WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012
Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.
The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape. Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets. The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age. The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly. I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.
The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim. The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory. But further to that, the production goes a step further. The actors are wired with earpieces. Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible. The actor is the mouthpiece for the person. While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience. As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.
I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.
The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful. “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”
“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges. Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule. What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves. The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up. They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.
You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes. But the show is much more than a local show for local people. As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play. Stoke-on-Trent becomes a microcosm for the whole country. The obsession for these talent contests. The death of industry. The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition. It’s all there. This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time. It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.
Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show. Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner. His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family. The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams. The song takes on extra significance. The boy is at the outset of his career. We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.
One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.
Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.
Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it. Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.
Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent. You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!). Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work. “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself. It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken. Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash. Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.
Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain. It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.