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Grandma Saves The Day!

Phil Willmott
New Wolsey Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
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Suspend your disbelief and suspend your expectations. If you do both of those, I can assure you, you will end up enjoying this strange hybrid of a musical. Its quirky, humorous and good fun. But one thing is certain: don’t expect a production about Carl Giles himself or you’ll be disappointed.

Giles was cartoonist at the Daily Express from the 1940s right through almost until his death in 1995 and he spent a lot of his life living just outside Ipswich in Tuddenham. His annual collections were famously popular and his cartoons can often be seen on the walls of his favourite pubs—Felixstowe Ferry Sailing Club has quite a collection, incidentally, as he was an avid sailor.

He created a family of cartoon characters that were as loved as he was: Vera with her permanent runny nose, schoolgirl Bridget, single parent Carole with the twins and of course Grandma.

This production takes those characters and places them in an '80s setting to tell a story loosely based in the political climate of the time. And since Giles’s cartoons commented on the politics of his day—this seems relevant.

However, there is nothing serious about this production. It is best described as a musical spring pantomime—very similar to the New Wolsey’s rock 'n' roll pantomimes—with the characters equivalent to their pantomime counterparts. So there’s a central love story featuring the star-crossed youngsters Bridget and Larry, a baddy in the shape of Mrs Singleton next door, a wicked witch in Mrs Thatcher and a hero in the shape of the indomitable Grandma.

The plot is based around popular songs of the period—in fact, it feels as though the songs were picked first and the story written round it! But it does mean there are some great numbers including "Our House", "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)", "Part of the Union", "Killer Queen" and of course "Grandma We Love You". And sometimes the lyrics have been cleverly changed to fit in with the story.

The story, such as it is, centres on the (cartoon) Giles family who have moved from London into a council house in Ipswich. Next door is a posh family, the Stinkletons, including Mrs Stinkleton who wishes to be upwardly mobile. Son Larry immediately falls for the Giles’s daughter Bridget but his mother isn’t having any of it so the lovers must become inventive in order to be together.

Meanwhile, the local hospital is up for closure by the new Minister for Dirty Work, Mrs Thatcher’s on the warpath and Carole is looking for a surrogate father for the twins.

In the middle of it all is Grandma, played with a lot of gurning expressions by New Wolsey regular Steve Simmonds, mainly because she is given no lines except "getcha" with which she comments on everything. But she also snores expressively, sings, dances and plays a guitar. It shouldn’t work, but once you relax into it, it really does.

The set is a cleverly flexible combo allowing screens to be dropped in front of a cartoon house on which is played a variety of backdrops including a very impressive street / space montage when Grandma is on her motorbike in one of her two memorable rescue scenarios.

All the cast work really hard as both actors and musicians and there are some brilliant moments, especially the scenes with Mrs Thatcher, played with superb accuracy and comic effect by Alice Keedwell (who also plays Mother Giles) against a lovely portrayal of a weak and slimy politician Rupert Farley-Rusk, played brilliantly by James Haggie who also becomes Carole’s love interest, a confident and watchable portrayal by Christina Tedders.

There’s a lot of singing and dancing. Ben Goffe shows off a remarkable number of physical skills as Eric Giles and Robin Day and the whole cast obviously enjoy every minute, as did most of the audience once they had put aside their expectations and warmed to what was actually on offer.

Some of the humour is quite adult so I wouldn’t recommend it for under-14s, but what you end up with is a funny, fast-paced musical show that is basically a really good evening’s quirky entertainment that refreshingly doesn’t take itself at all seriously.

And does Grandma save the day? I think she does.

Suzanne Hawkes