Well, was it? Did A Great Night Out live up to its name? Emphatically, gloriously, wondrously yes.
This wasn’t just a night of fantastic local entertainers thrilling a packed audience.
A Great Night Out was a celebration of Sunderland and South Shields, the places, but more importantly, it was a celebration of what it means to be from our unique part of the world.
What makes us different – the warmth, the resilience, the determination, the hard work, the courage, the humour.
Songs, sketches and poems highlighted local individuals who personify Sunderland and Shields.
Ex-miner Dennis O’Brien’s amazing tale was told through a song written by Wildworks' Mercedes Kemp and Victoria Abbott, and through a sketch that brought home the dangers of being down a pit.
Like several others who inspired the stories, Dennis was present on the night, taking his place alongside his fellow members of the irrepressible Hylton Ukes.
As you’d expect, there was also a section about working in the shipyards. Tales told from a man and woman’s perspective, and what really came across was the wonder of watching a launch after months of hard toil.
The sections were linked by Ray Spencer, resplendent in a ridiculous wig and perfect for the part of social club host Ray Shine – “the hair’s all mine.”
Among the first-rate musical performers were Frankie and the Heartstrings star Ross Millard and Rebecca Young, This Little Bird.
The latter sang a moving song, The Girl from Alice Street, inspired by Maureen Ambrose, the first woman in her family to go to university and who went on to become a long-serving councillor and community stalwart. Maureen was present on the night.
The first half closed with a brilliant reminder of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, told through the eyes of a local policeman and a woman playing a leading role in organising the community response. It was an intelligent, emotional piece and the superb Angela Hannon had the audience in the palm of her hand.
The second half began with further numbers from Hylton Ukes and two numbers from Sunderland blues legends George Shovlin and the Radars.
David Callaghan and his comedy duo partner Lee Ridley performed their popular Speak and Spell routine, bold daring, and very funny.
WildWorks had done its homework during months of preparation and writing in local communities, and realised no show about Sunderland could be complete without a tribute to the Lads. And Darren Palmer and his son Darren junior’s memorable tribute to the unique and unbreakable bond between SAFC and the city was just what was needed.
Against a backdrop of footage from the 1973 cup final, Darren told the story of his love of the club and how the team should always reflect the nature of Mackems – work hard, never give up. The section ended with a raucous rendition of I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.
This most wonderful of evenings climaxed with an emotional tribute to one of the city’s great modern heroes – Len Gibson. Len joined the Sunderland 125 Anti-Tank Regiment and after training was shipped out to Singapore. His ship was approaching the island when it was attacked by Japanese bombers and sank. He managed to get ashore, only to be taken prisoner by the invading forces.
Len was to spend four years enduring incredible hardship as a prisoner of war, seeing many friends die of disease, starvation or mistreatment. Len made a makeshift banjo and taught himself to play, lifting the spirits of his fellow POWs.
His story of courage and determination was told through Ross Millard’s wonderful song Len’s Story and Mercedes Kemp’s poem.
Len, now 96, got to his feet and sang On the Street Where You Live in tribute to his wife Ruby, who passed away a few weeks ago. It was one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen and there wasn’t a dry eye in The Point. Len’s guitar playing was exemplary.
David Bowie’s anthem Heroes brought the evening to a fitting close, and the audience to its feet – a dancing, standing ovation.
“Be proud of where you’re from,” said Ray Spencer. And we were.
* WildWorks delivered A Great Night Out on behalf of The Cultural Spring.