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Charlie's Trousers

Alan Plater
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2004)

Charlie's Trousers is described in the programme and all the publicity as "a new comedy" and that's exactly what it is: a good laugh. It's based on a little known (or, perhaps, little appreciated might be better) fact - there are now more art galleries on the Tyne than shipyards - and is set in an art gallery which was once a shipyard's paint shop.

There are four characters: Kev (Trevor Fox), the head of security; Nev (Joe Caffrey), a petty criminal and old schoolmate of Kev; Bev (Helen Coker), an artist; and Rev (Judi Earl), a vicar (hence Rev) and mother of Bev.

And they are hardly deep. Kev is the self-educated, serious-minded working class lad, Nev the thick petty criminal, Bev the intense artist and Rev is... a vicar and mother.

The plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent: Bev, with the help of Nev and the Rev (who arrive by abseiling down from the skylight), breaks into the gallery to take away a sculpture (a pair of bronze trousers) which her former lover is trying to pass off as his own. Whether or not they succeed is entirely up to Kev, whom they have to convince that it's the right thing to do.

So it's a pretty slight, lightweight piece, then?

On the basis outlined in the last few paragraphs, it certainly should be, but it isn't. It is very funny, with a lot of really good one-liners and local cultural references. I was particulary fond of Nev's somewhat involved explanation of why Liverpool and not Newcastle was chosen as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. It appears- and the run-up was much more complex in his explanation - it was because the judges were bribed by Paul McCartney - because he married a Sunderland lass. And unless you are part of the intense rivalry that exists between the two neighbouring cities, that isn't funny at all. If you are - and, of course, the audience at Live is - then you won't be surprised that it got one of the best laughs of the night.

But what lifts the play from being a total locally-based featherweight is the witty playing with the world of the visual arts: deconstructionism, post-modernism, da Vinci, Van Gogh, Michaelangelo, Antony Gormley, Lowry, Lautrec, the Turner Prize, Damien Hirst, all are the subjects of Plater's humour. But he doesn't take the easy way out, simply mocking the all-too-easy targets of much of modern art: rather the humour arises from taking an earnest "Joe Public" look at art.

It seems an odd mixture - local comedy, witty commentary on art, a most unlikely scenario - and yet, in Alan Plater's very capable hands, it works and works well, giving a full house a very entertaining evening of theatre.

"Charlie's Trousers" runs at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle, until 27th March.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan