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Legendary comedian Tommy Cannon is set to take to the stage in Consett this weekend in a black comedy about the afterlife.

Seriously Dead is an up-lifting tale that promises there is nothing serious about being dead at all, because life’s party never ends: it simply moves to another location.

The play tells the tale of Thelma Henderson who cannot gain entry to heaven through the pearly gates as the system has gone digitalised and she has the incorrect paperwork. Thelma is told to wait by the scrapyard gates until the issue can be resolved but she finds herself as a rather reluctant guardian angel watching over her school friend and the one true love of her life, Billy Blenkinsopp.

The play, which also stars Benidorm and I’m a Celebrity star Crissy Rock and comedian Billy Pearce, will be at the town’s Empire Theatre on Saturday, 21 April.

Seriously Dead was written by Leah Bell, who was born in Benwell, Newcastle, and now lives in Northumberland. Leah also stars in the show and handpicked the rest of the cast herself, including Tommy, who turns 80 later this year.

“We’d worked together thirty years ago, in a summer season show in Jersey and he was a lovely man, we got on so well,” recalls Leah. “I’d been watching Not Going Out, and his long-time stage partner Bobby Ball had a role in that – I wondered to myself if Tommy would be up for something different. I know that they still appear together as Cannon and Ball, but could he find a window to do Seriously Dead?”

The two met to discuss the proposition, and, says Leah, “It didn’t feel like 30 years since I’d seen him, more like three days ago! And he looked at the script and said ‘Yes’ immediately.”

Tommy admits: “It’s all very different from the act that Bobby and I do, which is structured but also fairly free-wheeling. A stage play means learning lines, for a start – lots of them – and, of course, sticking to them. You can’t wing it and go off-course. The rest of the cast would never forgive you.

“Leah and Bobby and I got on like a house on fire all those years ago, and we always kept in touch. Then, earlier in the year, and out of the blue, I got that call from her, and I thought ‘It’s new, it’s a great script, and people love it, so…..let’s go for it!” He’s playing the small-time crook and ladies’ man Albert Blunderstone, who, says Tommy, “is best summed up as having a finger in a lot of dodgy pies, and a bit of a northern Del Boy”.

That ‘try anything’ attitude seems to just about sum up Tommy Cannon’s attitude to life, and his career in general. “If you don’t go for it, and give it your best”, he says, “what’s the point of going on? ‘Retirement’ is a dirty word to me. I’ve no intention at all of packing it all in – why should I? I really do feel sorry for people who have retirement forced on them, when they are still enjoying their job, and they feel that they still have a useful contribution to make. If you hate what you’re doing, fair enough – but you hear of so many people who are doing something one day, they finish their career, and they are totally at a loss about filling their time forever after. Me, I’ll have a crack at anything, as long as the offers keep on coming. You know the two saddest words in the English language? They are ‘if only’. When someone gets to a certain age, and they look back and they sigh and say ‘If only I’d done this….or that’. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but you have to learn from them. That’s the way forward.”

The title of the show comes from a song written by composer Mike Redway, who is responsible for all of the music in the show.

Leah said: “He told me about it, and I thought ‘Hmmmm’, sounds a little on the sombre side, but in fact, it’s anything but. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but it’s a story of a group of people who all – through fate or accident – are approaching the pearly gates. The one thing that unites them is the fact that they all wished that they’d done something different with their lives, and had been able to develop another side of their personalities. You’ll have to wait and see if they do! I think it’s best summed up as a very black comedy, with a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.

“When you pick up a script and you start rehearsals, you think ‘Oh, this is hilarious!’. But, after doing it for two or three weeks, you start to think ‘Is this really funny?’ You start to doubt yourself. But, night after night, our wonderful audiences tell us that it’s spot on.”

The show starts at 7.30pm. To book tickets, priced at £20 or £19 for concessions, visit www.consettempire.co.uk  or contact the Empire Theatre on 01207 218 171.

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