Early Doors

Craig Cash and Phil Mealey
Phil McIntyre Entertainments
The Lowry
to

After two series on TV fifteen years ago, this post-Royle Family sitcom written by Craig Cash, this time teaming up with co-writer Phil Mealey, has finally made it to the stage with most of the original TV cast still on board.

In many ways, this is perfectly suited to a stage transfer as it all takes place in and around The Grapes, a pub in Stockport run by Ken (John Henshaw) who lives in the pub with his mother Jean (Judith Barker stepping into this role) who is constantly in affectionate verbal combat with her housekeeper Winnie (Joan Kempson). Ken's daughter Mel (taken over by Laura Woodward) helps out behind the bar, but Ken has a tentative relationship with regular barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson).

The rest of the ensemble are the regulars in the bar. Writers Cash and Mealey are two mates Joe and Duffy; Tommy (now played by Nick Birkinshaw) is the miserable old bloke in the corner with a pint of mild; Debbie (Lisa Millett) is a single woman with a great line in put-downs; Eddie and Joan are replaced by Freddie (Neil Hurst) and June (Vicky Binns), a lovable, naïve couple who can be intensely annoying but whom you want to protect from the challenges of the real world.

Two favourites with the audience were local policemen Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight), who drink their way through Ken's stock in the back room without paying and complain about any suggestion that they should be catching criminals or protecting the public.

Cash says in the programme that he didn't want to do the usual sitcom-to-stage adaptation by taking the best bits of the series and chaining them together, but instead has written a whole new episode that follows on from the series, which is admirable. And it works, keeping the story going and the gags flowing for 2½ hours, which isn't easy for something originally based on a half-hour episode format.

The basic premise of this extended episode is that Ken is finally going to ask Tanya to marry him. He is careful to keep it a secret, so of course everyone finds out and he ends up proposing in front of the whole pub instead of privately in the kitchenette. However, in a climax to act I that is timed to almost musical perfection, things don't go according to plan, and it takes the whole of act II to sort things out.

There are a few other relationship issues alongside the main plot: Joe is fed up of being ignored by his family and threatens to leave them, Duffy tries online dating but doesn't seem to realise that the women may have been as truthful as him in their profiles and Jean and Tommy both have revelations about their pasts that would have a significant impact on any future episode of this pub saga.

The characters are all very well-drawn and recognisable (certainly to any northern pub-goer) both in the writing and in the playing, with newcomers to the cast fitting in very well with the old hands. Cash and Mealey worried in the programme about their lack of stage experience, but, while they seemed less confident than experienced stage performers at first, they soon warmed up and fitted in perfectly well—and they couldn't really be replaced anyway.

The script is packed with gags and some great one-liners, but it still flows well as a play and keeps the attention, although perhaps some of the serious scenes went on a bit too long. There is plenty to please fans of the series—some were quite vocal at the appearance of their favourite characters, or favourite lines—but it works perfectly well for someone coming to it fresh.

Credit should go to director Caroline Jay Ranger for keeping everything on track, which can't always have been easy, and to designer Liz Ascroft for an incredibly detailed recreation of the pub bar, back room and upstairs quarters—only the performers are given biographies in the programme.

It all ends on a song that is just cheesy enough and rounds off the stories of all of the characters. Some nice laid-back, cheeky northern humour that adds up to a great night's entertainment—but book early, as this run at The Lowry sold out so quickly that even the venue management were taken by surprise.

Reviewer: David Chadderton