Odeon nights and a Majestic afternoon

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The Odeon in Bondgate, Darlington, is being restored after decades of neglect

WHEN I first moved to Darlington, to spend a year at college, I stayed in digs with three fellow students. We had a landlady who didn’t like us cluttering up her home, despite us being paying guests, and who fed us macaroni cheese at least three times a week.

This meant we had to seek shelter and sustenance elsewhere. The Odeon cinema on Bondgate regularly provided the shelter, while the Americana Fish Bar across the road provided the antidote to the macaroni cheese.

It was 1979, before multiplexes, and around the time desperate operators started dividing up their cinemas into smaller units – typically one big screen and a couple of studios – so they could show more movies, in the hope that audiences. presented with a greater choice of rubbish, would turn up.

The Odeon hadn’t been divided. It was vast, seating about 1,100 in stalls and circle, and frequently almost empty. That I can’t remember anything I saw there suggests we watched whatever was on, rather than making any kind of discerning choice.

By the time I returned to Darlington to work, in 1986, the Odeon had been closed for five years. Riley’s turned part of it into a snooker hall where I occasionally played, badly, before setting off for an evening’s work. The outside still looked like a cinema but inside they’d done a decent job of disguising the building’s original function.


The original ceiling remains intact

I hadn’t thought about the old place much for decades before I stumbled across a Facebook post about it. I don’t think I even knew that its original name was the Majestic.

It’s still a snooker club, although it has had a couple of operators since I last played. But it’s now being transformed by a local commercial property developer, Devlin Hunter.

Today he was giving guided tours of the building, organised via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/238396066298040/) by people who’ve taken a keen interest in the Majestic’s future. He took us into areas few people had seen since the last reel played out, although some of the building was still off limits for safety reasons.

He’s already removed a hideous suspended ceiling, uncovered the proscenium arch, and made a start on restoring some of the tremendous art deco features which appear to have survived the years relatively intact. There are stained glass windows and a magnificent, hidden façade yet to be tackled.

Mr Hunter’s visitors ranged from architecture lovers and cinema enthusiasts to local people with their own memories of the building and the merely curious.


The original facade of the Majestic survives, complete with its many stained glass windows, but is, for now, hidden (Orphan internet picture, I’d be happy to acknowledge the photographer if anyone knows who that was)

He says he’s been surprised by how many people seem to have a view on his project and he’s already spent more than he intended as more features have been revealed. He resisted every attempt to get him to disclose what the ultimate use will be. There have been reports of a “multi-purpose leisure facility”.

Whatever it turns out to be it would be nice to think that the people of Darlington will once again find  their entertainment in this impressive building.

Now, about reopening the Americana Fish Bar…


Maltese like it hot, 2013

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First published in Forty-20, November 2013

MALTA – the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret. A sunny jewel set in an azure sea. A place of history and culture.

I went for the rugby league.


Melita FC’s ground in the distance. As ever, the best way to find the ground is to aim for the floodlights

“Leave plenty of time to get there, the ground’s 20 minutes from civilisation” turns out to be good advice.  So I get off the bus on the main road and, after a few twists and turns, take a path across a rocky nature reserve before glimpsing the day’s field of dreams – Melita FC in Pembroke, venue for the MRL Dove Men+Care Championship grand final.

It’s a smart little stadium and when I arrive there’s a healthy crowd in. Then they all leave as the junior soccer session winds up on the pristine 3G pitch.

In search of company I take a seat in the glass-fronted clubhouse overlooking the pitch. “Best seats I’ve ever had for a grand final,” announces a new arrival. The accent is distinctively Australian.

Andrew is a Wests Tigers fan working in online gaming in Malta. We’re soon joined by Sonia Dorsett, also from Sydney’s west, who is visiting family in Rabat. Between the two of them the NRL gossip flows.

Sonia’s an official of the Windsor Wolves club down under and was in at the beginning of Malta RL when it was founded in Sydney. That team was an all-Australian outfit made up of players with Maltese heritage.


Malta Origin defeated Sliema to land the trophy

To progress internationally the founders knew they had to take the game home. “So that’s when Choc packed up and came here,” says Sonia. That was in 2008. Choc is Anthony Micallef, organisational and social media dynamo, chief exec of Malta RL, and referee for today’s clash between Sliema RL and Malta Origin. He spends a large chunk of his free time working on the game and has big ambitions for Malta. He points out that while Malta is currently ranked 21st in the world that’s higher than any Maltese team in any sport has ever been.

Another couple in the bar turn out to be from near where Sonia lives in Sydney. Rugby league really is a small world. It gets a little smaller when I spot Gareth Barron leading the Malta Origin warm-up. I occasionally gave him a lift home when he was a Gateshead Thunder apprentice back in ’99.

Gareth, now well-travelled in rugby league, answered an online ad looking for someone to beef up the Malta Origin pack at the back end of the season. In the Maltese media he was billed as “the British enforcer”.


The slightly unusual scene confronting goal-kickers at Melita FC

As the teams line-up it becomes obvious that a few compromises have had to be made to get the game on. The pitch has neither rugby posts, nor pitch markings. The try line is the front of the soccer six-yard box, supplemented by a line of brown parcel tape stuck across the width of the pitch. A goal is scored by getting the ball over the soccer bar and between two large green posts supporting the mesh that stops balls leaving the stadium.

Malta Origin kick-off, Sliema concede in the first minute. There are some good passages of play and Sliema are slick with ball in hand but can’t make their skill tell. Malta Origin are on top and lead 14-0 at half-time. Despite an early sin-binning for a high tackle the game is played with great enthusiasm and in good spirit.

Although it’s cooler than high summer the shade temperature is still 27 degrees and out on the pitch, where there is no shade, it’s warmer still. There are few concessions to the heat.

There’s a bit of a Sliema fightback in the third quarter before Origin romp away to a 46-10 win. With the Sliema defence tiring Barron, having played the full 80, completes a rare prop’s hat-trick. For Sliema it’s the end of a two-year unbeaten run. It’s fair to say they weren’t helped by losing eight regulars on the eve of the match.

Afterwards Sonia is called down from the stand to take on the role of visiting dignitary and present the trophy to winning skipper Joe Paolella. For the Origin boys there will be victory celebrations later in Paceville, Malta’s nightlife centre, but they can’t start until midnight. Many of the players have to attend a slightly sinister sounding “initiation” at their rugby union club first.

Meanwhile, there’s tidying up to be done and, still in his playing gear, the British enforcer is peeling the sticky tape off the pitch.

o Find out more at www.malteserugbyleague.com, www.facebook.com/maltaRL, or follow @maltaRL on Twitter

o This article originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine’s November 2013 issue: http://www.scratchingshedpublishing.com/magazine/

Return of the Sunday soul sessions, 2013

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spitfires october 2013 (2)THE Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of gigs – first Sunday of every month – in aid of the Bubble Foundation at The Cluny, Newcastle. The next, the sixth, is on February 2, 2014. Doors open at noon, £6.50 admission. Here’s the back story to what was meant to be a one-off:

First published in The Chronicle, Newcastle, August 2013

THEY’D queue from 11.30am with the doors opening at noon. Soon the foyer of the Newcastle Playhouse at the top of the Haymarket would be heaving, with 200 or more music fans crammed inside.

From 1982 to 1986 the Sunday lunchtime gig they’d all come to see was a Tyneside institution.

The East Side Torpedoes was a North East soul and rhythm and blues band who played all over the UK. But every Sunday they came home, missing only a couple of gigs in all that time.

East Side Torpedoes 1982

The East Side Torpedoes outside the Playhouse in 1982. From left, Steve Hall (guitar), Neil Hunter (vocals), Dave Connolly (trumpet), Dave Allan (drums), Derek Nattrass (bass), Andy Hawkin (keyboards), Nigel Stanger (alto sax), Lindolph D’Oliveira (tenor sax) and Terry O’Hern (trombone). Picture copyright ncjMedia

They had started as a five-piece, led by singer Neil Hunter, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section.

And while classic soul covers figured, the set was mainly original material, some of it evocative of North East life. The Evening Chronicle said their live shows featured “a brand of music that is powerful and fun” and called the band “a breath of fresh air”.

It was £3 to get in. Gill Johnston, who sometimes took the money on the door, remembers:  “The atmosphere was electric. You had to stand and it got very hot. The band would do two 45-minute sets but the second one could go on and on depending on their mood.”

Coast to Coast album coverThe Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by former Animal Chas Chandler. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop broadcaster. They appeared at Knebworth and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film on the band.

Neil remembers: “Some weeks we’d play three or four nights, some weeks five or six, sometimes none but we’d come back for the Playhouse, often driving through the night, because it was that important. We had a road crew of three or four guys who were on £25 a week and the Playhouse gig paid their wages if we didn’t have the work in.”

Gill recalls the gigs always ending on the same song, the slow, Hunter-penned ballad On Such A Night As This. “By then”, she says, “you’d have the audience swaying, everyone singing, people singing harmonies and descants.”

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Neil – in the mid 80s. He and trombone player Terry ‘Ernie’ O’Hern stuck together in the Blue Sharks, the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires in 2003.

And it’s the Spitfires, complete with a four-man horn section, who are playing a Sunday lunchtime gig once again, in aid of the Bubble Foundation which funds life-saving treatments for babies born without an immune system. It is a cause the band has supported for some years, introduced to it by Gill Johnston, now Bubble’s fundraising manager.

The venue is The Cluny in the Ouseburn in Newcastle on Sunday September 8, doors open at noon.  Gill’s hoping it’ll recapture some of the spirit of the Playhouse days.

o Tickets £6.50 on the door or visit www.thecluny.com. More about the Bubble Foundation at www.Bubblefoundation.org.uk

o The article above appeared in the Chronicle, Newcastle on August 31, 2013 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk

Do you like soul music? Sweet soul music…

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BACK in the Seventies I was at an all-boys grammar school. It had a stern-looking main building, gowned masters, blazers and ties and an inexplicable tolerance for long hair. But while I shared with my contemporaries a reluctance to go the barbers, I didn’t share the musical tastes of many of them.

It was fashionable to paint your haversack to reflect your favourite band. Intricate daubings of logos and album covers of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Hawkwind mostly, Genesis, Welsh rockers Budgie, and, for the older lads, CSNY.

Truth was, I didn’t like very much by any of them.


The Smokin’ Spitfires at Darlington Arts Centre in 2011. Picture courtesy of Gasto Promotions

At a party I was once outed as not being one of them. “You,” my accuser observed, “like all that soul and Motown sh*t, don’t you?”

Guilty as charged. Still guilty. And out on Friday night watching North East band the Smokin’ Spitfires playing a repertoire of classic Atlantic, Stax and Motown and a smattering of genuine originals at their annual Darlington Christmas party gig.

If my accuser from long ago is still around I have this observation for him: you don’t see many full rooms for bands playing Budgie and CSNY covers these days do you?.

The Spitfires have their roots, a long time ago, in the East Side Torpedoes. In 1978 the Torpedoes were the first band to play Darlington Arts Centre, in what became the Garden Bar, and the Spitfires, with two of the original Torpedoes, were among the last acts to play there before the centre’s unfortunate closure.

The East Side Torpedoes made an album, flirted with fame. They did a soul song about urban redevelopment – East End, West End – and another about confronting prejudice – Face It Where It Stands. On Such a Night As This, which closed Friday’s gig, is about being away from your Northern home. (There’s a remarkable amount of East Side Torpedoes stuff on YouTube, try starting here http://youtu.be/3AulmpRQthk)

The Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of benefit gigs at The Cluny in Newcastle in aid of the Bubble Foundation. You can find them there on the first Sunday of each month, including next Sunday, January 5, 2014.

Before the series launched, with what was planned to be a one-off, I had a chat with lead singer Neil Hunter for the Remember When page of the Chronicle in Newcastle.  I’ll post that article next.

Hellooah, it’s panto time 2013

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First published in The Journal, Newcastle, December 2013

I DIDN’T see a panto until I was almost 40, and until I saw my first I had no idea what I was missing. So it’s always a pleasure to review the annual Darlington Civic Theatre show. This year’s is a proper treat:

Aladdin, Darlington Civic Theatre until January 12, 2014


Programme cover for Aladdin, starring the Chuckle Brothers, at Darlington Civic Theatre.

LEAVE your serious face behind you, get ready to shout “Hellooah” and revel in a full-on family treat because the Chuckle Brothers don’t stop until you’re wiping away tears of laughter.

Aladdin is a joy.  The “to me, to you” showbiz legends lead from the front but there are highlights throughout this show with a strong starring cast and talented support.

There are some clever sets, a great live band, pyrotechnics, an elephant (of which more later), a flying carpet, some twerking, and a striking giant puppet genie.

The Chuckle Brothers deliver a series of sketches which appear at times to leave even themselves helpless with laughter. The one where Barry attempts to audition for the X Factor while Paul designs a dress had me weeping.

And there can’t be many acts who would have reached back to the 1930s and shoehorned Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s Egyptian Sand-dancer routine into a story set in old Peking. Priceless.

Gary Amers makes Aladdin a proper North East mother’s boy, desperate to win the hand of Princess Jasmine. His performance is energetic and funny.

Darlington’s own Beth Stobbart, in her first professional  panto  after shining on this stage with Darlington OS, is delightful as Jasmine. It seems there’s nothing she can’t sing.

When the Chuckle Brothers aren’t on it’s Philip Meeks, fast becoming a Darlington favourite, who keeps the laughs coming as Widow Twankey. He gives us a warm and funny dame and gets through uncountable costume changes. There’s even a Darlington football-themed outfit including the Quakers bra: “Nee cups, and nee support”. Phil Corbitt as Abanazar supplies just the right amount of evil as the villain of the piece.

There are some stand-out musical numbers, with Jessie J’s Price Tag, which closes the first half, being my favourite. Stobbart and Amers give great vocal performances, the set is transformed into a sumptuous sea of red and gold, the dancers lend a Vegas glamour. It’s fabulous.

There’s also a fair bit of slapstick. And the elephant? Well, if you’re any further forward than row K, you might want to duck. Enjoy.

o This review appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, www.thejournal.co.uk on December 14, 2013.

o Educational bit: If you’re not familiar with Wilson, Keppel and Betty have a look here, although it must have been Betty’s day off: http://youtu.be/bq7DGvfnr3U

A dream on the Tyne, 1999

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First published in Rugby League World, October 1999

JANUARY 29. Kerrod Walters leads his teammates out into the pre-season chill of Wheldon Road, Castleford, and the Gateshead Thunder have reached the starting line.


Gateshead Thunder promotional pack, 1999

Super League beckons in a few weeks and for the handful who’ve made the trip from the North East, a dream is about to become reality.

SEPTEMBER 12. Deon Bird scores under the posts at Wilderspool’s railway end and Kerrod slots over his first – and last – goal for the club as the hooter sounds to bring the curtain down on the Thunder’s incredible debut season.

The team tipped to finish nowhere, while playing in front of nobody, finishes sixth after contesting a top-five place right to the end.

There are about 250 Thunder fans behind the goal who have sung, shouted and conga-ed their way through the 80 minutes. Their players come to applaud them, hesitate at the advertising boards, then step over and join the party. They shake hands, hug fans and smile at young children and babes in arms.

Yet until that night in Castleford it had been a dream.

Mine went something like this: Saturday night, win the Lottery but don’t be greedy –- £3m would be enough. That’s £1.5m to secure the family’s future and £1.5m to storm the gates of Super League.

There were others in the North East who shared the dream. Some were North Easterners who had caught the bug at the RFL’s mlsslonary games at Gateshead, some were Rugby League exiles from the heartlands. I was an ex-Carlisle fan from Tyneside (long story!).

As far as I know, none of us ever won the Lottery – so we didn’t have to demonstrate how little we knew about running a professional Rugby League club.

But fortunately there were people who believed that Super League and the North East of England were made for each other. And while the rest of us dreamt, they were quietly working to make it happen.

Kath Hetherington and Shane Richardson introduced themselves to the North East media in June last year [1998]. They gained the franchise in August. Shortly afterwards they named it Gateshead Thunder. What has happened since has been a roller coaster ride for them and for anyone close to the club.

And there are a lot of people who feel close to the club –- because that’s the way Shane and Kath wanted it. Their pre-season pitch was, “Heroes You Can Touch”. That’s exactly the way it went.

From the very outset the connection was made between players and fans, players and youngsters, players and amateur clubs (although some amateur clubs were apparently more enthusiastic than others).

And let’s get this straight: yes, the team was packed full of Australians. Yes, that upset people elsewhere in the let’s-keep-it-to-ourselves world of Rugby League. And no, we don’t care.

Just ask the guy, originally from Widnes, who had seen only a couple of matches of his favourite sport in the 16 years before the Thunder came along. lt’s still an 80-mile round trip to a home game but he was so impressed he went out and bought an Aussie flag, emblazoned the word Thunder across it and waves it happily at every match.

Or ask those 250 people who were at Warrington on the last day of the regular season whether they care where the players wearing the shirts are from. They spent half the game singing this little ditty:

Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder,

You’ll come a-watching the Thunder with me,

And if we win, then we’ll sing,

lf we lose, we’ll sing it louder,

You’ll come a watching the Thunder with me.

The tune, if you haven’t worked it out, is Waltzing Matilda.

What those people have cared about more than anything else has been the pride and the commitment those players have put in. Pride and commitment which has ensured that the Thunder is a club with passion. That passion is what brought people back for more after they’d seen their first game.

For years we had said that North East people were like Rugby League people – that they could embrace the game and embrace those who play it. We were right. Of course the players will never be household names in the same way as Alan Shearer and Kevin Phillips in the North East – but Felsch and Grimaldi and Peters and Sammut are names in my household and in a few thousand more across the region.

Matt Daylight is more than a household name in my street – he is a hero.

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

At the final home game, the 66-6 rout of Wakefield Wildcats, the crowd was invited down to the track for a presentation to the retiring Danny Lee. Now, Danny may have been a big name in Cronulla, but six months ago no one in the North East had heard of him. Two thousand people stayed for the ceremony.

The squad fanned out around the track to shake hands, accept the slaps on the back, exchange a few words: the squad and 2,000 people reinforcing the bond they had built in the course of the season.

Up in the stand a neighbour of mine stood uncomfortably, missing out on the excitement down below. Before March 1999, Nicky had never set foot in a professional sports stadium. She almost froze on opening night as Thunder took on Leeds Rhinos in foul conditions. By July, she was prepared to drive to Hull – on her own – for a Wednesday night game. She shared the joy of the victory over Wigan in Edinburgh.

Five days before that final home game Nicky had major back surgery and set the Thunder match as a recovery target. She made it, but couldn’t get down to join the celebrations. Someone at trackside pointed out the lonely figure in the stand to Matt Daylight and the Thunder’s top try scorer didn’t hesitate.

He shot across the track, clattered up to row R, gingerly embraced the pained Nicky and said: “Hello, I’m Matt.” “Yes,” choked Nicky. “I know.”

Super League – and Rugby League – in the North-East has come a long way in a short time. It has won a lot of friends and can teach the rest of the game a few lessons. Just ask the man with the Aussie flag – a League fan for 20-odd years – or Nicky – a Thunder fan for 30 weeks.

Altogether now: “Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder…”

  • This article appeared in Rugby League World magazine www.rugbyleagueworld.net in October 1999 under the byline Alex George. Alex wrote a lot about rugby league in the North East back then. He even edited the Thunder matchday magazine. He was, and still occasionally is, me.

The Rugby League World article, October 1999

  • In November 1999 it was announced that the money had run out. In the absence of new investors Gateshead Thunder merged with Hull Sharks and moved to Hull for the following season. A new Gateshead Thunder joined the Rugby Football League in late 2000 and currently plays in Championship 1, two levels below Super League.

RIP Graham Grumbleweed

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Graham Walker, left, and Robin Colvill. Picture from thegrumbleweeds.co.uk

GRAHAM Walker of the comedy double act The Grumbleweeds has died, aged 68.

He was a man who could reduce me to tears of laughter just by walking onto a stage. If he walked on carrying a drum stool I would be laughing before he’d even started the gag.

And I could see that gag (and you had to see it, explanation wouldn’t do justice), and the rest of The Grumbleweeds’ tried and tested and oft-repeated routine any number of times and still find it funny.

The Grumbleweeds – Graham and his comedy partner Robin Colvill – had been together since 1962. If you told me they’d been doing some of their comedy business from the day they started I wouldn’t complain.

I first encountered them as a child watching a BBC children’s TV show called, I think, The Coal Hole Club. Back then they were a five-piece musical comedy group. When I found out they were doing panto in Darlington a few years back I was at the front of the queue for the office review tickets. They were hysterically funny. When they returned a couple of years later the panto characters were different, the act was the same.

It was this kind of thing:

Robin: Sign this.

Graham: I ain’t got no pen.

R: I have no pen, he has no pen, they have no pens.

G: Well who’s got all the pens?

R: I’m talking about your grammar.

G: What about her?

R: What about who?

G: My grandma.

R: What about your grandma?

G: Well, she might have a pen.

It was silly, and innocent. They had more on-stage energy than men half their age. It was unfashionable – they probably hadn’t been on TV in 20 years. But if you are in the right frame of mind comedy doesn’t have to be cutting edge, or aimed at filling arenas, or flogging DVDs (although they’d have sold you one, in the foyer, in person). It just has to make people laugh. The Grumbleweeds made me laugh, so RIP Graham Walker.

I’m not sure the review (from 2009) did The Grumbleweeds’ contribution to the show justice: but then again, I’d watched much of it with tears streaming down my face. It appeared under the headline: Perfect panto leaves nothing to Grumble about

 Aladdin at Darlington Civic Theatre

FIRSTLY, a confession. I’m only 10 in panto years. I didn’t see one until I was 39 which means the magic of this very British theatrical experience hasn’t yet worn off.

Panto should appeal to the inner child in all of us and this one, featuring The Grumbleweeds, appealed to mine in much the same way The Grumbleweeds appealed when I was an actual child.

Yes, they’ve been in the business that long. Aladdin was first performed in 1788 and the boys were probably in it shortly afterwards.

Actually they’ve been together since 1962 but you take my point – they know what they’re doing in front of an audience.

And so to the show. Let’s tick off the essential panto ingredients.

Wafer thin and largely incidental plot? Boy wants girl. Tick.

Comedy double act? See above. Tick.

Former reality TV contestant? X Factor’s Chico (as Aladdin). Tick.

Evil person? Wizard. Tick.

Pretty girl? Two. A princess (Sarah Brown) and her friend Yu Yin (from the Chinese State Circus). Tick.

Hard-working, on-the-ball, live band? Tick.

Cute dancing children? As always at Darlington, the Joanne Banks Dancers. Tick.

Funny man dressed as large woman? Bobby Bennett, entertaining people since 1955. Tick.

Other random stuff? Tick – because one of the joys of panto is that almost anything can be shoehorned in.

Which is how I came to be watching a Chinese woman lying on her back juggling five umbrellas (and the occasional rug) with her feet while a princess sang Reflection from the Disney movie Mulan and a sugar-wired three-year-old kicked me in the head from behind.

It couldn’t have been more surreal had Darlington’s own Vic Reeves scripted it for Novelty Island.

The two 14-year-olds I took along had a whale of a time. Silliness conquering teenage cool perhaps?

Their favourite joke? Ozzy Osbourne: “Guess who I bumped into in Specsavers?” You can fill in the punchline yourself.

The whole company play their part. Magician Max Somerset from BBC TV’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a splendid baddie and Bobby Bennett a tremendous Widow Twankey. The real surprise is that Chico really is an all-round entertainer.

And there’s a tantalising glimpse of what the future holds for Jedward. But for that you’ll have to buy a ticket.

However, it’s The Grumbleweeds – Graham Walker and Robin Colvill – who are the stars of a super show.

This review appeared in The Journal www.journallive.co.uk on December 12, 2009. Read more about The Grumbleweeds at www.thegrumbleweeds.co.uk

If you’d like to see more (and you really should) there’s a video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXKOcbkLgmk

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