In the novel, Elizabeth comes to Sunderland to perform at the Empire as part of a tour of the north-east of England in 1910.
Originally called The Empire Palace, the theatre was built by Richard Thornton. He had been in partnership with two other great Edwardian theatre magnates, Edward Moss and Oswald Stoll (of London Coliseum fame). Thornton broke away to build his own music hall. It opened its doors for the first time in 1907.
The Empire has been the crowning glory of the local theatre world ever since, and is still going strong. Nowadays the theatre presents many West End shows, as well as ballet, opera and plays. I visited it often as a child, mostly to see ballet, and sometimes the pantomime. I even had the privilege of seeing the great Margot Fonteyn dance the role of Aurora in the Sleeping Beauty. Our tickets were for row D in the Stalls. Imagine our delight when we discovered that the first three rows of seats had been removed to accommodate the large orchestra, and we were actually sitting right in the front row.
The Empire has a large stage, superb for ballet. Right from my earliest visits I was captivated by the grandeur of the red plush seats and gold decorations. In the circle coffee bar area there was a sepia photograph portrait of a beautiful, elegant lady with a bouffant hairstyle. I later learned that this was Vesta Tilley, who was an immensely popular star of the Edwardian music hall, singing character songs dressed as a young man. She laid the cornerstone of the Empire in 1906, and returned to open it the following year. The theatre bar is now called the Vesta Tilley Bar.
When I was a young child, my mother began to sing in the Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society. As soon as I was sixteen I also joined, remaining a member until I left school. Every year the society performed a musical show at the Empire Theatre for a week. It was thrilling to perform on this impressive stage. I once sang in a quartet in the musical Kismet, and had a line to speak! It was an inspiration just to go in through the Stage Door and use the dressing rooms like all the stars down the years. But my talents were to lead me elsewhere, and as a musician I began to yearn to play in the orchestra pit.
After many years living away from the north-east I returned to my native shores, and finally was given the chance to play in the orchestra for the Sunderland Amateurs a few years ago. By this time the Empire had undergone a massive overhaul, and the backstage area was all new and expanded. I relished the chance to sit beneath the stage playing my flute and piccolo for the singers and dancers, to hear the applause and see the audience from a completely different angle. I even went and stood on the empty stage after the last show was over, drinking in that unique dusty smell of the theatre, the muffled sounds of the curtains and flats, and the stage hands working above.
Earlier this month it was back to the Upper Circle to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet in their magnificent new production, Aladdin. As usual it was an uplifting experience. Whenever I visit the Empire, I try to imagine how those early audiences would have felt. They must have thought that they were truly entering a royal palace when they walked through the doors. To this day, the Sunderland Empire still creates a world of fantasy and escapism, a kaleidoscope of music and colour, and I shall never tire of it.
Click here for more photos of the Sunderland Empire Theatre.