The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024
18/06/2024

Review: The Donkey, the Whippet & the Giant Leek

Chris Jackson reflects on a show where an internationally renowned couple return home to perform works composed by a dear friend
Graeme Danby and Valerie Reid perform the songs of Eric Boswell

You’d normally expect to pay top dollar to be entertained by international opera stars at a  premiere. But last Saturday a Northumberland audience got real value for money.

Swap a box at La Scala for the stalls of Blyth’s Phoenix theatre, get the performers to wrap their powerful vocal cords around broad Geordie lyrics and you’ve some idea what an unusual treat of a first night it was.

The show celebrating a composer most of us had never heard of was a labour of love for renowned singers, North East born Graeme Danby and his wife Valerie Reid. 

They were great friends of Eric Boswell who the pair insist the rest of us really should get to know. It was Eric who back in 1959 gave the world the Christmas classic Little Donkey. But he was no one-hit wonder, having penned songs for Matt Munro and Ricky Vallance amongst others.

The heart of the show is bringing to life Eric’s wonderful North East songbook. As well as writing international chart hits, Sunderland born Boswell had a way of creating great melodies for his unapologetically regional songs. They allowed the Geordie dialect to soar and more often than not come crashing back down to earth with a humorous final lyric.

The songs are not operatic, but Graeme and Valerie’s talents permit them to deliver the songs with power, unaided by microphones which, in a modern auditorium, is a rarity and a privilege. They also bring a self-evident passion for their deep friendship they had with the  creator of the songs. 



He wrote a tune especially for them to perform at their wedding — quite a gift! Maybe This is Love gently but hilariously takes the rip out of the newlyweds, pitting Graeme’s Geordie voice and Valerie’s posh Scottish tones against each other. 

It charts the path of true love as a young couple try to understand what the other is saying and adopt the other’s way of talking. Needless to say, we end up with a very eloquent groom and a bride who has larned hersel’ Geordie.

Appropriate really, as Eric worked on the popular George House and Mike Neville stage show series Geordierama that really brought the humour of our proud North East dialect to life. 

A personal favourite of this new show was Sweet Waters of the Tyne, written at the time the river was awash with sewage, which given recent events with storm drain discharges seemed quite a contemporary number after all.

Graeme revels in his rendition of Wi Me Pit Claes On as he woos his reticent girlfriend all the way to the bedroom despite his coal dust laden workwear. You’ll have to catch the show to hear the punchline.

There was a lot more to Eric Boswell than Little Donkey

The show’s title ensures we get to hear about how the Great Longbenton Leek got its name and even a man’s love of his whippet is brought to life with a puppet crafted by Eric himself.

Those cultural references to a time-gone-by reaches right into our North East DNA and it’s hoped that when the show tours community venues it will really have come home. Not least when it visits the Silverline Dementia Choir on North Tyneside where participants have some of Eric’s songs in their repertoire.

It’s probably true to say many in the audience at Blyth’s opening night were drawn by the show’s title and subject rather than by the star performers’ unquestionable operatic prowess. 

During a post show Q&A Graeme was asked by someone who was quite certain he’d seen his face somewhere before if he’d ever been on the telly?

And that is the whole point. The show has received Arts Council funding to reach people who have never experienced operatic voices before.

The songs are not operatic, but Graeme and Valerie’s talents permit them to deliver the songs with power, unaided by microphones which, in a modern auditorium, is a rarity and a privilege.

Graeme and Valerie are as far removed from a stuffy operatic stereotype as you can imagine. Their engaging and cheeky double-act was packed with anecdotes and 20 of Eric’s songs, accompanied by pianist Andrew Clarence. 

You get a real sense of what a prolific and talented songwriter Eric Boswell was. All achieved whilst holding down a full-time job as a physicist and lecturer. He died in 2009 but perhaps only now, through this show, is he getting the recognition he deserves.

He might have had a bit more notoriety had his entry to represent the UK in the 1961 Song For Europe (now called the Eurovision Song Contest) not been pipped to the top spot by just one vote. In fact he was so talented his two compositions came second and third in the competition’s selection round.

He clearly was much more than just Little Donkey, but of course it was the irresistible choice for the final number. Either through being sung to us by parents as a lullaby or as a staple at our school nativity most of us know the lyrics and we were encouraged to join in. 

At the climax to a thoroughly entertaining evening one of our group was inexplicably reduced to tears as we all sang along. She was as surprised as the rest of us at her emotional outburst. She couldn’t fathom just what it was that set her off but it just shows what a powerful effect a great tune can still have 60 years on.

The next performance is tonight (April 11) at The Fire Station, Sunderland, followed by Ponteland Methodist Church (April 13), Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham (April 23), Bishop Auckland Town Hall (April 26), Alnwick Playhouse (April 27), 17Nineteen, Sunderland (May 4), The Customs House, South Shields (May 12) and Live Theatre, Newcastle (June 21).

1 thought on “Review: The Donkey, the Whippet & the Giant Leek”

  1. Happy memories of Eric and Joe Ging and the travelling show which I had the pleasure of taking part in as a young singer/songwriter in the 1970s. Also happy memories of the Music Hall Museum set up by Joe in the Empire Theatre in Sunderland- a museum (sadly) with too brief an existence.

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