Sunderland, the play wowing Paris, to be St Etienne le film

It is a great feeling to be changing lines on the Metro in Paris and find a poster for Sunderland the play, currently running at the Petit Théâtre de Paris, staring you in the face. Equal billing with Calamity Jane – Jane, not Steve, you’ll note – which is being presented at the bigger (ie no Petit) Théâtre de Paris in the same building in the 9th arrondissement.

An even better buzz comes on entering the theatre, after a delicious meal of andouillette (a sausage made from pig’s colon, but we’ll say no more about that) and chips at a brasserie down the road, and seeing Salut! Sunderland up in lights, too. In the theatre, not emblazened on porcine intestines.

The story of the play’s runaway success was first told for English-speaking readers at this website, as far as I know. Others followed, including The Times, The Independent and the BBC among them. But there it was, my article prominently displayed on a board showing off all the glowing reviews Sunderland has had in the French press.

And the play itself? One hell of a challenge for my French. Slang is liberally used in Clément Koch’s script and this makes it hard for someone with decent conversational and reading skills but not using the language daily. An English friend who has lived in Paris for 40 years saw the play with me and made me feel a lot better by finding it hard to follow at times, too. What I did get I liked; of course it is stereotypical but the the warmth of Koch’s characters rises about the clichés about unemployment, booze and football to make them appealing. La grandeur des Humbles, as one review headline had it.

The story is simple if contrived: a young woman fights to keep custody of her teenage autistic sister after their mother commits suicide. She turns to surrogate motherhood for a pair of gays in order to raise the money she needs; her boyfriend drifts in and out of the plot, always wearing his Tombola red and white top and always ready to talk about how the Lads are doing and have done in the past. There’s also a housemate who is an expert in what the French call the téléphonie rose, which is to say she talks dirty to paying callers.

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The cast, led by Elodie Navarre as the main character Sally, is excellent. Vincent Deniard, as the Sunderland fan Gaven (is anyone ever called Gaven with an e?) is superb, with plenty of allusions to Tyne-Wear rivalry, and the gamine Léopoldine Serre as the teenager (but fear not, she isn’t really) is not only sparky and convincing but gave me a cheery bonsoir as she left after the show. I managed a bonsoir, et bravo in return and was rewarded with a warm smile.

Among the gags Koch injects into his script to lighten the darker aspects of the theme, Sally says it rains so much in Sunderland that it feels like living in a washing machine. Well, Paris has its inclement moments, too, and I saw the play on a night so cold you thought your ears might freeze and fall off.

Not for the squeamish

The friendly usher kindly kept a poster for me to take away afterwards. Less kindly, despite a good deal of sucking up on M Salut’s part, he removed the Salut! Sunderland cards I had carefully arranged in a little basket on a counter. Trouble is, the Nicklas Bendtner “don’t you know who I am?” line would work no better with a Parisian theatre worker than it did in a Copenhagen pizza parlour. Especially if you have no real follow-up line.

The French reviews have been extravagant, comparing Koch to Chekhov, Dickens and Ken Loach and talking about the play as a latter-day Brassed Off or Fully Monty.

Elle magazine says it would make a good British film of that ilk. I have news for Elle, and for you. Options on the script have been bought by Richard Pezet, a leading French producer associated with Pathé, and he hopes it will indeed make the transition to the big screen.

Stand by for cast and crew to descend on Sunderland, take in a few games and shack up at the Seaburn Marriott or Roker hotels while making the latest gritty working-class movie?

Er, non! The current idea is to relocate the story to St Etienne.

Sunderland the play, in Paris

Actually, for a French film of the play, that make sense. The Sunderland-Newcastle aspect is adapted to St Etienne’s hatred of Lyon and the town itself has suffered a decline in traditional industries including – and this surprised me – coalmining. I have told the producer he could always give a walk-on role to Steed Malbranque, briefly a St Etienne player after leaving Sunderland, and rope in Patrice Carteron to give the publicity a push; he played for both Lyon and St Etienne and, of course, scored for us against Newcastle (I remember watching that game in a Lyon bar; all the French cheered loudly when it went in, to the dismay of a couple of Mags).

Who knows how the plans may yet change? The French version would struggle to be more than an art-house film in the UK, but stands a decent chance of being a hit in France. An English version, keeping Sunderland as the location? Your guess is as good as mine.

Clément Koch, who studied at Durham and worked at Nissan as a young man, forming some affection for the North East, and Sunderland in particular, is pleased to be raising the city’s profile a little. He doesn’t go overboard; when I asked whether our revived fortunes, and the role of Sess, a former Paris St Germain player, was putting Sunderland on the map, he said the average Parisian theatregoer was “more Bo-Bo (bourgeois Bohemian) than PSG fan”.

But in a message to me when I was fixing up to see the play, he did say this: “At least now the French will know where Sunderland is on the planet. Most of them thought the title of the play was just a joke on the land of the sun.”

Monsieur Salut

9 thoughts on “Sunderland, the play wowing Paris, to be St Etienne <em>le film</em>”

  1. I don’t know about my last meal, but other than that – spot on! I got introduced to this delicacy by a French colleague whilst working in Paris and I love it.

    If I had to choose a last meal it would be a toss-up between my mum’s leek broth with suet dumplings or an Entrecote steak at the “Le Relais de Venise”
    in Paris on a good night. I would recommend anyone who’s having a holiday in Paris to check it out You can’t book, you
    just have to queue up with the locals and apart from how you want your steak cooked there’s no choice at all until the dessert course. On a good night it’s the food of the Gods. I think I’d better go for a lie-down before I
    come over all funny.

  2. Andouilette. My experience with that was like Larry Lloyd’s caps for England. My first was my last. Never to be repeated, and I did know what I was eating.

    • Me too, Jeremy. Only in France could they present such a load of rubbish (literally) and pretend its a delicacy. I don’t have a problem with most offal and love haggis, black & white pud etc, but the andouillette is just taking the p***.

      • Good knockabout stuff, Mick. Leaves more for me. I may need counselling for this but would choose andouillette as my last meal, with lots of chips and Dijon mustard. I accept it may be an acquried taste, and even smell, but I love it. And of course it is completely illogical to damn andouillete whe being perfectly OK with, for example, dried blood. The French have plenty to answer for. Not being good at food isn’t one of them

  3. *

    Love it, Andy. Something I once found on Wikipedia, but seems to have disappeared, fills in some of the detail (my memory is that it got worse):

    Traditional andouillette is made from the colon and the stomach of pig. In modern times, contents vary and normally contain intestines of pig, cow and/or calf. It is not to be confused with andouille sausage, which is much spicier, but more mild in animal-derived smells.

    I have never minded the farmyard smell. And I love shocking people by professing my own love of the dish.

  4. Enjoyed that Colin – thanks. You have also reminded of my own encounter with ‘saucisson a l’andouilette’ at a small roadside restaurant in the east of France when driving to Italy in 1981. The waitress looked aghast when I ordered it using my best A Level French (don’t think it was my accent…) and I still remember her words “Mais, vous serez degoute…” but I perservered and she was delighted that I had enjoyed it. It was only afterwards that I looked it up and realised what I’d eaten…

  5. I would imagine that Hendon is full of surrogate mothers producing children for the gay community that dwells in Salem Street.
    As for the sausage – give me a Borrowdales special from Godfrey’s in Shildon!!

  6. A good one’s REALLY good, Eric. You just have to steel yourself for the first bite.
    “The téléphonie rose, which is to say she talks dirty to paying callers….” What does she do, recite the Magpies’ squad list?

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