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Chris Campbell helps old lady tell her story

If buildings could talk, The Tyne Theatre & Opera House would have a rich fund of stories to tell

Chris Campbell, director of promenade production Beneath the Boards
Chris Campbell, director of promenade production Beneath the Boards

If buildings could talk, The Tyne Theatre & Opera House would have a rich fund of stories to tell.

Since it opened in 1867, a bright young thing in Victorian Newcastle, it has seen nights of triumph and disaster, been a theatre and a cinema, undergone refurbishments and changes of ownership.

In 2013 it is a theatrical grande dame, one of only 10 Grade I-listed Victorian theatres in the country, yet it still kicks up its heels with a full programme of entertainment.

Buildings can’t talk, of course. But there are others prepared to speak out on its behalf, sharing its secrets and highlighting its unique qualities.

Next week, as part of the Festival of the North East, a promenade production called Beneath the Boards will take audiences behind and indeed beneath the scenes at the beautiful old theatre.

The director is Chris Campbell, one of a growing number of aspiring young theatre professionals in the North East.

Chris, who is from Byker, graduated from Newcastle College last summer with a degree in contemporary directing.

He is now working for a masters degree in arts, business and creativity at Newcastle University Business School, with half the fees being paid by the Tyne Theatre & Opera House Preservation Trust which selected him for a year-long internship.

Chris is a recent convert to the charms of a building he confesses he’d never been inside before.

“I worked at Northern Stage for a while and I loved that because it has a real contemporary feel and also it’s a producing theatre.

“But really I much prefer the old type of theatre. When you come in a place like this, the grand scale of the place is spectacular.”

Chris, who is 23, gives me a personal tour backstage and we also venture beneath the stage – “my favourite part,” he says – to see the restored Victorian stage machinery, a unique survivor of a bygone age.

The secrets of the 19th Century’s jaw-dropping stage effects are laid before us, a complex grid of heavy timbers, ropes and pulleys.

It looks a bit like something from the age of sail and that’s why, says Chris, sailors used to be recruited to operate it.

Beneath the Boards, with a script by Benjamin Schwarz and Dale Pearson, is being performed by a cast of young actors from Newcastle College Performance Academy.

“There are five different scenes happening throughout the theatre but there’s no single point where we let the audience sit in the auditorium,” says Chris.

“The first scene takes place on the stage with the curtain down and there’s a little am dram society performing there, really over the top and dramatic.

“It was in the 1980s that an am dram society took over the theatre.

“Then we open the curtain so the audience gets to see how grand the theatre looks.”

Without wishing to give too much of the story away, there’s a ghost story, a board meeting, a flashback to the theatre’s decades as a cinema and a reference to the famous occasion when the Grand National was recreated on the theatre stage. How did they do that?

With costumes by students of Cleveland College of Art & Design, Chris’s cast will endeavour to capture the essence of a theatre which will undoubtedly strive to upstage them.

Beneath the Boards gives a flavour of the educational role the theatre trust hopes to develop for it.

Brian Debnam, whose consultancy firm administers the trust, says an education centre beneath the auditorium is part of future plans along with refurbishment and a general sprucing up.

Currently sponsored by Mill Volvo and operated by SMG Europe, which also runs Metro Radio Arena, the old Westgate Road theatre is a pleasing blend of old and new. With the trust guarding its interests and people like Chris prepared to champion it in the coming years, the future looks rosy – a source, inevitably, of yet more stories.

Beneath the Boards takes place on June 17, 19, 20 and 24-26 with performances at 6pm and 8pm. Tickets: 08444 939 999 or www.millvolvotynetheatre.co.uk

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