Jack Sunderland – A tribute


Jack Sunderland, who has died aged 86, was an absolute mainstay of the Curtain Theatre for over 50 years, having served, in his time, as a versatile actor, director (including Drama Director) and Trustee.

Although his health had been declining and he had become physically frail since his beloved wife, Jean, died 18 months ago, I did speak to him for about half-an-hour on the phone before Christmas, after he rang to thank me for my card. He was, as ever, chatty and bubbling with anecdotes, asking about prospects for the rest of the season. Always down-to-earth and keen to talk about plays or series he’d seen on the TV, he was great company and, though his stage appearances had dwindled by the 21stC, he was, in his heyday, one of local amdram’s greats.

In my very first play at the CT, 42 years ago, I cut my teeth in a trio of small roles in Jack’s production of “Cactus Flower”. He slipped with ease between directing assignments and being cast, amongst the likes of Mike Law, Sybil Murray, John Rhodes and Leonard Thompson, as a brilliant character actor. One stand-out role in particular remains vivid in my memory; as Norman, the title role in “The Dresser”, he perfectly blended the waspish, caring and self-pitying aspects of the character—certainly, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen at Milkstone Road. He followed it up the year after, playing, with Colin Ashworth and Brenda Mallinson, in Peter Nichols’ underrated “Born In The Gardens”, as a jazz-playing, still-at-home 40-odd year old son. He was equally adept at stealing the show in cameos, for example, playing P.C. Boot in “Salad Days” in 1982, featuring an hilarious pas-de-deux with Peter Law as his sergeant and, shimmering about as the imperturbable Cool the butler in 1989’s “London Assurance”, with his classic line “Sir Harcourt’s toilet is nearing its height”. Many will recall his bolshie father in “Fur Coat And No Knickers”, holding the wayward piece together as a sort of Jim Royle before his time—this ensemble farce took the CT roof off every performance of its fortnight’s run.

Jack did have his serious and, sometimes, pretentious side though. Several of his choices as DD were bordering on controversial; “Masterpieces”, (1990), a dark piece of indie theatre by Sarah Daniels, was strong meat, dealing with snuff movies, beyond the ken of most CT patrons, though it was memorable programming. It was typical of Jack to push for its inclusion and this passion was admirable.

Other credits included a Establishment witness in the trail-blazing “Who Killed Hilda Murrell?” (1991), Dale Harding, a closet gay character amongst the inmates in “One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1997) with an overwrought “victim” speech and the logical, classist Juror No.4 in “Twelve Angry Men”.

He didn’t confine himself to the CT either, showing up to deliver a wonderful performance as the world-weary Jewish father in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon, the master of many zinging one-liners but full of fondness for his kids too.

I have no doubt that his surviving contemporaries still around at the CT will have their own memories of Jack in his pomp but I will always think affectionately of that lonely dresser, Norman, stitching his master’s tights after suffering bitter rejection. Jack wasn’t anything like that but he could sink himself completely in whatever role he was playing and that’s why, for me and many other admirers, he was one of amdram’s all-time greats.

P. C. Fitton: Jan 2023.