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Très chic it isn't, but now gritty Sunderland is a Paris hit

Paris notebook: A theatre production about a north-east city in England has become an unlikely stage sensation in the French capital.
A scene from the play Sunderland.
A scene from the play Sunderland.

A theatre production about a gritty city in the north-east of England has become an unlikely stage sensation in the French capital. And the success will not stop with sold-out performances in Paris with a film adaptation now on the cards, Colin Randall, Foreign Correspondent, reports

Imagine the fictional American backwater of Hicksville as not only dull, but grim. Someone writes a play portraying everyday life there, injects a few good gags and suddenly has a huge Broadway hit on his hands, whetting the appetite of a posse of Hollywood directors.

Bienvenue to Hicksville, Paris style. In an improbable success story, Sunderland - the play, not the north-eastern English city that has long been the butt of comedians' jokes - has taken theatreland by storm in the city of romance.

A dark comedy - in which a dysfunctional family struggles with life in a former mining and shipbuilding city dominated by unemployment, rotten weather, football and alcohol - the production has won rave reviews from critics and theatregoers alike.

The material seems unpromising: a woman turns to surrogate motherhood to raise money to look after her autistic teenage sister after their mother commits suicide.

But after selling out night after night since opening last September at the Petit Théâtre de Paris, the play has had its run extended until June instead of closing, as originally planned, at the end of December. After serious interest from at least two French filmmakers, a producer linked to Pathé has now bought an option to turn the production into a movie.

As one who has lived in France for most of the past eight years, but grew up in one of the surrounding County Durham towns and villages that provide much of Sunderland football club's support, I consider myself an authority on how the city is seen on both sides of the English Channel.

In the UK, mention of the place routinely produces amusement or derision. In France, blank looks would be more commonplace, though during bleak times for the football team, one Monsieur Blanc, a shopkeeper in the Mediterranean resort where I live, would throw open his arms, shout out "Sunderland!" and burst into laughter whenever we met.

A British columnist reviewing a soap opera storyline in which a character covered up an affair by claiming to be staying in Sunderland to buy a greyhound, wrote recently: "Anybody willingly wanting to spend the night in Sunderland would raise my doubts."

"None of the cast had any idea where it was before they came together for the play," says Clément Koch, a French writer and actor who spent a year studying at Durham University and working at the Nissan car factory on Sunderland's outskirts.

A line spoken by one of the play's characters shows what the actors were missing: "It rains so much that it feels like you're living in a washing machine."

Warts and all, the play has made a big impact on the Parisian cultural landscape. It may rain a lot in Sunderland; the wettest day of my life was spent there, trudging through rainswept streets on the eve of Sheikh Mansour's takeover of Manchester City, who had just beaten my team 3-0. But on a bitingly cold night that is a speciality of Parisian winters, another large audience warmed last week to what one amateur online reviewer called Sunderland's mixture of "emotion, belly laughs and love".

"It captured the ambience of working class life in the area very well and also the tribal divide between the two cities, Sunderland and Newcastle," said Maryvonne Ménard, a French friend who once worked as an au pair in north-eastern England. "It was perhaps more about a social milieu than any particular place, but I laughed a lot, even though it was a sad story."

Koch, 41, married with two children, recalls with some affection the Sunderland he came to known as a young man. He cheerfully admits that the play presents a caricature of life in northern England, though he remembers his eyes "popping out" on first encounter with the boisterous nightlife and distinctly non-chic gaudiness of its youth.

He says it would be his "greatest prize" to see the play translated into English and presented in Sunderland and the London West End.

But anyone intrigued by how a filmmaker would depict Sunderland, the city, on the big screen is likely to be disappointed.

Richard Pezet, the producer who has taken an option on the script, says he plans to move the story's setting from northern England to France and currently favours the town of St Etienne, in the Massif Central.

"There are a lot of similarities between the two locations," he says, citing intense football rivalry with neighbouring Lyon and modern struggles with industrial decline and unemployment. "But it is all at a very early stage."


Updated: February 10, 2012 04:00 AM

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