New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 22nd February, 2012
This production comes from Bolton’s Octagon theatre and feels right at home in the New Vic, easily matching the high quality of their best work. Of course, mention Alfie and the inestimable Michael Caine springs to mind from the film version of Bill Naughton’s 1963 play. It is to the credit of leading man David Ricardo-Pearce that as soon as he begins his first monologue as the chirpy Cockney cock—you don’t think of Michael Caine again all evening.
Alfie engages us from the get-go. He is a likable fellow despite his selfish, self-absorbed shenanigans. His philosophy is to look after Number One. He is an awful solipsist who deliberately keeps himself at an emotional distance from the people – most of them women – in his life. He expects his women to behave according to certain patterns and gives them short shrift when they don’t comply. He looks to the audience for complicity, fixing men in the audience with a look in the eye as he poses his rhetorical questions. He got me a few times and all I could do was nod and smile uncomfortably. With almost fifty years separating us, Alfie’s attitudes are more laughable now than shocking.
In the second half the low-rent Lothario’s fortunes take a downward turn. T’ Northern lass he picked up in a cafe (Vicky Binns) finally has her fill of scrubbing his flat and cooking him custards. She packs her bag and walks out – which is usually his recourse when things turn sour. A one-off encounter with a married woman leads to an illegal abortion – this is the play’s starkest moment, the horror behind the swinging Sixties lifestyle. Alfie delivers a monologue about cleaning up the aborted foetus that is brutally powerful without being too graphic. At last, his way of life appears to be getting to him. He decides to settle down with older woman Ruby. He even takes her a bunch of flowers, for Gawd’s sake, only to discover her in flagrante with a cigar-smoker. The tables have turned. Women are changing. He is unable to. He ends up alone, stranded, an anomaly.
David Ricardo-Pearce carries the show like Atlas. He is hardly off stage at all. He keeps our sympathies, we enjoy his patter even if we are more enlightened these days, and his performance packs real punch in the later scenes. Occasionally there is the odd slip when his accent turns a little too modern in inflection, you get me, but these do not mar the effectiveness of the whole.
The supporting cast bustle on and off, doubling up as contrasting characters along the way. I particularly enjoyed John Bramwell as widower Joe, whose loneliness leads him to visit hospitals with a bag of apples. He gives Alfie an early warning to change his ways or face a similar fate, but of course, our hero doesn’t listen. Bramwell returns later on as the chillingly business-like backstreet abortionist. Sturdy support is provided by Francesca Ryan (Ruby) and Isabel Ford (Lily) – in fact, director David Thacker has collected a fine ensemble who bring the bygone age to life. And it is a bygone age, although the play doesn’t feel like a museum piece. Men like Alfie have been left behind by the sexual revolution but the play speaks of broader aspects of human relationships. It is a much richer work than our familiarity with the famous film might lead us to anticipate.