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A Tribute to Davy Whitaker, the 'Geordie Doyen' of the acting profession

Max Roberts, Emeritus Associate Director of Live Theatre pays Tribute to Davy Whitaker

It is with great sadness that I hear my dear old friend and colleague Davy Whitaker has passed away.

Tributes from the acting community of the North East have come flooding in - so many actors citing him as an inspiration whose charismatic presence on stage taught them so much.

He was the 'Geordie Doyen' of the acting profession -  an exemplifier to young actors who saw him live on stage in their formative years and thought 'Wow I'd like to do what he does!'

The fact that he was actually on that stage was the key factor as he gave hope and inspiration to young performers from working class backgrounds in the North East that they too might be able to become a professional actor.

Furthermore they aspired to replicate his talent. He was sharp, edgy and dangerous in dramatic roles - possessing the ability to surprise an audience as well as delight them with his roguish charm and consummate comic timing. His characterisations were always distinctive, original and thoughtful.

And boy could he play the piano – self-taught with a God given, raw talent - I saw him so many times say to actors and indeed audiences “Just sing the tune in my ear” and then seconds later he'd 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 him and ask me to act with him - but I quickly learned that my skills as an actor were clearly well behind his or indeed his best mate and fellow founding member of the Live Theatre Company Tim (or Malc as we all knew him) Healy. I soon realised that 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 with young people and then eventually started directing plays - first with a youth theatre I founded at Backworth Drama Centre in 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. A story of two striking miners from County Durham who were holed up in North London collecting money from posh Islington-ites whose political sympathies lay with the miners during the strike. Their 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.

Amongst 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 a Tom Pane essay These Are The Times That Try Men's Souls. Davy delivered it with an authenticity and emotional complexity that was totally compelling, dragged from the bottom of his characters passionate, dignified and slightly pissed coal miner's heart - a man fighting for his community and other communities in other parts of the country he'd never been to.

These Are Times to Try Men's Souls - that sentiment still resonates today - especially with news of David's passing which I understand was Covid19 related.

Davy had spent the last 8 years in a care home in Houghton Le Spring - his home town / village 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 who also loved him with all his heart. Eight years previously Davy had suffered a stroke - back stage during a production at London's Soho Theatre. He never fully recovered. I'm told by my old mate Tim Healy that the nurses at the home loved him too.

Sadly his creative gift was tragically denied expression during those last eight years but there was much love around him at the home. The outpouring of fondness, love and emotion from the acting fraternity from far and wide is a powerful testimony to how he was so warmly regarded and also to his humility, warmth and unique talent.

Davy's CV is impressive - from Live Theatre and The Newcastle Theatre Royal to The RSC. There were many roles in film and television. He performed at The National Theatre, in the West End and on the stages of our nation’s finest and most beautiful theatres. He performed on Broadway and all over the world.

I find it difficult to actually remember all the plays I had the privilege to direct him in but here's a few for the record: Tom Hadaway's The Long Line a production in which a fresh-faced Robson Green made his debut. In Blackberry Time by Alan Plater and Michael Chaplin based on the stories of Sid Chaplin is another favourite which allowed him to demonstrate his extensive versatility in terms of acting, characterisation and musical fluidity.

Plater's Going Home and Shooting the Legend at The Theatre Royal alongside his best marra Tim Healy, as well as Denise Welch and host of other Geordie alumni's including Charlie Hardwick and Trevor Fox

Speaking to those who knew him and worked with him the consensus is that one of his defining and most critically acclaimed roles was as Jimmy in Lee Hall's brilliant play The Pitmen Painters. The role he created so memorably of the wiry old pitmen with a talent to paint as well as hew coal and an infuriating but hilarious contrary personality wrapped up in a wry and knowing persona that could charm the birds from the trees. The sharply defined characterisation was a brilliant creation and was universally loved from Newcastle to London to New York and all points north, south, east and west as it toured nationally.

Finally a story from perhaps my favourite production - a revival of CP Taylor's beautiful play A Nightingale Sang with the lovely Laura Norton (now known to many as Kerry in Emmerdale) in the leading role as Helen. Set in Walker on Tyneside during the Second World War Davy played her father, a piano playing ship yard worker, ARP Warden and Communist Party Secretary. He was as hilarious as ever as was Donald McBride as the Granda along with Judith Earl as Helen's Mam. Davy was also the Musical Director and created beautiful arrangements of the war time songs that adorned Cecil's charming script. He sang and accompanied the other actors from the piano providing the audience with a vivid musical commentary to the narrative

One afternoon in rehearsal I asked him if we could add another song - we opened the following week. It was I'll Be Seeing You. His arrangement and dual vocal with Laura was exquisite and painstakingly crafted. I cut the song at the dress rehearsal as the second half was running too long. He didn't complain for a moment and said “you're right kidder - it's not needed, Cecil (the writer) knew best which is why he didn't include it.”  Such humility, such confidence in his own ability and such a commitment to the collective endeavour to provide our audience with the best show possible was typical of the man. Arrogance, vanity ego or anger where just not part of his DNA.

I'll Be Seeing You remains one of my favourite songs - Davy used to play it to me on the occasions we found ourselves in a rehearsal room with a piano - for old times sake and because he knew I loved hearing him sing and play it - it's one of the things I'll miss the most now he's gone.

Davy was put on this earth to play, perform, act and sing and I along with all his fellow artists, friends and comrades along with audiences far and wide will miss him dearly.

Max Roberts
Theatre Director
Emeritus Associate Director Live Theatre

  • Arts Council England
  • Community Foundation
  • European Regional Development Fund


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