Ladies That Bus

Joyce Branagh. Composer: Helen Longworth
Ladies That Bus Company
Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

Joyce Branagh in Ladies That Bus Credit: Joel Chester Fildes
Cast of Ladies That Bus Credit: Joel Chester Fildes
Helen Longworth in Ladies That Bus Credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Hold very tight please! And strap yourselves in for a riveting ride aboard the 555 bus which wends its way hourly from Lancaster to Kendal, and on through the heart of Lakeland to Keswick.

Backed by the three theatres in each of those towns, this new play will visit each of them, as well as ‘detouring’ around several other Northern venues. If it’s greeted with the same acclaim it gets on its première here then they will be needing extra buses on the timetable!

For not only does the 555 travel one of the most scenic routes in the country, it can lay claim to a colourful display of passengers.

With a cast of writer Joyce Branagh, composer Helen Longworth and Lisa Howard (standing in for Nicola Ingram—who’s missed the bus through illness) audiences meet a trio of drivers and a bus-full of characters. There are the ‘pungent adolescents’ on the school run; the annual walking club; American tourists; a lonely, daydreaming bookworm; a troubled young mum; even a couple keeping a weekly ‘assignation’.

It’s a rich mix of fact and fiction, using ingredients gleaned from a month of travels on the bus, workshops, and interviews involving more than 400 people.

Victoria Wood is name-checked by one character, and it’s a measure of this show’s achievement to say her spirit pervades Branagh’s script, with its affectionate ear for comedy, and particularly Longworth’s songs, ranging from laugh-out-loud to quietly poignant. The fact that Lisa Howard reads it all from the book is barely noticed amidst all the quick-change characters and director Kirstie Davis’s abundant flourishes.

Such confident storytelling lets the second act venture into distinctly darker territory. A duologue between two troubled bus passengers is a small gem of writing and acting within a jewellery box of a production.

Lee Affen’s delicate sound design turns a parade of lost property into a sensory display. But by the time the audience has been treated to a Friday night ABBA medley aboard a booze cruise bus, they are more than ready to join in one last chorus of the show’s theme song "One Day Together".

If you miss this bus on its outward journey (and it was standing room only here) then you’ll have to hope for a quick return.

Reviewer: David Upton

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