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Review: Tyne at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Michael Chaplin's Tyne makes a triumphant transfer to the Theatre Royal, making reviewer Lucy Holden wish she was a Geordie

Live Theatre production of TYNE by Michael Chaplin
Live Theatre production of TYNE by Michael Chaplin

“Why've you dragged us all the way down here, man?” a huffing man in a parka fumes on stage.

Mark’s sister, Kate, is towing him from Wallsend to heaven along the curve of the River Tyne.

Their father, Ralph, has died and left them a scrapbook of memories and in a closing ceremony they are reliving his Tyneside.

Ralph’s Tyne was many things: his first bottles of brown ale and his last before he was as sick as a dog; his first job; fried spam sandwiches at a greasy spoon; a sky as pink as a prawn. You forget all this when you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the Tyne Bridge, playwright Michael Chaplin tells us.

Chaplin wrote the book Tyne View, chronicling a collaborative and nostalgic walk along the river, and this is exactly what his play embodies. On a simple set littered with what look like giant Lego blocks a seven-strong cast tell the story of the Tyne through the people who have lived beside it.

We get coal-stealing kids and sonnet-citing sailors, washed-up Bing Crosby impersonators and trawlers’ daughters who are sick of lobster.

Jokes about Jesmond could not make laughter roll so easily through an audience anywhere else.

“Funny the things you remember,” Mark says. “Funny the things you forget,” replies his sister.

Thanks to musical director Kathryn Tickell, Tyne is told with a constant weave of music, each song like a folky history lesson. Unfortunately a couple of tacky tunes at the end of each act - the kind you’d expect in the West End – grate with the raw, melancholic tone of the rest of the play.

Tyne is full of family tension. When their mother died Ralph never explained what happened and now Kate and Mark are angry their questions remain unanswered.

When Kate tells her brother that Ralph used to flash Morse code across the water to where she lived, we realise she could understand but not respond. This inability to communicate is presented as symbolic of a buttoned-up Geordie culture.

“In the end it’s all about the people,” Chaplin tells us.

Through the recited writings of famous Tyne voices – Hadaway, Plater and Julia Darling among them – we’re given an old man’s dreams of ships and the sea.

Tyne is a celebration of storytelling but also, less obviously, of union cards and the tough working classes, of ships the colour of forget-me-nots and red roses.

We’re told the river, like life, drifts on. I’m not a Geordie – but after Tyne I wouldn’t mind becoming one.


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