National Theatre partnership treats audiences

The CRITICALLY-acclaimed National Theatre production arrived at Sunderland Empire this week – as part of a unique partnership.

Sunderland Culture and Sunderland Empire are part of the National Theatre-led Theatre Nation Partnerships (TNP), an innovative network of theatres and community organisations working to grow theatre audiences across England.

As part of the partnership, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a fantasy adventure, opened at the Empire from 28 February – 4 March. The adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel stars Eastenders’ Charlie Brooks and Finty Williams, daughter of national treasure Dame Judi Dench.

The thrilling adventure of myth and friendship, is a five-star spectacular which blends magic with memory in a tour-de-force of storytelling that takes audiences on an epic journey to a childhood once forgotten and the darkness that lurks at the very edge of it.

Touring for 38 weeks, this is the largest tour mounted by the National Theatre since before the Covid pandemic. It follows a celebrated six-month run at The Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End.

The TNP programme is working across 14 partner organisations and aims to reach more than 500,000 audiences, artists and participants over three years.

Some of the touring TNP shows are being delivered directly into schools – such as the new play Shut Up, I’m Dreaming which is visiting 55 secondary schools, including Sunderland schools. Another secondary school programme, Speak Up, will be in Sunderland secondary schools later in the year. Both of these productions explore issues important to young people and aim to help them find a voice.

While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is being performed at the Empire, rehearsals for the next TNP production will continue at The Fire Station. The Odyssey is an epic, multi-production of the legendary Greek poem.

Reimagined for today in a retelling with hundreds of community members and local artists across the country, this landmark production will be told in episodes across five venues in England. The multi-venue production marks the fifth anniversary of Public Acts, the National Theatre’s nationwide programme to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community.

The Sunderland episode, The Island of the Sun, will be performed at The Fire Station on Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29 and will feature dozens of community performers who are rehearsing a script by local playwright Lindsay Rodden. The local creative team also includes singer songwriter Sean Cooney (a member of the folk group The Young ‘Uns); choreographer Patrick Ziza (who brought his Dandyism production to last year’s Summer Streets Festival) and choir leader Catherine Stephens (of The Cornshed Sisters).

The culmination of the Odyssey journey, the final fifth episode, will be staged as an epic full-scale musical production at the National Theatre on August 27-29. This production will feature community performers from all four partners, as well as members recruited through Public Acts founding community partners in London.

The last production in this phase of the NT/Sunderland partnership will be Sucker Punch. This tender, bruising and humorous play by leading dramatist Roy Williams is set in a South East London boxing gym against the backdrop of Thatcherite politics, police brutality and the Brixton riots.

Sucker Punch won the Alfred Fagon Award, The Writers Guild Award for Best Play and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play. It contains strong adult language and is suitable for those aged 14 or over.

Helen Green, Head of Performance for Sunderland Culture, said:  “Being part of the Theatre Nations Partnership is bringing extraordinary depth and range of theatrical experiences to Sunderland audiences.  Whether discovering theatre for the first time at school; experiencing the very best in theatre through productions such as Oceans at the end of the lane; the gritty realism of Sucker Punch or immersing yourself as a participant in The Odyssey our audiences and young people in particular are being amazing theatrical opportunities here on Wearside.”

Anthony Hope, Senior Creative Learning Manager at Sunderland Empire, said: “Together in partnership with National Theatre and Sunderland Culture, we have endeavoured to make huge strides towards making a positive impact on our local audiences and communities in and around Wearside.

“Since working together, we have been able to tour high quality theatre directly into schools, bring new audiences into our spaces and venues, alongside producing ambitious community work that champions local creatives and voices. We are hopeful this work will not only inspire future audiences, but also nurture future workforces continuing to feed our already pulsing creative community.”

Marie Nixon, Theatre Director at Sunderland Empire, said: “We’re incredibly proud of our partnership with the National Theatre. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship which engenders new ideas and further our shared mission to bring more incredible theatre to audiences and further fan the creative flame in participants and creatives.”

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