New play about real-life art heist comes to South Shields theatre

The Customs House's Ray Spencer and The Duke in the Cupboard writer Susan Wear.
The Customs House's Ray Spencer and The Duke in the Cupboard writer Susan Wear.

The true story of one of the world’s greatest art theft mysteries is finally being told on a South Tyneside stage.

The Duke in the Cupboard is being told 50 years after a Newcastle man confessed to stealing a masterpiece.

The play has been written by Susan Wear, from Jarrow, who became fascinated with the story after reading secret Director of Public Prosecution papers relating to the case.

Having spent two years researching the case, Susan was inspired to write her first play – which will be performed at the Customs House, South Shields, from Wednesday, October 7 to Saturday, October 10.

On August 2, 1961 Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, having been saved for the nation with a special treasury grant, was put on display at the National Gallery in London, only to be stolen 19 days later.

Susan, who works for the Port of Tyne, said: “I felt so compelled to unearth the incredible twists and turns of this story, much of which has not been told before.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the story brought to life on the Customs House stage.”

Four years after the theft, Kempton Bunton, a 61-year-old unemployed former bus driver from Benwell, Newcastle, baffled Scotland Yard detectives by confessing to the theft.

Had this heavy built, antisocial, bespectacled Geordie really outwitted the gallery’s sophisticated security?

The case sparked a national sensation and became so famous it featured in the first James Bond film, Dr No in 1962.

Susan added: “It is about one man taking on the establishment – the police, the art world, the Government, and the press – for a good cause. It’s also the story of his long-suffering wife, who supported him through it all.”

The play is directed by Katy Weir, joint artistic director of OddManOut, a new-writing company based in Darlington. She was thrilled to be asked to direct the play and still finds it hard to believe it was a true story.

She said: “Susan has done a brilliant job capturing the essence of a fascinating piece of North East history.

“This play has a little bit of everything: love, upset, anger, intrigue, and a sprinkle of comedy.”

Ray Spencer, executive director of the Customs House, added: “When Susan first pitched the story to me I knew our audiences would be just as intrigued as I was. And what better time to tell the tale in this the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.”

Tickets cost £13 with an £11 concession. To book, go to www.customshouse.co.uk or call the box office on 0191 454 1234.