Wearmouth by Ben Gettins
Customs House, South Shields
4th September 2023
This is the second show I have seen with a theme involving Sunderland Association Football Club this year following the lovely retelling of the Carter Family in The Sunderland Story at The Sunderland Empire. Wearmouth is a horse of a very different colour but still has a raw passion for SAFC at its heart.
Wearmouth tells the tale of Luke and Steven whose past experiences in life has drawn the pair to the very edge of Wearmouth Bridge in Sunderland but for different reasons. The action begins on 11th February 2023, a day when Sunderland entertained Reading at the Stadium of Light. Steven is found in his customary place on Wearmouth Bridge and is contemplating the unthinkable when he is joined by his friend and confident, the much younger Luke. The soundscape includes a dull roar of 40,000+ football fans enjoying the action in the stadium as the two friends discuss their respective challenges and observations on what is happening around them.
Luke (Jake Jarratt) is a rough lad from Pennywell and hisportrayal of him is pitch perfect. He delivers a warm, but damaged character that the audience can identify with. He has faced many challenges in his life including a failed relationship, the loss of his dog, a frosty and distant connection with his dad.
Steven (Joe Caffrey) is a salt of the earth no nonsense fella with a quick wit but his own demons to battle having lost two loved ones in the recent past. Caffrey effortlessly travails the two dimensions of his character and the two actors combine brilliantly to develop a unique and almost familial bond as the story progresses.
The set combined with a carefully thought-out soundscape and some subtle lighting works very effectively indeed and transports anyone who knows the bridge evocatively and even those who maybe do not will be able to visualise the location where these two tragic characters meet every match day.
Once the characters have been established, we are taken back in time 4 months to the home game between Sunderland and Burnley on 22nd October 2022 when the two first meet. At this point Luke is at his lowest ebb and it is Steven who adopts the challenge to change his mind about what he intends to do and to distract his new young friend by learning a little more about him.
Fast forward to Sunderland vs QPR on the 3rd of December 2022 and the bond between the two men separated by years but with a common goal and a love of Sunderland is more defined and the fondness felt between them is becoming evident.
The skill of the performance is, of course, in the acting but the genius is in the writing. Ben Gettins has developed a wonderful story from what was a 10-minute script for which he jointly won the Peter Lathan Prize for New Writing and it is very clear to see why. There is pathos, humour, tragedy, and Gettins really gives his characters an authentic voice with Luke who is around 24 years old and near the age of the author and Steven who is significantly older. This is a great skill and I will be very interested to see other work by this up-and-coming young playwright in the future. Ben is also a talented performer himself who I reviewed performing the very wordy and challenging ‘Sugar Baby’ at Alphabetti Theatre last year. It is clear that he has learned from this experience and translated that into his writing.
This play does not shy away from some difficult subject matter and deals with mental health issues sensitively. As an audience member I did not once feel that I was being preached at or that there was an ulterior motive to the narrative being laid out before me. Credit again has to go to Ben for the writing but also to director Michael Blair forguiding the two superb actors to give their crowd a thoughtful, provoking and thoroughly absorbing hour of theatre.
For those of an enquiring mind, Sunderland lost 2-4 to Burnley, tonked Millwall 3-0 and on, a day that proves to be decisive for our heroes Luke and Steven, the Black Cats edged Reading 1-0 on their way to securing a play off berth at the end of the season. The rest, as they say, is history.
You do not have to be a Sunderland supporter to enjoy Wearmouth because this is a story of love, friendship, listening to each other, talking about problems and is very relevant in these difficult times we are all facing.
Wearmouth runs until Wednesday 6th September followed by the other Peter Lathan Prize winning author Louise Powell who presents her new play Grown up Writin’ from 8th-10thSeptember to complete the First Play Club at Customs House which ‘…provides a new initiative for emerging creatives at any stage in their career.’
Photo Credit: Benjamin Michael Smith