Tag Archives: Oldham Coliseum

Whisky Business


New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018


Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.


Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)

Funny Lass


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 7th April, 2016


In co-production with Oldham Coliseum, the New Vic presents this jaunty take on the life story of one of the first superstars, Rochdale’s own Gracie Fields, tracing her rise from rags to riches, and then from riches to more riches.  What sets this show apart from other biographies that tell a similar tale, is the revue-style presentation.  An ensemble of actor-musicians populates scenes between a host of songs – the scenes are much like sketches, and the actors portray a range of characters.  The lynchpin is Fields herself – Sue Devaney, graces us with a breath-taking performance, evoking the original northern powerhouse in voice and mannerisms.  Devaney captures Fields’s down-to-earth, lowbrow stylings but impersonation is not the point.  What we get is a whistle-stop tour of key events in the entertainer’s life.  Like many of these stories, the first half deals with her rise to the top, and in the second, having achieved success, personal issues come to the four: Gracie’s marriages, her health problems.

Everything is handled with a light touch – even when she is hospitalised with cancer, a kind of seaside postcard humour prevails, deflecting from the drama with moments of heightened theatricality – if you sit on the front row, you may be asked to lend your name to a walk-on character who doesn’t have one.

Kevin Shaw’s direction keeps things bouncing along and the cast singing as they go – the ensemble voices are lovely in harmony, and each member of the company is a versatile musician.  Musical director Howard Gray achieves a period sound from this talented band of actors.

Among the ensemble, Fine Time Fontayne shines, in his element as George Formby (complete with his voyeuristic hit song about a window-cleaner); Liz Carney is especially strong as Gracie’s lifelong friend – she also does a star turn as Edith Piaf; Jonathan Markwood amuses as Gracie’s Italian second husband – as does David Westbrook as her handyman third, while Ben Stock’s uproarious Liberace is laugh-out-loud funny, and Matthew Ganley’s high-speed Hamlet soliloquy is a wonder to behold.

But, inevitably, Sue Devaney dominates, housing gigantic talent in her diminutive frame.  Her Gracie Fields comes across as a home-grown Fanny Brice, combining the ability to belt out songs with camp humour.  She has her downs as well as her ups, but everything is dealt with in such a light and appealing way, it seems that life really is a cabaret.

It’s undemanding fare, to be sure, but as theatre-for-pleasure goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.  Like Sally in Fields’s signature song, this is right up my alley.


I see you, baby, shaking that aspidistra. Sue Devaney as Gracie Fields (Photo: Joel C Fildes)


Explosion of Talent


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 17th May, 2013


Alan Plater’s ‘play with music’ has all the hallmarks of his familiar TV works: sardonic North country humour, cheeky innuendo, sparking dialogue and likable characters.  The story concerns a day in the life of Betty, leader of a dance band, auditioning new players for a big gig later that night.  Because of the seductive techniques of American soldiers over here and over-sexed, Betty’s band, the Blonde Bombshells, has a faster turnover of members than the Sugababes.

The play begins with a prologue – a girl from today in hoodie and Converse tells us this is about a ‘hell of a day’ her grandmother spent during the war, a day in which she learned about love, betrayal, sex and a whole list of things, thereby cranking up our expectations.  It’s a way of framing the narrative as a story, perhaps a tall one, so we accept the conflation of events and the speed at which they happen.

The action takes place in a bombed-out rehearsal space.  The female ensemble, which increases one member at a time, is not only amusing in a deadpan, not quite Victoria Wood skit fashion, but they are all exceptional musicians, playing live.  It is the songs that lift the show – most of them familiar – out of the ordinary – or rather, I should say, the performance of them.  The melancholic trumpet playing (of Sarah Groarke’s Vera), for example, is a bittersweet counterpoint to the wisecracks and cheeriness of these wartime women.

First to audition is schoolgirl Liz (Carla Freeman) who plays a nifty clarinet and appears to become a virtuoso on the saxophone in the course of one day… Next up is the excellent Katharine Moraz as Lily, a nun with a nice line in cheeky George Formby songs.  These two characters are the innocents.  The third auditionee is a bit of a posh tart, Miranda, (Suzi Power) like a young Joan Collins but with a sultry singing voice.   These three are recruited by the worldly-wise Betty and rehearsals begin.

Along comes the only male in the cast, Chris Grahamson as a drummer with a secret – This leads to some rather low-key Some Like It Hot shenanigans and also teases out the darker side of the situation.

The play is short on dramatic tension but more than compensates with warmth, heart and humanity.  You simply enjoy being in the company of these characters and delight in their musicianship, whether you know the songs or not.  Director Kevin Shaw has adapted his Oldham Coliseum production to fit in the New Vic’s arena, which means the performers do a lot of rotating on the spot, but it works very well.  The singing is lovely, the playing divine.   Marianne Benedict is May, on piano – we don’t find out much about her but she can certainly tickle the ivories.  Natasha White is very funny as Grace on double bass, the most deadpan of the group, using jokes to plaster over her personal tragedy.  Georgina White presides as bandleader Betty, bossy but self-deprecating – she hints at personal sacrifice but keeps up morale, which is the aim of the game, after all.  But, in this thoroughly excellent troupe, the stand-outs for me are Katharine Moraz’s enthusiastic nun and Sarah Groarke’s Vera, for her earthy characterisation and her soul-searing trumpet.

You come away thoroughly entertained – this is not a show about the hardship of war, but it is touched upon.  You consider how people appreciated what they had back then and made the best of things, in the shadow of German bombers.  These days when we have everything and take it for granted, our humour is less generous in spirit and our attitudes complacent.  This show made me nostalgic for a time I didn’t live through and grateful for growing up in peace time.