BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 23rd March, 2012
The theatre was packed to the rafters for this new touring production based on the popular TV series of yesteryear. And that is precisely the purpose of the exercise. Shows of this nature appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia and create a money spinner for all involved. Theatres need to make money. Of course they do. But it was with some trepidation and no small amount of theatrical snobbery that I took my seat in the stalls for this performance.
I have been burned before, you see. There was a tour of dinnerladies doing the rounds – it may still be out there – based on Victoria Wood’s superior sitcom. But that show was three episodes cobbled together with a cast trying to impersonate the TV stars. It was like a tribute act and left a lot to be desired theatrically speaking. Pointless, in fact. You’d be better off in the comfort of your own home with UK Gold.
This show has the advantage in that the original cast members are all in it: the familiar trio of Sharon, Tracey and Dorien are all played by the actresses who were such a big hit with the viewers. I was never a fan but I was aware of the series and its basic premise. It was also a pleasing relief to find that this is a new script, a new story and not just the parroting of something you can see on satellite telly.
It is still, inescapably, a sit-com. It is like attending a recording of an (extended) episode except there are no cameras. The plot throws up ‘funny’ situations: Dorien finds herself on a murder charge and has to suffer the ignominy of wearing a tag; Tracey combats her agoraphobia by wearing a Lidl carrier bag over her head when she wants to leave the house; Sharon pretends to be someone called Esmeralda Dubrovnik in order to fiddle the dole… Whatever happens, it is met with the same wise-cracking, the same complaining tone. They snipe at each other, they argue, and somehow things get resolved. And that’s fine, for a half-hour show. For an hour and a half, you want a little more. Where is the surprise? Where is the depth? It’s all icing and no cake.
The three stars perform it well. Lesley Joseph as the monstrous Dorien is the most extreme. Pauline Quirke, who has proved her acting chops in other genres, seems to be enjoying herself but, in my view, is under-stretched. Linda Robson’s Tracey is a one-note character, supposedly the emotional keystone of the piece, but this show is all about skating across the surface. All pastry and no filling.
The script (by original writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran but also credited to Gary Lawson and John Phelps – I can’t believe it took four people to come up with this!) has some very funny lines: the catty putdowns for example and there are plenty of hit-and-miss topical references. It is almost written in shorthand; the audience already knows the characters and the set-up so there is little need for exposition or room for development. The characters will end up exactly the same as they started because that’s the nature of sit-com.
A nostalgia trip and a chance to see well-liked performers in the flesh, this kind of show is not going to push the boundaries of theatrical endeavour. Neither is it likely to attract newcomers to the theatre. It’s a commercial rather than an artistic venture. The most satisfying productions manage to include elements of both.