The QT

Monday 20 May 2024

Wor Bella set to score at the Theatre Royal

Playwright Ed Waugh tells David Whetstone about bringing a wartime heroine to the big stage
Wor Bella (Catherine Dryden) posing with the cup. Credit: Sophie Teasdale

“Bella Reay, born in Cowpen, centre forward for Blyth Spartans Ladies (1917-1919) and England… scored 133 goals in one season and was part of the team which went on to win the Munitionettes’ Cup in May 1918.”

With that phenomenal tally, you do wonder whether defence existed as a footballing concept a century ago.

But that’s what it says on the plaque at Croft Park, home of Blyth Spartans, and clearly Bella Reay, when not engaged in the back-breaking work of refilling spent wartime shells, was some player.

The fact there’s a plaque at all is down to Ed Waugh who mentioned the lack of one in a talk he gave in Blyth and someone from the council jumped up and said: “Leave it to me.”

That’s the way Ed remembers it. And thanks to Ed there’s also a play about Bella which after a successful first tour is due on Newcastle Theatre Royal’s main stage this month.

We can only imagine what the sharpshooting former munitions factory worker have made of that.

Women’s football is on the up with England current European champions, crowds swelling, TV taking a keen interest and clubs investing significantly in teams.

So it’s a good time to be remembering a fleeting moment in history when the women’s game could draw 20,000-strong cup final crowds  to grounds like St James’ Park in Newcastle and Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park.

With the men away fighting in the trenches, the women seized their chance and football-starved fans warmed to their competitive spirit.

“This is just a magnificent story about heroic women who not only contributed to the war effort but played football during the First World War,” says Ed, who also leapt at the chance to have his latest play performed on the grandest of stages.

“We always think the story is the most important thing and it’s crucial that the story gets out there.”

Over the years, first in tandem with co-writer Trevor Wood (now turned thriller writer) and latterly solo, Ed has been turning out what might be termed blue plaque plays, shining a spotlight on North East working class heroes and heroines.

He has done it for champion oarsman Harry Clasper (Hadaway Harry), musical stars Joe Wilson and Ned Corvan (The Great Joe Wilson), boxer Glenn McCrory (Carrying David), shipwreck rescuer Grace Darling (Amazing Grace) and now Bella.

Mary Lyons, centre

Still in the habit of saying “we”, Ed says the initial plan had been to focus on another First World War footballer, Mary Lyons, who played for a shipyard team in Jarrow.

“She was like the Peter Beardsley of her day. She was born in 1902 and is still the youngest footballer ever to play for England and score. She scored in a 3-2 victory over Scotland, aged 15.

“These women have been written out of history because the war ended and the munitionettes were thrown back into becoming baby machines and looking after their men,” says Ed, never lacking passion when talking up his protagonists.

“These women were superstars.

“We found Mary Lyons, who died in 1979, had an unmarked grave in Jarrow but the friends of the cemetery have put up a little wooden cross so that’s brilliant. We’d love to get her a headstone.

“The trouble was, there wasn’t enough material on Mary Lyons.

Bella Wray photographed in 1918

“I went up to Blyth to speak and a guy called Gordon Smith, a local historian, gave me all the information about Blyth Spartans ladies – the games, the players and background. It was decades of his research.

“When I looked at that I thought Bella Reay was the story.”

The women haven’t quite been written out of history. As well as Gordon Smith’s documentation, Ed also credits Patrick Brennan’s 2007 book, The Munitionettes: A history of women’s football in North East England during the Great War, calling it “a bible”.

There are other books, too, chronicling the wartime women’s game which offered a tantalising taste of excitement and emancipation in an era when domestic drudgery was the prospect for many girls when leaving school.

She was like the Peter Beardsley of her day. She was born in 1902 and is still the youngest footballer ever to play for England and score.

Ed Waugh on footballer, Mary Lyons

But Ed has restored Bella’s fame in the North East, not only with the blue plaque but with a play endorsed by current heroes of the men’s game, Alan Shearer and Newcastle United’s Dan Burn.

Ed’s powers of persuasion are legendary, his enthusiasms nothing if not infectious.

This will be the fifth of his plays, including some Waugh/Wood creations, to have made it to the Theatre Royal’s main house with its 1,000-plus seats, following on from a sell-out run in the smaller Studio.

The fifth would have been Carrying David but it fell foul of the pandemic with a late Covid-enforced cancellation costing a considerable sum in suddenly obsolete flyers and posters.

Writer Ed Waugh with Wor Bella poster

But Wor Bella, directed by Russell Floyd, is to be number five with the brilliant Catherine Dryden pulling on the green and white-striped jersey of the Blyth Spartans heroine.

Having appeared at Live Theatre recently alongside Jimmy Nail in Seconds Away! and having played an array of characters in The Watch House at Laurels in Whitley Bay, this is another chance for the Chester-le-Street actress to show her versatility.

She will be the lone performer in a play whose narrative embraces big crowds and factory workforces, to say nothing of 22 players and a referee.

Ed smiles. “Don’t forget we did a football team in Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather, our play about West Auckland who won the first World Cup. Dave Nellist was the team manager and we told the story of the matches through him running up and down the line.”

It will be Catherine doing the running at the Theatre Royal but she is no stranger to Ed’s plays. As a teenager, long before she went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), she starred in Amazing Grace which toured in 2012.

Back of the net! Catherine in action as Bella Wray. Credit: Sophie Teasdale

As for Ed, he’s hoping to see Wor Bella properly for the first time.

Just before its successful tour in 2022 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and underwent lengthy treatment.

“Everything was done without me,” he recalls.

“I did go to see it. I got out of hospital, went to Whitley Bay Playhouse and then had to go straight back to hospital. I don’t remember a thing about the play. All I remember was a standing ovation and people coming up to me afterwards.”

Ed, fortunately, has since been given the medical all clear and is back on his feet again, running around drumming up support for his latest theatrical venture.

“The story is about the football but it’s also about women in society,” he says.

“It’s funny, as you’d expect, but also pretty tragic and heartbreaking. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.”

It’s on – because Ed wouldn’t want me to leave this out – at Newcastle Theatre Royal on the weekend of April 27 and 28 (three performances). Book tickets from the box office on 0191 232 7010 – or online via the website.


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