This year seems to be the year of previously unknown true stories hitting it big. But as Hidden Figures, the story of the African-American women who helped NASA put John Glen into space, heads to the Oscars, there’s a story closer to home making waves in the North East.
Writer/producer Ed Waugh and director Russell Floyd have brought the story of North East sports star Harry Clasper to the stage. As a rower, Clasper was the Sir Steve Redgrave of his day, and managed to make it from a working-class upbringing in Dunston to lead eight teams to win the Championship of the World on the Thames at Putney. He also invented and built the slim, light boats and outriggers used by modern scullers. The song of the Blaydon Races was even written for him. 130,000 people attended his funeral.
Jamie Brown brings boundless energy to the part of Harry. He throws his entire being behind each monologue he reels off in that brilliant Geordie twang, at times like a foreign language to those unfamiliar. To hold a play for almost two hours when you’re on stage alone for most of that time is quite an ask but Brown is unfazed. Near the finale, he mimics rowing in Clasper’s big race for what feels like an eternity and you can almost see the blood, sweat and tears. He gives the character a huge heart and likability in bucketloads.
Wayne Miller plays the additional characters in the story. Everyone from a nosy female neighbour spying and gossiping to an upper-class gent betting on the races to his cockney rival at the Thames regatta. He’s great in all guises and brings great comic relief to a story that is at times grim. He’s also responsible for leading the audience in a rousing sing along of the Blaydon Races.
The simplistic staging consists of nothing but a chest Harry sits on and a podium from under which the other characters appear. There isn’t even a boat – which is testament to the two actors’ seamless performances that the audience believes so fiercely in the story, and in particular the thrilling final moments.
I feel somewhat failed that I had never heard this story before. I was sat in front of a row (no pun intended) of former rowers who chatted passionately and extensively about Harry’s life before the curtain went up and the delight the play brought to them was visible. It would make a great film – a Cinderella story of a boy who came from nothing and became the star of his day. Aside from that, it’s a story that should be taught in schools as an education tool, about history, about sport and about our region.
You may now know the name Harry Clasper but this is a story, and a production, you will be unlikely to forget.
Hadaway Harry is at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal until Saturday February 25, 14.30pm and 19.30pm. For more information and tickets, click here