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Review: The Watch House at Laurels, Whitley Bay Aoife Kennan as Anne in The Watch House at Laurels Theatre in Whitley Bay. © Topher McGrillis
What's on
December 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

Theatre doesn't get more Northern than this

The Watch House is a new theatre production by Tyneside-born Chris Foxon, based on the novel by fellow Tynesider, and Carnegie medal-winning, Robert Westall. It is set in Tynemouth and is currently premiering at Laurels in Whitley Bay.

The play kicks off in a fictionalised version of '70s Tynemouth, with an Anne of Green Gables meets Jacqueline Wilson-esque setup. A teenage girl, Anne, is dropped off to stay with family friends Prudy and Arthur, to spend a summer in Tynemouth while her parents hash out their divorce. Prudy and Arthur are siblings who live alongside the eponymous Watch House, the old home of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, which Arthur spends his retirement maintaining. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Anne finds that her own emotional turmoil makes her the perfect catalyst for the Watch House’s troubled history to resurface.

The play is based on the novel of the same name by North Shields-born and Carnegie medal-winning author Robert Westall and has been directed by George Turvey of Papatango Theatre Company. The detailed script is thanks to the assiduous research of its writer, Chris Foxon, who grew up in Tyneside and worked closely with the team at the modern-day Watch House Museum throughout. Chris is also Chief Executive of Papatango and, although he and George already have an Olivier Award for their previous work with the company, this is his first foray into writing.

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We watch events unfold from the perspective of Anne, whom Aoife Kennan plays with an earnestness that makes her the perfect foil to her comedic counterparts. The latter are primarily played by Catherine Dryden, who is mind-bogglingly versatile as she flits between four of the play’s seven characters (you can also catch her in ‘Wor Bella’ at Theatre Royal in May). Donald McBride has been a staple of the North East theatre scene since he began acting in the ‘70s (and has appeared in shows like Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Vera). He brings his acting chops to bear on the character of the affable Arthur, as well as embodying a genuinely affecting, child-like vulnerability for other roles.

Donald McBride, Aoife Kennan and Catherine Dryden in The Watch House at Laurels in Whitley Bay | Topher McGrillis Donald McBride, Aoife Kennan and Catherine Dryden in The Watch House at Laurels in Whitley Bay | Topher McGrillis

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Despite its spooky underpinnings, the play is very funny, with enough niche references to local rivalries and thick dialect to satisfy the most strident of North Tynesiders. Nonetheless it doesn’t shy away from sincerity in its exploration of the tragedies that punctuate the Watch House’s history, even if Westall’s novel was written for children.

The set is simple but effective. A simple backlit skyline of the local coastline remains throughout the play, but is also revealed to be a model on display in the Watch House. Similarly, the ceiling is hung with lights and maritime ephemera that both evoke the locality, and are exhibits in the museum. Situated right in the heart of Whitley Bay, Laurels is perfectly placed for the play’s debut. The space isn’t big, and there is no stage, just several rows of seats around three sides of the room. However, the simplicity of the setup keeps all focus on the cast as they weave their tale. All in all, The Watch House makes for an incredibly atmospheric evening – Northern story-telling at its finest.

The Watch House will be performed at Laurels, Whitley Bay until Saturday 23rd December.

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