Fine Fine Fine!

Denise Robertson, music and lyrics by Dean and Peter Robertson, with additional material by Mark Robertson

Customs House, South Shields

(2002)

Review by Peter Lathan

On a number of occasions in the past I have applauded the dedication to local new writing which has been the hallmark of director Ray Spencer's time at South Shields' Customs House, but it does take a special kind of courage to give over the main part of the summer season to a new musical by a creative team who have not written one before, with the book written by someone who has only written one play - and that thirty years ago - and whose experience as a writer is in journalism and novels.

Denise Robertson wrote her first play in 1972 and her first novel in 1984. Since then she has published 18 novels but is still probably best known as the "agony aunt" on Granada TV's This Morning. Fine Fine Fine! is her first musical, based on one of her novels.

It is the story of unmarried young mother Julie, the two men (one a teenager, the other in his thirties) who love her, and her neighbours. The play opens with Julie in bed with the teenager, Link. We meet Yvonne, the neurotic neighbour from upstairs who was abandoned by her husband who ran off to help run a fish and chip shop in Spain, and Nana, the old woman in the basement flat with her criminally inclined grandson Billy. Then there's Tommo, the collector for a loan shark to whom both Yvonne and Nana are indebted (although not Julie - strange that, for she has no visible means of support).

Yvonne needs money but can't (won't) go out to work, so Julie gets a job instead and pays Yvonne to look after the child. Her job is cleaning for a young solicitor and they have an affair, but he sticks with his yuppie girlfriend. Link gets a job (a kind of community service thing) painting a mural, in which he is helped by Billy and Norman (who just kind of turns up in the middle of the play) and a dog which he adopts. However he reaches too high to paint Julie's name on the mural, falls off the ladder and is killed.

Throughout the play Hunchfront, a social worker who makes Adolf Hitler look like a pussycat, appears frequently, determined, it would seem, to break up every family in sight.

But it all comes right in the end!

The performances are all of a high standard. Director Chris Elphinstone gets the best out a cast which includes some very experienced actors and some newcomers to the professional stage. And they sing well, too, although - if I may ride a hobbyhorse of mine for a moment - I don't see why some of the cast, all with perfect Geordie accents, had to sing with an awful mid-Atlantic twang!

Lynsey Day (Julie), in her professional debut, impressed as an actress and she has a beautiful singing voice. She does, however, need to learn how to "tell the tale" of a song, both in voice and body language, rather than just sing it. 15-year old Dominic Ridley, as the grandson Billy, clearly has a great future in the business. He handled his solo, one of the most difficult songs in the play, very well. However some work on diction, both spoken and sung, would not come amiss. David Hepple's Link was a delight. After a rather weak opening scene (in the writing, not the performance), his character quickly became an audience favourite.

The rest of the cast are seasoned professionals - and it showed. I have no criticisms of any of them, but special mention must be made of veteran actress Pat Dunn's Nana - a beautiful performance.

The weakness, unfortunately, was not the performances, the staging or the direction, but in the play itself. There was a lack of depth of characterisation, which showed in sudden, completely unexpected changes. The neurotic Yvonne, for example, who has been on the edge of committing suicide, suddenly becomes strong enough to take on the fearsome social worker - and defeat her. But there is no obvious reason why: it is only in the final song that we realise that she and Norman have become an item - but up to that point they have hardly exchanged two words.

There are, in fact, a number of places where this happens - a major change of direction or character without any obvious motivation. In this the play's genesis as a novel is very clear: in an adaptation there is much that has to be omitted. Robertson has opted to keep the plot as intact as possible, which has had a number of effects: any interior monologue goes; the slow development of character over a period of time also disappears; the structure inevitably becomes episodic and the overall impression is one of superficiality.

What of the music? Songs in a musical play should serve a purpose: they arise out of the story, perhaps illuminating a character, or commenting on the action (like the chorus in a Greek tragedy), or pushing the plot forward. This was not always the case here: one or two songs seemed to be "bolted on" just simply because they were good songs.

And most of the songs were good. The first one, unfortunately, was weak and it wasn't helped by the off-balance sound, but generally they were enjoyable, with just enough edge to lift them out of the ordinary.

The first night audience loved it. It's a "feel good" show, a sort of cross between a Mills and Boon novel and a soap. My own feeling, however, is that good performances and direction papered over the cracks of a flawed piece. There's a good show in there but it hasn't emerged yet.

And that says something else about the courage I mentioned in the first paragraph. A West End production, or a production at a major regional theatre, would spend a week or two in preview, with major rewrites if necessary, before the press are allowed anywhere near it. Theatres like the Customs House don't have that safety net. After a much shorter rehearsal period than any major company would even consider, the first night comes and the show goes on, warts and all.