The golden age of Geordie music hall is brought to life as North-East playwright Ed Waugh pays tribute to forgotten performer Ned Corvan. Viv Hardwick reports

IT’S almost time for forgotten North-East musical superstar Edward "Ned" Corvan to take a bow. Mr Corvan's Music Hall, a play featuring the music of Ned starts a three-week tour of the region this month, with a world premiere run at the Gala Theatre, Durham, from Thursday to Saturday, May 25 to 27.

Playwright Ed Waugh, who's latest play Hadaway Harry sold out and received standing ovations in London and Newcastle Theatre Royal, brings his newest project to South Shields, New Hartley (Northumberland), Sunderland, Whitley Bay, Hartlepool, Stanley, Berwick and culminates in a two-day festival at Sage, Gateshead.

Mr Corvan features well-known regional actors Chris Connel (Pitman Painters, UK and New York) and Jamie Brown (Culture Award winner for best performance in Hadaway Harry) and former Bellowhead violinist Rachael McShane.

"Ned's life was exciting to say the least. Born in 1827 and dying of TB of the larynx in 1865, aged 37, his story is funny and tragic, and inspirational. It makes for tremendous drama. He was a tribune of the people and his songs were magnificent. He sang about day-to-day events and railed against injustices. That's why he was loved not just on Tyneside but throughout the region.

"His comic song Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O! started the Hartlepool Monkey legend and he penned the beautiful Cullercoats Fish Lass. His protest songs included The Price of Small Coals and Toon Improvement Bill, both of which are totally relevant today," says Waugh.

The playwright discovered that Corvan was a virtuoso violin player, a comedian, a great singer and an artist. He sang in a Geordie accent and played to audiences of 4,000 without amplification.

"How do you find one person to replicate that on stage? It's true to say Ned was a one-off," says Waugh.

To capture the essence of Corvan's life story Waugh has written the play from the viewpoint of both a younger and older Ned.

"About 18 months ago we had a read through of the play and I asked Chris Connel along. Chris is a great actor and we'd worked together on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, which I co-wrote with Trevor Wood. I'll never forget afterwards when Chris turned to me and said ‘count me in’. That's why the show was delayed by around a year. Chris is in huge demand and he's well worth waiting for."

Waugh then turned to his Hadaway Harry star Jamie Brown to play the younger Ned.

"Jamie's performance in Hadaway Harry was incredible; he's written his way into the local history books with his performances as Harry. People took it upon themselves to write to the Theatre Royal after the show to say how tremendous Jamie was. By all accounts that doesn't happen very often."

Waugh’s search for a violinist to bring Ned Corvan back to life ended as a result of Bellowhead, a major band on the UK folk scene for the past 12 years, breaking up.

"I couldn't believe our luck when I was told Bellowhead violinist Rachael McShane lived on Tyneside," says Waugh. "Within the first minute of meeting Rachael I knew she was perfect for the role as, effectively, Ned's violin. She has a wonderful feel for the music and her contribution has been immense.

"We also brought in Pitman Poet Benny Graham and folk legend Johnny Handle to help prepare Ned's brilliant songs, so they are tight and constantly take the story forward."

The final piece of the jigsaw was signing up Gareth Tudor Price to direct the show. The former Hull Truck director who boasts West End credits, read the script and loved it.

Tudor Price, who directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, says: "Ned's is a tremendous story of a real working class hero. I can't wait to see this wonderful character and his songs being brought to life by such a brilliant cast.

"I've worked with Chris numerous times, including on Cooking With Elvis and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, of course. Both Jamie and Rachael I know from their reputations and I'm really excited about working with them."

Waugh says: "Like Hadaway Harry, this is about our North-East heritage, our real heritage not the ‘kings and queens’ history we are taught at school. We've pegged the tickets at £15 to make this accessible and we know, like in Ned's day, people will leave the theatre singing his magnificent songs."

  • Mr Corvan's Music Hall is based on Dave Harker's biography of Ned Corvan called Cat-Gut Jim and supported by Arts Council England. It is being produced in association with Gala theatre Durham and Sunday for Sammy. For further details of venues, dates and times visit: