REVIEW: Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path, The Customs House, South Shields, Until September 12

The world premiere of Catherine Cookson's The Cinder Path is being staged at the Customs House, in South Shields.
The world premiere of Catherine Cookson's The Cinder Path is being staged at the Customs House, in South Shields.

Harrowing and touching, The Cinder Path is a breathtaking production.

Following on from the success of last year’s staging of The Fifteen Streets, South Shields-based ION Productions is back with another stage adaptation of a Dame Catherine Cookson story.

The show is the first book of the late author’s to be adapted for the stage in over 20 years and was only granted after months of negotiations with the Cookson Estate.

The world premiere of The Cinder Path has been brilliantly adapted by local actor Paul Dunn – who also appears in the show.

I’ve never considered myself a Catherine Cookson fan and I’ll admit to having never read one word of her writing, but I absolutely loved this show.

It follows the life of Charlie Macfell (Jamie Brown), who we see grow from a young, shy farmer’s son to a strong-willed Army Major.

From left, Paul Dunn as Edward, Georgia Nicholson as Mary and Jamie Brown as Charlie.

From left, Paul Dunn as Edward, Georgia Nicholson as Mary and Jamie Brown as Charlie.

You really do feel like you’ve known the character for years and there’s a strong connection with the audience – you really feel what he feels.

It’s a demanding role for Brown, who barely leaves the stage, but he gives a strong performance.

Sarah Boulter is fantastic opposite him as Nellie Chapman, the youngest daughter of another farmer, who has a desperate crush on Charlie.

Boulter takes the character from a young, fun-loving girl to a haunted and troubled woman with real conviction.

This is a marvellous production and staging the world premiere is a massive coup for South Shields.

James Hedley also gave a gripping performance as workhouse boy Ginger Slater. You start out feeling nothing but sympathy for the character, but before long you’ll hate him, and Hedley is fantastic in the villainous role.

The rest of the actors – Dunn, Rosie Fox, Anna Nicholson, Georgia Nicholson, and Steven Stobbs – each play multiple roles and do it brilliantly. There is never any confusion over who everyone is supposed to be.

But a particular favourite came from Georgia Nicholson’s Sister Bernard who had the audience chuckling helplessly.

The show is a real marker of our Geordie heritage and is a wonderful follow-up on the Customs House stage to Geordie The Musical. It’s been a delight to see such packed audiences – that’s the way it should always be.

Jamie Brown as Charlie and Rosie Fox as Victoria.

Jamie Brown as Charlie and Rosie Fox as Victoria.

The show has a perfect balance of comedy and drama and tender moments are cleverly juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the time.

A slow motion scene in the trenches is wonderfully atmospheric. The way lighting and smoke effects are used as explosions and gunshots rain down on the characters looks fantastic.

The costumes look very authentic and the set looks great. It’s very minimalist but does the job perfectly. Two beds are cleverly used to transform the setting from the farm, to army barracks, the trenches and the hospital.

James Henshaw’s lighting really packs a punch in the show, as does the original music by Jonny Winter. The tunes match each scene perfectly and some are quite infectious.

Late theatre director Jackie Fielding had begun working on the project before her untimely death, but director Gareth Hunter and the cast and crew have done a wonderful job and one I’m sure she’d be proud of.

This is a marvellous production and staging the world premiere is a massive coup for South Shields.

Catherine Cookson fan or not, and whatever your age, see this show or miss out on something amazing.

The Cinder Path runs at the Customs House until Saturday, September 12. Click here to book tickets.

Twitter: @vickinewmanjp