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Youngsters summon up the old Blitz! spirit at Gosforth hospital theatre

Lionel Bart's Blitz! is coming to a the theatre at St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth. David Whetstone sets the scene

The cast of Blitz which will be performed at the Jubilee Theatre, in St. Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth
The cast of Blitz which will be performed at the Jubilee Theatre, in St. Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth

They are summoning up the old ‘blitz spirit’ at one of the region’s most energetic youth drama groups.

Yes, Lionel Bart’s Blitz! is First Act Theatre’s spring production and it will be performed with customary exuberance by a cast too young even to remember the Falklands conflict, let alone the Second World War.

But First Acters can all sing, act and shake a leg.

Past members include Jill Halfpenny, Cheryl Cole and Ant and Dec, according to musical director John Dalziel who was a First Act Theatre member himself before going on to study drama and script writing at Northumbria University.

Having now graduated, he is working in a supermarket to pay the bills while gigging with folk quartet Gilded Thieves and supervising rehearsals of Blitz! on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and at weekends.

The director of this show is friend Callum Buchanan who is also among the First Act Theatre alumni.

First Act Theatre is based at St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth, which boasts a stunning, if unlikely, example of a Victorian proscenium arch theatre.

It was completed in 1899 by architect John W Dyson and it boasts Doulton tiles by William James Neatby whose work can also be seen in the Harrod’s food hall in London.

Until 1954 it was used by performers rehearsing for the annual panto at the Theatre Royal. Laurel and Hardy are among those said to have trodden the boards here in decades past.

 

The Jubilee Theatre – the hospital is on Jubilee Road – is now Grade II-listed. Since First Act Theatre, under founding director Barry Wilmot, relocated from the Tyne Theatre in 1992, a lot of work has been done to turn a stage in a big hall into a properly equipped theatre with lights and raked seating.

An agreement with the NHS means the premises are used during the day by the hospital and during rehearsal evenings by the First Acters.

The company has over 200 members aged seven to 19 and puts on three or four shows per year, including a revue.

“We haven’t done a musical for quite a while,” says John.

“We did Bugsy Malone when I joined as musical director but then we found ourselves doing more straight shows.

“A lot of the members were asking to do a musical. We did do Blitz! once before, though not with the current members, and it’s a good musical with a lot of great songs.

“It’s a good one for us to do because it has a lot of children in it and we have a lot of young members.”

Blitz! is set in London’s East End during the wartime Blitz, when bombs rained down night after night on the city where Lionel Bart grew up.

The show opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1962 when Bart’s Oliver! was still doing great businesses not far away at the New Theatre.

John Dalziel explains that the story is “a bit Romeo and Juliet” with young people from rival families – the Jewish Blitzteins and the Catholic Lockes – falling in love as the bombs fall.

Playing Carol Blitztein and Georgie Locke for First Act are 18-year-old Hannah McKenna and 17-year-old Conor O’Hare.

The senior parts of Mrs Blitztein and Mr Locke are played by two former First Acters, Bridget Marsh and Calum Roberts.

Bridget’s sisters are also deeply involved in First Act Theatre with Julia playing Elsie, Mrs Blitztein’s feisty young lodger, and Celia helping with the costumes.

One of the things about First Act Theatre is that the young members learn many aspects of stagecraft. Joe Diggle, who takes care of publicity, also looks after the lighting as assistant technical director.

John, who plays piano, says the last person to direct Blitz! for First Act Theatre was Lynne Wilmot, Barry’s daughter and another ex-member of the company.

Lynne went on to become a professional performer in the West End and can be seen in the film of Les Misérables, having also performed in the stage show.

Blitz! is being performed at the Jubilee Theatre from March 12 to 15 at 7pm.

For tickets tel. 0191 903 1330 or email tickets@firstacttheatre.com. For more details about the company visit www.firstacttheatre.com

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