Show must go on for Barbara

Barbara Old (left) with Hartlepool College of Further Education students (left to right) Rebecca Wilson, Naman Hussain and Emily Armstrong. Picture by FRANK REID
Barbara Old (left) with Hartlepool College of Further Education students (left to right) Rebecca Wilson, Naman Hussain and Emily Armstrong. Picture by FRANK REID

FROM The Pied Piper to Aladdin,

Barbara Old has appeared in virtually every production of the Blackhall Community Players since she was a young girl in the 1960s.

“I remember, the year before my first pantomime, my mother took me to see one of their shows when they did Aladdin,” said Barbara.

“I said ‘I want to be on that stage’ and the next year I was.

“Every year after that, my mother always said ‘that’s it, your last one’, but it never happened.”

Since then there has been no stopping the 52-year-old, who only missed productions during her university years and the year her eldest daughter was born.

Even then, she couldn’t stay away and was a prompter, reminding actors of their lines at the side of the stage.

And when she was pregnant with her second child, she was given a comedy part and wore trousers that accommodated her baby bump.

Even her daughter, Victoria Collinson, now 23, and son Thomas Old, 15, have appeared alongside the Players.

Barbara, who is also mum to Jennifer Old, 16, and Anna Old, 14, said: “I’ve played Cinderella, Prince Charming, Aladdin, the princess in Aladdin. Over the years I’ve played most characters.

“I now stick to the pantomime dame or I’m even cast as the evil one.

“I don’t mind – it’s good to be nasty!

“I like the comedy aspect as well.”

Barbara’s very first pantomime appearance, as a seven-year-old in 1967, was in The Pied Piper, as one of the children who were spirited away.

Barbara, a lecturer in A Level theatre studies, English Literature and GCSE English at Hartlepool College of Further Education, remembers: “It was absolutely magic.

“Pantomime is an art form, people tend to look at pantomime and think it’s not proper theatre.

“But it’s the type of theatre that engages children from an early age.

“There’s the adult sense of humour but the silliness kids love, the clowning around and the slap-stick comedy, as well as the happy-ever-after.”

Productions put on by Blackhall Community Players, which is led by Margaret Stephenson MBE, include Cinderella, Aladdin, The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, Goody Two Shoes, Robin Hood And Babes In The Wood, Jack And The Beanstalk and Little Miss Muffet, which the group is busy preparing for a show in January.

The actors, which put on two shows a year, have also performed musicals, including The Sound of Music and The King And I.

But Barbara, whose parents are Audrey, 75, and Tommy Anderson, 82, said she enjoys the unpredictability of pantomimes rather than the slick style of musicals.

“The last time we did the pantomime we are doing this year, I was the dame.

“There is a bit of slapstick in it where I’m supposed to be wallpapering, but I’m hitting people with the water and paintbrush. “In one scene I was down on my knees and one of the girls I had been ‘painting’ all week threw some water over me – that wasn’t in the script!”

Audience numbers are usually about 1,000 over four nights and a Saturday matinee.

Barbara, who is married to Martin, 52, head of sixth form at the FE college, said a change she had noticed over the years is a fall in the number of men taking part in the plays.

But Barbara, who was born and bred in Blackhall before moving to Sunderland six years ago, added: “I enjoy performing.

“It’s a sense of escapism because you are able to take on a role – you are someone else.

“There is also the sense that you are all pulling together to put on a show.”

Her fellow long-running cast members include Linda Purdy and Millie Tempest.

Barbara, who passes on her performing knowledge to students on her courses at the Stockton Street-based college, added: “It’s hard work when you work full-time and we rehearse twice a week and then we work on technical production because we are an amateur group and do everything ourselves.

“We have always had a cast that is inclusive of all ages.”

In the mid-70s, when the group’s base, Blackhall Community Centre, which was originally a miners’ welfare hall, was ran as a social club and children weren’t allowed in because of the bar.

This put paid to the group’s plans as it is largely made up of youngsters.

The Players had to perform at venues including the village’s St Andrew’s Church hall and the former Yohden Hall Secondary School.

The group has also entertained at various community venues, including old people’s homes, The Ship Inn at Hesleden and a big production at the former Crimdon Pavilion.

But there is no doubt the group has staying power, having been in existence for more than 50 years.

Can Barbara see herself performing with the group when she’s 80?

“I can’t see why not”, she said optimistically.

l Blackhall Community Players is short of men for its forthcoming production of Little Miss Muffet.

Any budding actors should contact Margaret Stephenson on (0191) 5867572.