Friend’s tribute to loved Davy
FRIEND LEADS TRIBUTES TO STAGE STAR
Actor David Whitaker has died eight years after suffering a debilitating stroke. Max Roberts, emeritus associate director of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, remembers his friend and explains why he was so loved and revered.
IT was with great sadness I heard my dear old friend and colleague Davy Whitaker had passed away.
Tributes from the acting community of the North East have been flooding in – so many actors citing him as an inspiration.
He was the Geordie doyen of the acting profession, an exemplar to young and would-be actors – particularly those from working-class backgrounds in the North East – who saw him on stage and thought, ‘Wow! I would like to do what he does’.
They aspired to replicate his talent. He was sharp, edgy and dangerous in dramatic roles, able to surprise as well as delight an audience with his roguish charm and consummate comic timing.
His characterisations were always distinctive, thoughtful and original – and boy, could he play the piano! Selftaught, he had a God-given raw talent.
I saw him so many times say to actors and audiences: “Just sing the tune in my ear.” Seconds later he would be playing the song as if the melody was etched into his musical memory.
When I first joined Live Theatre they were daft enough to stand me on the stage alongside Davy and ask me to act with him.
I quickly learned my acting skills were well behind his, or those of his best mate and fellow founding member of the Live Theatre Company Tim (or Malc as we all knew him) Healy.
I soon realised perhaps my talents lay behind the scenes as a director and facilitator.
I left the company for a while to use drama as a learning medium for young people and eventually started directing plays, first with a youth theatre I founded at Backworth Drama Centre, North Tyneside, then eventually with professional actors
My first gig as a director for Live Theatre in 1985 was a play called Hanging About by Pauline and Tom Hadaway.
It was the story of two striking miners from County Durham who are in London collecting money from posh Islington-ites whose political sympathies lie with the miners.
The lads’ encounters with the intellectual, liberal left made for much mirth and Davy and the late Sammy Johnson delivered all the laughs and ‘held my hand’ through my first professional rehearsal process.
Along with the laughs, the play delivered a powerful polemic.
I recall Davy delivering one of Tom Hadaway’s most firebrand yet lyrically exquisite speeches based on the
Thomas Paine essay, These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls.
Davy dragged this speech from the bottom of his character’s passionate, dignified and slightly inebriated coalminer’s heart.
This was a man fighting for his own community and communities in other places he had never been.
The sentiment of that speech still resonates today, especially with news of Davy’s passing which I understand was Covid-19 related.
Davy had spent his last eight years in a care home in Houghton-leSpring, his home town, where his sister and family were able to see him regularly – giving him much love and support along with his dearest boyhood friend and fellow actor Donald McBride.
It was eight years ago Davy suffered a stroke backstage during a production at London’s Soho Theatre. He never fully recovered.
His creative gift was tragically denied expression during those last years.
The outpouring of emotion from the acting community is a powerful testimony to how warmly regarded he was for his humility, warmth and unique talent.
Davy’s CV is impressive, taking in Live Theatre, Northern Stage, Newcastle Theatre Royal, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the West End. He also performed on Broadway and took on many roles in film and television.
I had the privilege of directing him in many productions, including Tom Hadaway’s play, The Long Line, which is also memorable because it saw a fresh-faced Robson Green make his debut.
In Blackberry Time, by Alan Plater and Michael Chaplin, based on the stories of Michael’s father Sid, is another favourite. It allowed Davy to demonstrate his versatility in terms of acting, characterisation and musical fluidity.
Alan Plater’s Going Home and Shooting the Legend at The Theatre Royal saw Davy alongside Tim Healy and other Geordie alumni including Denise Welch and Charlie Hardwick.
There was also a revival of Alan’s iconic Close the Coalhouse Door, with music by Alex Glasgow, where Davy played alongside younger actors, including Joe Caffrey, Trevor Fox and Charlie Hardwick, who’d seen him in their formative years.
Many believe Davy’s most brilliant performances was as Jimmy in Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters.
Davy ensured the wiry old pitmen, who could paint as well as he could hew coal and infuriate as well as he could charm the birds from the trees, was loved from Newcastle to London to New York.
Finally, a story from perhaps my favourite production, a revival of CP (Cecil) Taylor’s beautiful play A Nightingale Sang with Laura Norton (now known to many TV viewers as Kerry in Emmerdale) in the leading role as Helen.
Set in Walker during the Second World War, Davy played her father, a piano-playing shipyard worker, ARP warden and Communist Party secretary. He was as hilarious as ever. Davy was also musical director and created beautiful arrangements of the wartime songs which adorned the script. He sang and accompanied the other actors from the piano. In rehearsal one afternoon, a week before we opened, I asked if we could add another song.
It was I’ll Be Seeing You and his arrangement and duet with Laura was exquisite… but I cut the song at the dress rehearsal as the second half was running too long. Davy did not complain. He just said: “You are right, kidder, it is not needed. Cecil knew best which is why he did not include it.”
Such humility and commitment to the collective endeavour was typical of the man.
Davy was put on this earth to play, perform, act and sing and I, along with all his fellow artists, friends and comrades and audiences far and wide, will miss him dearly .
Davy was put on this earth to play, perform, act and sing. I and all his fellow artists will miss him dearly Max Roberts