind one of the most notorious art heists in history.

A top thief was suspected of carrying out the crime. But Bunton, a disabled pensioner, claimed he took it temporarily to help highlight his cause, and in the end was found guilty of only the theft of the frame.

The theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington and its subsequent four years disappearance was so high-profile it even featured in the first James Bond film, Dr No.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Zoe Lambert as May Bunton and Stephen Gregory as John Bunton.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Zoe Lambert as May Bunton and Stephen Gregory as John Bunton.

But it’s a story that’s little-known among younger generations in the North East, which makes Susan Wear’s scriptwriting debut The Duke in the Cupboard as important as it is entertaining.

The first half of the play charts Bunton’s beginnings as a TV licence martyr campaigning on behalf of fellow pensioners who cannot afford the rates.

An amalgam of kitchen sink drama, Ealing comedy, One Foot in the Grave and Till Death Us Do Part through most of the first half, it switches quickly into a crime caper-cum-philosophical family drama in the second half.

The change comes via a Brechtian device featuring a slapstick cat burglar routine to the tune of the Mission: Impossible, which wasn’t quite to my taste but drew laughs from elsewhere in the audience all the same.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton and Zoe Lambert as May Bunton.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton and Zoe Lambert as May Bunton.

Bunton is expertly played by Graham Overton, who perfectly concocts the character with a blend of Tyneside grandad and Ealing-style plucky Brit.

Zoe Lambert makes a good counterpart as his cardigan-clad, cucumber-wielding wife May, capturing the essence of a long-suffering-yet-loving wife.

Also worth a mentioned are Scott Ellis as DI Holmes and Adam Donaldson as DS Stevens, the chalk-and-cheese detective duo determined to track down the art thief.

The play also features a great cameo from the playwright’s husband, Look North presenter Jeff Brown, who dons circular glasses and appears on a giant TV set as a 1960s incarnation of himself, breaking the news of the theft to the nation.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Adam Donaldson as DS Stevens, Tom Machell as Bill Chester and Scott Ellis as DI Holmes.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Adam Donaldson as DS Stevens, Tom Machell as Bill Chester and Scott Ellis as DI Holmes.

This adds a dollop of amusing surprise as well as serving as one of many clever tools propelling the narrative along.

Add to all of this a clip from Dr No featuring the portrait, and a soundtrack featuring Baba O’Riley, Paint it Black and Like a Rolling Stone, and you have a fantastic piece of theatre.

It’s a small-scale production from a first-time playwright, so it may be tempting to scoff at the Customs House billing the play as a “world premier.”

But big on ideas and packing a punch, The Duke in the Cupboard has the potential to go far, and few venues in the North East are geared up to hosting this kind of production.

•The Duke in the Cupboard runs at the Customs House until Saturday October 10

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Adam Donaldson as DS Stevens, Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton and Scott Ellis as DI Holmes.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. From left, Adam Donaldson as DS Stevens, Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton and Scott Ellis as DI Holmes.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Adam Donaldson as Jeremy Hutchinson QC.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Adam Donaldson as Jeremy Hutchinson QC.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Stephen Gregory as John Bunton.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Stephen Gregory as John Bunton.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton.

The Duke in the Cupboard is at the Customs House, South Shields. Graham Overton as Kempton Bunton.