The Sunderland Empire is the largest theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh, and one of the first theatres I ever visited, so when I had the chance to go on a theatre tour, I was extremely excited. I took my mam along too and we both had a great time.
Sunderland Empire, or the Empire Palace as it was originally known, was opened in 1907, having been established by Richard Thornton. Vaudeville star Vesta Tilley opened the theatre, which was designed by local architects William and T.R. Milburn. The theatre played host to variety performances until the 1930s, when it also began to host motion pictures. More recently, the theatre has been refurbished, enabling it to host touring productions of big West End shows.
We began our tour in the auditorium, and got to go on stage; as Miss Saigon is currently showing at the theatre, we got to see the helicopter which was pretty awesome. The tour was also a chance to see the view from different levels of the auditorium, which will come in very handy next time I want to book a show here. I particularly liked the boxes, which, unlike most theatres in which they are placed at the side of the stage, are actually at the back of the dress circle. The Empire has 1,860 seats, and can accommodate over 2,000 people including standees.
We didn’t get to see the dressing rooms, as they are currently in use, but we saw the costumes for the current touring production and got some insight into the sheer scale of the work that needs to be done behind the scenes to ensure the show goes on. There are numerous costumes for each performer and understudy, even down to the child costumes, and about four washing machines to keep them all clean, not to mention the wigs which are made out of real hair and need to be cared for accordingly.
One of my favourite parts of the theatre is the grand entrance, at which paintings of important artistic figures, such as Shakespeare and Mozart, have been uncovered after a Seventies director had them painted over in lime green. There wasn’t enough funding to uncover the final painting, so it remains a mystery. I love the grand staircase, though the lime green paint has crept into this area too. The statue of the Greek muse of dance and choral song, Terpsichore, is the original that once sat on top of the theatre, while the dents in the railings come from the bomb damage the theatre sustained during the Second World War.
All the way up in the gallery, we heard a few ghost stories. Sid James, who died on stage in 1976, was supposedly heard laughing in a dressing room not long after by performer Les Dawson, who refused to return to Sunderland for the rest of his life. In 1949 a stage manager, Molly Moselle, went missing leaving the theatre and her ghost has sometimes been seen or sensed.
We finished our tour in the first floor bar/cafe area where we had a cup of coffee. I’d definitely like to come back here to have a meal before a show. I must check out the theatre’s upcoming production schedule.