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Working a rich seam of heritage

Last year, people laughed and cried at The Wind Road Boys.

Last year, people laughed and cried at The Wind Road Boys. DAVID WHETSTONE talks to star Glen Joseph as the show returns

A SHOW premiered last year at Sunderland Empire makes a welcome return at Durham’s Gala Theatre next month – with an infusion of West End talent.

The Wind Road Boys taps into the rich seam of North East mining history, following shows like Close The Coalhouse Door and Billy Elliot.

It is being produced by Ferryhill theatre company Enter CIC which provides performance opportunities for young people in County Durham.

Written by Paul D Flynn, who trained in London at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, The Wind Road Boys is billed as “a story of pride, love, loss, values, battling against the odds and finding the strength to do what’s right”.

It is not, say Paul and the creative team, simply a story about mining. Rather it is “about the human ecstasy and tragedy that unites all people”.

A wind road boy, incidentally, is another name for a trapper, the young boy whose job was to open and shut doors underground.

These children worked long shifts in darkness for pennies but their role was vital, preventing the build-up of combustible gas known as firedamp. It was the process of letting the air flow that earned these fledgling pitmen the name of wind road boys.

The musical, directed and choreographed by another Laban Centre graduate, Andrea Mallen, follows the life of George Turner, the last miner from a long-forgotten pit community and his fight to save it from destruction and exploitation.

Playing George at the Gala will be 28-year-old Glen Joseph who grew up in Newcastle and is best known for playing the title role in hit musical The Buddy Holly Story.

“I got involved because I auditioned,” says the musical theatre star who has been performing since he cut his teeth at the Tyne Theatre Stage School in Newcastle.

“They did an earlier version of the show in Sunderland but they wanted to bring in some West End performers so they came down to London and managed to get a team of five of us.”

Glen was impressed by the script and the character of George Turner.

“The play begins in 1994 and George is 94. He used to be a miner and we meet him in a care home where he’s talking very quietly and unassumingly about his life.

“The idea is that he can’t rest or move on to the afterlife until he fulfils a mission to go back and make sure this young lad, the son of a developer, understands what it was like to be down the pit.”

Developers, you see, are threatening to bury his community’s mining heritage beneath a shopping centre.

The Enter CIC team explains that the idea for the show grew out of drama workshops where it became clear youngsters living in former pit villages had little idea about their mining heritage.

They were encouraged to talk to local men and women, eliciting stories about the days when coal was king.

Glen sees parallels with A Christmas Carol, the Dickens tale in which Scrooge is shown the error of his ways and emerges a more likeable human being.

“George tells how he lost his son and explains the history and heritage of the pits.

“That was what was so appealing to me as a Geordie actor. I’ve never had the opportunity to perform in a North East-based show and I’ve only ever been back in the region playing Americans.”

Glen’s grandad worked in the shipyards and he does remember visiting Beamish. In the interests of research he was planning another visit to the museum with its pit village.

You couldn’t accuse Glen of stinting on research. Having landed the role of Buddy shortly after graduating from Guildford School of Acting, he visited Buddy Holly’s birthplace in Lubbock, Texas, and spoke to his widow.

“I used to listen to Buddy records but my dad was a bigger fan,” he recalls. “He spoke to Buddy’s widow on the phone and she sent him some signed stuff.

“It was an incredible experience not just for me but for my dad as well.”

An intensive rehearsal period begins today for Glen and his professional colleagues before the five performances of The Wind Road Boys at the Gala Theatre on June 11 and 12.

All at Enter CIC will be hoping the Durham performances get the same audience response as at Sunderland Empire.

After that lone performance the tributes came in thick and fast from audience members praising the professionalism of the young cast, the music and the themes tackled in the piece.

It sounds as if Glen, who later this year returns to playing Buddy for the show’s 25th anniversary tour, has a hard act to follow.

“I’ve never performed at the Gala,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

For tickets to the show, contact the box office on 0191 332 4041.

The play begins in 1994 and George is 94. He used to be a miner and we meet him in a care home where he’s talking very quietly and unassumingly about his life

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