Oldham Coliseum Theatre
According to her programme biography, Amanda Whittington was described by The Guardian as Britain's "most consistently popular female dramatist"; any glance at the local amateur theatre listings will confirm this, as rarely a week goes by when there isn't at least one amateur production of Ladies' Day or Be My Baby somewhere in the north west.
The Coliseum's revival is, in many ways, a recreation of the original 2005 Hull Truck production, reuniting the original director Gareth Tudor Price with two of the original cast members and two others who have worked with that company. The writer was keeping an eye on proceedings from the auditorium on press night. In the week that Mark Babych took over Hull Truck as artistic director, the old guard has temporarily taken over Oldham Coliseum.
The director relates in the programme how he got the idea for the play from hearing on the radio how Royal Ascot was relocating to York just for one year in June 2005. Whittington's play takes a group of four workers from a fish packing factory in Hull, dressed in their finest, to Ladies' Day, the day at Ascot when, traditionally, ladies overdress for a day at the racecourse, with particular emphasis on outlandish hats.
That, essentially, is the whole of the plot. They decide to go for Pearl's leaving do, steal tickets and money from a purse they find to get in and bet on the accumulator on the Tote. They run into a TV presenter covering the race who is only interested in getting into Shelley's knickers (perhaps more timely now than in 2005), there are revelations about Shelley's finances, Linda's bullying mother, Jan's fondness for the works foreman and Pearl's extra-marital activities plus lengthy lessons in tick-tacking and betting.
The serious storylines are as flimsy and superficial as you might expect from a popular comedy, which would be fine if the quality of the comedy made up for it—sadly this is not the case. There are lots of lines that are phrased like jokes and delivered as though they are jokes, prompting the occasional Pavlovian snigger, but there is no actual joke content there. This forces the director and the excellent cast into exaggerated comic business to try to construct a comedic silk purse from such poor quality material.
The star of the show has to be Tom Bevan, the only one without a Hull Truck background in his programme biog, who plays all of the male parts and makes them distinctly different and individually believable, including the factory foreman, the TV presenter, the Irish jockey, the dodgy ticket tout, the drunken compulsive gambler and the "other man".
Sue McCormick and Annie Sawle revive the roles they created of Jan and Pearl excellently, joined by younger actors Laura Aramayo and Amy Walsh who are every bit as good in the roles of Linda and Shelley. Foxton's set has some clever twists in the way one scene transforms into the next, and Tudor Price's direction keeps everything moving at enough of a pace to keep you watching—although I'm not convinced that what was happening in the factory scenes bears much relation to what happens in a real fish packing plant, or that the company would stay in business if they worked at that speed.
I can see why a modern play billed as a character-based comedy with a largely-female cast would have great appeal to many amateur societies, but beyond this there is little to recommend it. Also, on the surface, it seems like the type of play that would go down well at the Coliseum, but I think Oldham audiences deserve better, funnier writing than this play can provide.
Reviewer: David Chadderton