Review: My Uncle Freddie, The Customs House, South Shields, until July 21
It's 1930s Jarrow and the giant cranes of Palmer's shipyard have been brought crashing to the ground with a sound described by Uncle Freddie as like the '˜slamming of a door.'
Cue the final nail in Jarrow’s coffin, but also an opportunity for Uncle Fred to cast himself as the superhero of another of his fantastical (or is it?) yarns.
But there is an irony here. The one story he doesn’t tell is of his genuine heroism on the battlefields of the First World War, with its aftermath of ‘silences and spaces where men weren’t there anymore.’
It takes a special talent to mine warmth and humour from the experiences of such a battered generation, but writer Alex Ferguson achieved it sublimely when this, his creation, first aired as an award-winning series on Radio 4.
In the deft hands of director Gareth Hunter it now makes its transition to the theatre with a production that truly brings a gentle magic to the stage.
There isn’t a single mis-step from the moment it opens on what is ostensibly two floors of a Tyneside terrace, complete with tin bath on the wall and poss stick in the shared yard.
Charlie Richmond is a smashing Uncle Freddie, a sort of elder statesman of likely lads who doesn’t realise that he doesn’t have to spin stories about himself; that he’s actually a hero every time he faces down a snobby neighbour or a tricksy rag-and-bone man, or ‘borrows’ a tram to take a street-full of
impoverished families and men with no legs on a trip to South Shields’ sands.
His hero worshipper is his bright, bookish nephew. Andrew Finnigan delivers an endearing performance as the young Lecky, all skinny legs and puppyish enthusiasm, but also innocence: ‘Asterisks make you have babies,’ he says assuredly.
Lecky struggles to engage with his crippled and distant father, played with fine nuance by Paul Dunn. Dunn’s ‘revolving door’ of characters also includes a Russian revolutionary (aye, on a Jarra’ tram – you’ve got to love Alex Ferguson’s writing) whose appeal for idealism from the top of a beer crate, while
the strains of Jerusalem play in the background, is a genuine ‘Oh, something suddenly in my eye’ moment.
There are similarly impressive and adept performances from Georgia Nicholson and Jill Dellow as Lecky’s warm-hearted mam and combative Auntie Bella (while also encompassing a tyrannical tram inspector and the aforesaid snobby neighbour etc, among other roles).
My Uncle Freddie is about folk maintaining their own kind of nobility while muddling through, finding simple joys while war recedes in one direction but approaches in another.
It’s about the necessary quick thinking that sends uneaten ham back to the shop - “Just tell them the funeral has been cancelled ” - while never being ashamed of who or what you are.
If there’s any downside to My Uncle Freddie it’s that, unlike the radio series, you can’t tune in next week for a second episode.