Eight Miles High

Jim Cartwright
Octagon, Bolton
(2005)

For its latest production of Jim Cartwright's Eight Miles High, Bolton Octagon's stage has been transformed into the site of a 1960s music festival, but the transformation extends into the auditorium, the foyer and even the street. There are VW camper vans parked outside the theatre, jugglers at the entrance, house staff in hippy costumes and new flowery signs around the building. The steps down into the auditorium are covered with synthetic grass - which is a little precarious underfoot - and the very front rows are sat on blankets on the ground.

Richard Foxton's design fills most of the Octagon's stage with the festival stage where the actor-musicians sing and play from. This has a canopy over it with a few old Strand lights, which could well have been around since the 60s, and lighting designer Thomas Weir recreates some old psychedelic effects such as oil projectors with modern equipment; the onstage sound equipment, however, all looks modern. There is also a brightly-decorated car onstage and a balcony across the back for backing singers and some scenes. This does not leave a great deal of acting space, but does create a striking image and set the right atmosphere.

There is not a great deal to the play itself. There are a number of thin storylines that keep resurfacing: the panel beater on his first festival who meets a posh hippy girl and falls for her; the housewife who becomes fascinated by the hippies and has left home to follow them; the girl who finds it difficult to express herself politically and is encouraged to write her views as a poem; the reporter who encourages them all to talk and then writes a report that pours scorn on their ideals; the neighbouring landowner and his sidekick who ridicule the hippies and chase them off their land. As with other plays by Cartwright, the play consists of a mixture of monologues and dialogues and uses a nice poetic adaptation of regional dialects. Although it touches on some serious issues, it only really deals with any of them in a fairly superficial way and at times is a little sentimental and even naïve.

Whatever the limitations of the script, Mark Babych's production is a wonderfully entertaining evening at the theatre. Every member of the cast sings, acts and plays instruments. Musical director Howard Gay's arrangements are not sentimental tribute show songs or adaptations for musical theatre performers but pure driving rock music that sounds fantastic.

The talented cast works incredibly hard for over three hours, even playing and singing during the interval. Most play a number of characters, and while there are occasions when characters are overplayed for laughs, there are also some wonderful comic characters. Andrew Schofield is great as the festival's MC, holding the show together with some very funny announcements, and he also plays beautifully the production's best character of an old hippy who has travelled around the world and returned to find what he was searching for back home in a field in Lancashire. Phil Corbitt plays the grumpy landowner, but his best creation is the foul-mouthed Geordie Hell's Angel in charge of security. Bob Golding is funny as the love-struck first-time festival-goer, but when he gets up to sing he seems born to be the front man in a rock band with great charisma and a cracking rock voice - and this from someone who does voices for The Tweenies. Eithne Browne is wonderful as the housewife, and also plays a great little cameo as the Yogi woman, teaching us all how to meditate. There is also very good support, both dramatically and musically, from the rest of this large cast: Zita Frith, Rose Jenkins, Adam Keast, Jake Norton, Simeon Truby and Francis Tucker.

The Octagon has done a superb job on this production; it has put together an extremely talented cast for a wonderfully entertaining night at the theatre that had the audience on its feet roaring for more at the end. The performers have quite a task to maintain this level of energy for eight shows a week for the whole run.

"Eight Miles High" runs until 2 July 2005

Reviewer: David Chadderton