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Community at the heart of South Tyneside drama

The whole community is behind a new theatre venture making its debut in South Shields as Barbara Hodgson explains

Bethan Carr and Paul Dunn in promotional shot for new play I (Heart) Shields
Bethan Carr and Paul Dunn in promotional shot for new play I (Heart) Shields

Community is playing a heart-warming role – in more ways than one – in a play making its debut at The Customs House in South Shields this week.

I {Heart} ST, by local director and writer Peter Lathan, was commissioned by the theatre to explore what it is that makes South Tyneside the place it is.

Besides the town’s community spirit being central to the history uncovered, it’s today’s still-thriving community spirit that is seeing the play through to fruition.

Shields residents, joined by others from across the region, will be performing the play when it premieres on Friday.

Of its 23-strong cast of actors, five are professional, but most are amateur. Ranging in age from an 11-year-old girl to a man of 71, they include a nurse, a factory worker, a retired stage hypnotist, a bartender, a shop assistant, a singer and an office worker.

Most are people who worked with Peter – who is artistic director of KG Productions – on an earlier community production: last year’s The Mysteries at Arbeia Roman Fort.

“Six are new to the company,” says Peter, whose past community productions also include an outdoor production of Romeo & Juliet in South Marine Park.

“It is a true community play in that everyone who wished to take part could do so.

“Three of those who took part in The Mysteries had never acted before and two have since joined a local amateur group and have appeared in plays since. All three have returned for I {Heart} ST.”

While they all clearly loved the experience, Peter has conjured up a very different situation involving actors and their director in this new work, a play-within-a-play that tells the story of a theatre company’s efforts to stage a drama about the history of South Tyneside.

Here, the director, Steve, is out of his depth and creating tensions in the company so, two weeks from opening night, the play is at stalling point – until an incoherent tramp, played by Paul Dunn, wanders into rehearsal and reveals an in-depth knowledge of the area.

Maybe he’s a historian; a university lecturer fallen on hard times, or something else entirely: who knows? But gradually the audience will learn about the area’s history. We all know about the Romans, Bede, mining, shipbuilding and the Jarrow Crusade, but this reveals what is the real heart of South Tyneside.

Peter’s initial brief from the theatre was to create a production about the area’s history and celebrating it as a place to live and work.

Involving the same creative team behind The Mysteries, the play has undergone five versions since the project started last September with research into Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon mythology, as well as modern characters, and it’s grown from a series of sketches developed through workshops.

It was initially meant to have its premiere at the Harton Quays Amphitheatre, being built opposite The Customs House, but as it would not be complete in time, a decision was made to transfer it indoors to the theatre’s community room where it can be seen from Friday until Sunday at 7.30pm nightly (2.30pm matinee on Sunday). Visit www.customshouse.co.uk or call 0191 454 1234.

KG Productions will also be staging By the Pricking of My Thumbs…, an examination of evil in Shakespeare such as the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, in the community room in September ahead of plans for a regional tour next year. Also in the pipeline is Peter’s double-bill of one-person plays: Going Gently, an exploration of aging, and Curtains, about a woman caught up in the justice system.


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