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Review: The Fifteen Streets at Newcastle People’s Theatre

A Tale Of Love And Ambition

The Fifteen Streets
Newcastle People’s Theatre
Until Saturday 18th July 2015.

I must start this review with a confession. I have never read one of Catherine Cookson’s books. However I spent the summer of 1992 taking bus loads of holiday makers on an afternoon tour around South Shields under the banner of “Catherine Cookson Country”. It was, without doubt one of our most popular excursions. The lass, Catherine Ann “Kate” McMullen, from Tyneside, who had, without doubt, a tough start in life, was indeed one of the most popular authors in the country, selling over 120 million copies.

Hot on the heels of the announcement that another one of her books, The Cinder Path (NETG link) , is about to have it’s premiere on stage we have the People’s Theatre return to the cautionary tale of The Fifteen Streets. Unusually for this theatre we have a star in the shape of Pat Dunn (Hebburn, Lucky Numbers NETG Link). Joining Pat is a strong cast that have given this theatre its reputation for quality theatre.

Cookson describes the tough existence in an area of South Tyneside called The Fifteen Streets. In 1910 you either worked or starved. Even if you worked, money was stretched to cover rent and fuel, leaving little for some of the larger families to feed on. Bread and dripping was what awaited the dock workers when they came home. The play also reflects upon the hold that the Catholic Church had on its residents.

At the centre of the story are the O’Briens. A large family of dockworkers with mother Mary Ellen (Sarah McLane) holding together the seven with all of her matriarchal might. Significant children include the affable John in a powerful performance by Craig Fairbairn, who tries to get on in life. Katie (Rhiannon Wilson) is doing well at school and keeps talking about her teacher Mrs Llewellyn (Rachel Scott). Dominic (Ian Willis) fights his father Shane (Sands Dobson) and seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

In a close community, in which everyone lives in each others back pockets, there are gossips and kids telling tales. The split set on 2 levels helps separate life in the O’Briens house with the life outside. It was a little difficult to make out some of the comments being made at the very start but it was soon the case that the audience were up on the gossip.

One group of neighbours includes the Kelly family. Mum Hannah (Pat Dunn) tries to keep their daughter Nancy (Alison Carr) on the right track and away from the occasionally violent husband Joe (Jim Simpson). Cookson does not try to add any sugar on the tough relationships nor does she try to portray the male tendency to drink in any romantic way.

A new family move into the area and the gossips note that they have carpet and their clothes are somewhat more dapper. They are the Bracken family who believe in a spirituality which is in direct opposition to the catholic preachings. Peter (Pete McAndrew) has brought his grand-daughter Christine (Jess Chapman) who quickly befriends the O’Brien children. Father O’Malley (Sean Burnside) does not approve of any liaison with this family.

The O'Brien Faily - Photo: Paula Smart
The core of Fifteen Streets is a love story which ignites when John O’Brien meets up with Katie’s teacher. This chance meeting with Mary Llewellyn soon blossoms but it is not a relationship approved of by Mary’s well off parents James (Steve Robertson) and Beatrice (Helga McNeil).  The clash of class coupled with the drive and ambition of John O’Brien leads to an explosive turn of events as the residents get involved. Directors Maggie Childs and John Gray have captured a great series of performances from the talented cast.

Very strong performances from Craig Fairbairn, Rhiannon Wilson, Rachel Scott and Pete McAndrew, supported by a great ensemble, help extend this from a standard historic love story into a great fable. Social mobility is as much an issue as the depravation faced by the dock workers.  The People’s Theatre production of The Fifteen Streets is a fine piece of theatre to finish another great season with and we look forward to next season.

Read the original North East Theatre Guide Preview here: NETG Preview Link

This review was written by Stephen Oliver  the North East Theatre Guide Preview from Jowheretogo PR ( Follow Jo on twitter @jowheretogo, Stephen @panic_c_button or like Jowheretogo on Facebook

The Fifteen Streets adapted by Rob Bettinson, from the novel by Catherine Cookson
Tuesday 14 to Saturday 18 July 2015, 7.30pm
The People’s Theatre, Stephenson Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 5QF
Tickets:      £13.50 (Concessions £11)
Box Office: 0191 265 5020

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