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Stage is set for a double dose of writer Michael Chaplin

A CLASSIC novel, a new play and a graveyard walk: it’s all in a day’s work for North East writer Michael Chaplin, as Tamzin Lewis discovers.

Michael Chaplin

IF you were minded this week, you could catch Michael Chaplin's new play The Song Thief at the theatre, and be back home in time to listen to a radio adaptation of his dad’s book, The Day of the Sardine.

It’s a wonderful coincidence, and BBC Radio 4 deserves a little credit here. The Song Thief was originally written as a play for Radio 4 and is now receiving its stage premiere at the People’s Theatre in Newcastle.

Meanwhile, The Day of the Sardine, written by former miner Sid Chaplin 50 years ago, has been selected as this week’s A Book at Bedtime on the same station.

The Song Thief is a romantic drama set in Edwardian times and follows the tale of a young composer from London who arrives in Allendale. He is in search of folk inspiration when he hears of a hauntingly beautiful love song which was sung just once by a shepherd.

Like his father before him, Michael is president of the People’s Theatre. He says: “It’s been a real pleasure to be president, and partly a small gesture of thanks for the start the People’s gave me in the drama business when I was a member of their youth theatre in the late ’60s.

“It is a nice piece of serendipity that the play is on the same week as the radio adaptation of The Day of the Sardine, and it makes for a busy week!”

Michael was inspired to write the “play with music” by his interest in late 19th and early 20th-century English composers who collected indigenous folk songs which had never been recorded before. He says: “I was intrigued by the process by which these songs which no one knew suddenly became orchestral suites by composers. Was what they were doing legitimate? Were they rescuing an indigenous culture...or was it theft?”

He originally wrote The Song Thief as a 60-minute play for Radio 4 in 2009 and, when asked to write something new for the People’s Theatre’s centenary season, he returned to the idea.

The basis of the story is the same but, for the new two-hour stage play, he has added two new aristocratic characters and written new and longer scenes.

Michael says: “The rhythm of the play has changed and it has a different dynamic for the People’s Theatre.”

Composer and musician Alistair Anderson wrote the Shepherd’s Song and the play also uses traditional folk tunes. “It combines three of my favourite things in the world: storytelling, folk songs and Northumberland,” Michael adds.

Michael has also abridged his father’s 1961 novel The Day of the Sardine, which has been re-released by Flambard Press as an anniversary edition. The Day of the Sardine is a tale of working class disaffection, charting Arthur Haggerston’s coming of age in 1960s Newcastle.

As Michael says: “Arthur Haggerston is the recent graduate of a sink school and trainee tearaway. He is embarking on a slippery journey into adulthood, dabbling in gang violence, seeking love and friendship.

“All the while, he is searching for a moral compass in an increasingly prosperous but also uncertain world.

“The book was a response to the changing times and the crumbling working-class culture of my family’s adopted home. But it remains as relevant today, 50 years after it was first published.

“It’s a gripping book, with brilliantly-realised characters and sense of place, in addition to great comic interludes. Above all else, it is deeply humane and sympathetic, like my father.”

Abridging the novel for Radio 4 was one of the most difficult things Michael has ever done “for reasons both technical and personal”.

He adds: “I suppose the experience has been, in John Mortimer’s phrase, a voyage around my father and, as a result after all these years, I’ve got to know both the book and the man rather better.

“His voice speaks through every line, often in revealing and surprising ways.”

:: The Song Thief is at The People’s Theatre, Newcastle from September 20-24. See www.ptag.org.uk  or call 0191 265 5020.

Chaplin walk

THE Day of the Sardine is set around Sandyford, Shieldfield and the Ouseburn Valley and, on Sunday, Michael is hosting a literary walk around the novel’s locations.

Michael writes: “When I was a small boy growing up in Newcastle in the late ’50s, I used to go for walks with my dad on Sunday mornings before Two-Way Family Favourites and the Yorkshire pudding.

“Often, there was a particular destination: an old and rather overgrown cemetery with fine, idiosyncratic memorials and a pair of severe stone gatehouses by the Newcastle architect John Dobson. As we walked around I’d swish at thistles with a stick and he’d stand and scribble in his ubiquitous notebook. It was only many years later that I discovered what he wrote down: he was collecting names for characters in his books.

“25 years ago, it was Old Jesmond Cemetery that we chose for Sid’s grave, and marked it with a piece of the Frosterley marble that keeps the structure of Durham Cathedral in place. But now here’s another memorial – an abridgement of one of those novels for A Book at Bedtime. As for Arthur Haggerston, I don’t know whether my dad found the name in the cemetery. Maybe I should go and have a good look.”

The Day of the Sardine, abridged by Michael Chaplin, is A Book at Bedtime from today until September 23 at 10.45pm. The book is published by Flambard Press, and is on sale in paperback and as an ebook.

To book places on the walk email editor@flambardpress.co.uk  or call 0191 233 3865. Meet at the Dobson Gates, Old Jesmond Cemetery, Jesmond Road (south side) at 2pm on September 25.


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