Review: The Sunderland Story at Sunderland Empire

Review: The Sunderland Story at Sunderland Empire

The Sunderland Story – Sunderland Empire

18th May 2023

For someone with the surname Stokoe, it was very appropriate that I should be sent along to review this show. The Sunderland Empire has really gone to town to make the football fans of the region feel very welcome with a red carpet adorned with ’73 marked on it to denote Sunderland Association Football Club’s historic victory against the mighty Leeds United in the FA Cup. 

The show itself is based around a wake where the Carter Family gather to remember the elder William Carter and to reflect on the glories, mishaps and tragedies that have befallen the football team the whole family love – but there is a lot more to it than that.

The cast of ten, including a very talented band, trace the long history of Sunderland AFC from the founding of the club and playing in blue to the well-recognised team in the modern era in their traditional red and white stripes. The story focuses on several significant moments in the club’s history while, inevitably taking a more than jaundiced view of the noisy neighbours up the road at St James’ Park including a very successful period when Sunderland was the Manchester City of their day. The show remembers a rather tragic incident when a talented goalkeeper sadly lost his life and the cup and league wins over the years which audience members may not remember. There was a very touching sequence where the video wall showed Sunderland players who even the younger people may remember who are no longer with us and Bradley Lowery, the beautiful young Sunderland Supporter who Jermaine Defoe championed before his untimely death to a particularly nasty form of cancer. 

The action takes place in The Wheatsheaf pub where the wake of Grandfather Carter is being held. The middle of the stage reflects the Fulwell End at Roker Park and stage right houses the very competent band who all intermittently join the action at various points throughout the show. There is a lot of music which is beautifully evocative of the period in which the action is set and familiar tunes when the story reaches the 80’s and 90’s and it works very well indeed. The soundtrack includes many staples heard on the terraces of The Stadium of Light much to the delight of the packed crowd this evening. 

While this is very much geared towards fans of Sunderland AFC, there is a story which transcends the terraces of Roker Park and resonates with football stadia and fans up and down the land, The Sunderland Story is a commentary for the people; the working-class folk who graft during the week to cheer on their team at the weekend despite all the upheaval of political nonsense going on elsewhere. It is a story of togetherness, friendship, family, and a fervent love of football. 

The audience this evening was invested from the very start in what they were watching. This is not just for the boys either. I spoke with a very passionate lady beside me who whooped her way through the memories that she had of her family on the terraces and all the many football matches she had enjoyed. These including both semi-finals against Manchester City and the final when Sunderland victoriously lifted the FA Cup in 1973. Anne Burlinsons  recollections of her times on the terraces were as enthusiastic as they were inspiring. After the show, I spoke with Cherrill Willis from Stanley who told me that, while she was not generally a theatre person, she had thoroughly enjoyed her evening and had even been educated by her experience with The Sunderland Story. This is very much to be encouraged from a theatre goer’s point of view. 

The Sunderland Story runs until 27th May at The Sunderland Empire and offers a great night out for any fan of football, music for those who are football ambivalent and a nostalgic and humorous look at life in the North East from before the turn of the 20thcentury to the modern day.

– Stephen Stokoe

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