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Stories of substance reveal the meaning of Olympic dreams

A NEW play reveals the thoughts of those who have dreamt of sporting glory, as David Whetstone reports.

Cast members of The Prize which will be performed at the Live Theatre
Cast members of The Prize which will be performed at the Live Theatre

REAL stories of Olympians and Paralympians are the substance of Live Theatre’s topical new play for this sporting summer.

The Prize features the testimonies of 23 people whose lives, at one time or another, have been dominated by the Olympic or Paralympic Games.

They include the silver medal-winning runner Roger Black, Stephen Miller, the North East Paralympian thrower, and Easington-born Charmian Rawlings.

Under her maiden name of Welsh, Charmian, who still lives in County Durham, was the youngest Great Britain team member – at 15 years and 74 days – at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

A diver who had only learned to swim four years previously, she trained in the cooling pond at Dawdon Colliery where the bottom was covered in black silt.

She came fifth on the springboard at Helsinki and also competed four years later in Melbourne.

Charmian was at Live Theatre’s new season launch on Friday along with ex-pitman Norman Strike who was born in South Shields but now lives in Essex.

After leaving the pits, Norman went to Kenya on a Voluntary Services Overseas project which is where he met his future wife.

Anne Wafula Strike, who contracted polio at the age of two, is a wheelchair racer who competed for Kenya at the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 and was keen to represent Great Britain in London but was not selected.

She came to Britain with Norman in 2000 and took up wheelchair racing shortly afterwards.

The Prize was devised by Steve Gilroy and Richard Stockwell who run a North East theatre company called Murmur. Richard said: “I am interested in sport and Steve isn’t. But in 2010 I thought we are heading towards this event (the Olympics) and people are already very excited.

“I thought all around the country there are athletes preparing for this big thing and some will get there and some won’t. I thought there must be some stories that are worth telling.”

Steve, who has worked with Live Theatre before on documentary- based productions, was sold on the idea and the pair started to track down sportsmen and women who might be prepared to talk.

In contrast to those garbled track-side or pool-side utterances, Steve and Richard conducted interviews lasting two hours or more.

Chris Connel, who as well as Norman Strike plays Paralympic powerlifter Ali Jawad, said: “One of the things we’ve discovered in doing this piece is that the prize (of the title) is different for some people.

“Some people just want the gold medal but for others it’s to do with something much bigger in their lives, about rehabilitation of a sense of self-worth.”

Along with Chris in the cast are Helen Embleton, Serocca Davis, Carl Kennedy and Melissa Johns.

Serocca Davis plays Anne Wafula Strike and Helen Embleton plays Charmian Rawlings, but all the actors voice the testimonies of several interviewees.

Carl Kennedy plays Roger Black, who came second to Michael Johnson in the 400m final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and also Nick Beighton, a British Army officer who lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2009.

The one-time 6ft 7ins soldier and keen sportsman will now compete in the Paralympics in the mixed double sculls.

“He’s focused on the Paralympics as part of his rehabilitation,” said Carl, and if he seemed in awe, you could understand why.

For some of the interviewees there was to be disappointment. Viv Mills, the Paralympian fencer played by Helen Embleton, did not make Team GB.

For some, though, it wasn’t about a medal. Helen also plays Hilary Hardy as she talks about her young son William who lost his legs through meningitis but carried the Olympic torch with aplomb on Newcastle Quayside.

Newcomer Melissa Johns said: “I’m an actor with a disability so when I first heard about this I thought I’d be playing somebody linked with the Paralympics.

“But all three of the characters I’m playing (including County Durham rower Jess Eddie) are able bodied and I think that’s nice.”

Arguably, it also encapsulates the true Olympic and Paralympic spirit. In terms of effort and dedication, all competitors are as one.

The Prize, which bears the London 2012 Inspire mark, is to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then at Live Theatre from August 29 to September 8. Box office: 0191 232 1232 or www.live.org.uk


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer