INTERVIEW: Limelight | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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How many times have you walked past the Theatre Royal? When you’ve grown up and lived in a same city for most of your life, the little details of its history can often pass you by. But the iconic, Grade I listed building has stood on Grey Street for almost 200 years, hosted innumerable performances, and had a host of rising and established actors tread its boards. 

One such name may have been lost to relative obscurity if it weren’t for the diligent research of playwright Jane Plater.

I was writing a play about George Stephenson and found a book at Barter Books in Alnwick about Bruce’s School, a school which I knew that Robert Stephenson attended… At the end of the book is a section, ‘A Peep at Newcastle in the Fifties,’ in which it spoke about the Theatre Royal and a mention of visits occasionally from leading ‘stars’ such as a ‘Miss Julia St George, our own townswoman, born in the Broad Chare, Quayside…an actress and vocalist of a very high order, and Newcastle people are proud that her early childhood was spent in Pandon Dene.’”

This actress sparked the concept of Plater’s latest play, Limelight, set to stage at the Theatre Royal as the opening of its North East and Cumbria tour almost exactly 170 years since the historical event upon which it is based.

themes of regional pride, national success and the ambition to make it ‘big’ transcend time to maintain relevance across our societies

It’s remarkable and a great privilege. I was talking with the director of Limelight, Christina Berriman Dawson and producer Carole Wears, the other day, and we were surmising what Julia and Emily would feel, to know that we are here in 2024, talking about them and bringing them to life on stage in this most wonderful of theatres where 170 years ago, they tread the boards. I hope we honour them.”

Limelight, set in 1854, tells the story of Newcastle-born Victorian star of the stage Julia St George’s return to the Theatre Royal for one night only, and the two actresses Emily and Fanny as they await the arrival of their local heroine. Although Plater’s audience is centuries apart from Julia St George’s, themes of regional pride, national success and the ambition to make it ‘big’ transcend time to maintain relevance across our societies. 

Of course, Limelight is a dramatisation of what we know about this very real event, so expect some liberties taken. And yet, Plater grounds the story in enough historical fact and social truths to give her modern audience a realistic peek at Victorian entertainment.

There’s another character in the play Emily Saunders, based on a real-life actress who was on the ‘stock company’ of the Theatre Royal at that time. I’ve used details and anecdotes of the times and refer to other actors they would have known. They also sing songs from that era, such as Canny Newcastle, with lyrics about how Newcastle is just as good as London.”

A sentiment with which any loud and proud Geordie would concur, I’m sure.

Limelight promises to be a humorous insight into the inner-workings of Victorian life, showbiz and perhaps the very beginnings of celebrity culture. After all, as Jane Plater reiterates, “people still love actors.”

Limelight is performed at Theatre Royal, Newcastle on Tuesday 9th-Saturday 13th April; Gala Theatre, Durham on Tuesday 16th April; Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham on Wednesday 24th April; Arts Centre Washington on Thursday 25th April; Saltburn Community Theatre on Saturday 27th April; The Exchange 1856, North Shields on Wednesday 1st May, Alnwick Playhouse on Thursday 2nd May and Gosforth Civic Theatre, Newcastle on Saturday 4th May.

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