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Grow Up Grandad

Gordon Steel
Steelworks Theatre Company
Whitley Bay Playhouse

Grow Up Grandad

On the hottest day of the year, with Whitley Bay's sun, sand and beach beckoning, a mere 18 of us ventured into the dark confines of the Whitley Bay Playhouse to see the matinée performance of Gordon Steel's play. We were well rewarded and made a lot of noise at the end.

Despite all the demographic, cultural and social shifts plus the seismic changes in the make-up of the UK society, our image of grandfathers remains locked into that Clive Dunn song. Similar with grandmothers; newspaper headlines still use the word "granny" with a suggestion of an inert life of tartan rugs, worn slippers and cocoa before bed. Mock surprise must be displayed should such specimens manifest behaviour beyond that of harmless sweet old ladies; thus such headlines as: "Granny Plays Golf!!!"

Yet grandparents have played an increasingly active role in bringing up their grandchildren in our age of divorce and co-habitation. Not many writers have tackled this subject, reason enough to welcome Gordon Steel's play for his own Steelworks Theatre Company—a double pun on both his name and the company's Teesside pedigree. The writer also directs.

The slightly trite title does not do the play justice, a-three hander lasting almost two and a half hours. If all three performances are impressive, the other two actors won't mind a jot if I first mention 13-year-old Rose Allen as the granddaughter Poppy (the role is also played on the tour by Eliza Dobson).

This is no walk-on role, no cameo, but a full-blooded characterisation of a young girl dealing with the mental disruptions of a lost parent, puberty and moving in with a grandparent (Simeon Truby) who initially seems from another planet. Cultural differences are neatly pinpointed. At one stage she exclaims, “I'm not doing it. End of!” A pause, then he asks, “end of what?”

When Poppy wants to listen to Little Mix, grandad puts a Ronnie Hilton 78 on his Dansette record player. When he asks her if she wants to do a jigsaw, she looks at him gone out. It's a remarkably sustained heartfelt and professional performance from Rose Allen, spanning a whole range of emotions and the result of the company's lengthy and patient nurturing of her obvious talents.

Liz Carney plays the well-meaning social worker and also plays Poppy herself 20 years into the future as, post-interval, we're whizzed forward two decades.

In heartfelt scenes, Grandad, now suffering Alzheimer's, is being shunted permanently into a "home" by 32-year-old Poppy on the pretext of it being merely a respite stay. It will be the second time in the play that, rightly or wrongly, he feels abandoned by her yet there is lso a great sense of interdependence between two generations elsewhere separated by enormous social and cultural gulfs.

Nor is the play sentimental or indulgent as in turn we see the darker, angrier side of both Poppy and Grandad. All three actors engross their audience throughout. The action is played out on Alex Doige-Green's semi-naturalistic set of a domestic interior in front of an expansive cloudscape.

The play is dramatic, painful, provocative and often hugely funny. It is also very human which much theatre is not. Steel writes crisp, sharp dialogue, both tickling our funny bone and engaging our mental processes. I'm not overkeen on writers also directing but the latter here never indulges the former.

I did find the slightly melodramatic plot twists in the later stages unnecessary and it becomes a little over-complicated as the actors switch rapidly between three generations. We could also perhaps lose ten minutes.

Minor gripes though. Since his initial breakthrough with Dead Fish as an Edinburgh Fringe First winner, Gordon Steel has worked expansively over a wide landscape, though always drawn back to his beloved Teesside where now his own theatre company can take proper root and, I hope, flourish.

The play tours the north of England for the rest of September.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer