Tag Archives: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

Sit This One Out

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 28th May, 2012

I blame Mamma Mia. I blame We Will Rock You. I blame them for the spate of ‘jukebox musicals’ in which pre-existing songs from the hit parade of yesteryear are strung together by the slenderest plot. I blame them for keeping new musicals out of production. These things are money-spinners and much less of a risk than something new and original. What does the audience get from them?

The performance began not with an order to switch off our mobile phones but with an invitation to sing along. People were reluctant to take up this offer at first – but after the interval, with vocal tubes lubricated with half-time libations, the crowd of mainly white-haired wrinklies, opened their throats to warble “Why must I be a teenager in love?” The songs, by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, are largely familiar – I would like to point out they were already oldies by the time I first heard them.

The plot could fit on a Rizla paper and still leave plenty of room. It is 1963. Blonde would-be slut Jennifer (Hannah Frederick) takes her younger sister Marie (Megan Jones) away from the drudgery of Luton for a week’s caravan holiday in glamorous Lowestoft. There they meet American soldiers from the nearby army base. Marie, sweet 17 and never been kissed, embarks on a romance with Curtis (Jason Denton) despite opposition from her sister, his friends and superior officers. He is “coloured” you see, and in 1963, the “coloureds” had a hard time of it, especially in the States. While most of the dialogue serves as introduction to shoehorn in the next song, there are also awkward historical factoids to provide context, lines that could have been lifted directly from Wikipedia. It feels awkward and clunky. When the dialogue is not setting up the next number, or making a clumsy attempt at social commentary, it is riddled with blatant product placement, all in the name of nostalgia. Products and shops from this bygone era are mentioned, all to elicit laughs of recognition from the dewy-eyed audience. I found the whole thing a cynical and manipulative exercise. The script is by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Birds of a Feather) and offers nothing in the way of character development.

Three women in the row in front were swaying in their seats and singing along (when they weren’t texting or checking their Facebooks) and when the plot reached the inevitable reunion of the stars-and-stripes crossed lovers, they oohed and aahed and applauded. The granny seated to my right leaned towards me and with a nod in their direction, muttered in my ear, “Sad lives.” That cheered me up.

The performers are all multi-talented, singing, dancing, playing instruments and all the rest of it. The songs are superb – especially when performed a capella. The final, choral rendition of the titular number was especially good. Everyone seemed to love it – apart from my neighbour and me – and so I suppose this type of show has a place. People want to escape. That’s always true in hard times. This piece of cosy nostalgia seems to do the trick. It’s just not for me, I suppose.

But consider this: if the market continues to be flooded with jukebox shows and revivals of old classics, what will the next generation have to feel nostalgic about?

Meanwhile, I’m off to pen my own money-spinner, exploiting the songs of Justin Bieber… I’ll be richer than Croesus.

Flock Off

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.