Joe Henry-Evans
The Edge, Chorlton

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It’s probably an age thing, but the word’ natter’ recalls Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham. These wonderful comic creations were brought to life by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough done up in drag as northern housewives. Possibly I’m not alone in making this association as the play Natter features male actors Joe Henry-Evans (who also wrote the play) and John Thacker done up in drag as northern housewives.

Neither Henry-Evans nor Thacker are convincing as women, but that is beside the point. The intention behind the play is to explore the willingness of people to accept change and to rise above their prejudices. In 1980s Salford, Helen (John Thacker) and Linda (Joe Henry-Evans) meet regularly to watch telly together and natter. As the conversation turns to their home lives, Helen discretely raises the possibility Linda’s son may be gay.

From that point, more controversial subjects intrude into the trivial gossip. Helen is not simply more broadminded than her friend, she is more experienced having experimented sexually in her younger days. She rejects Linda’s suggestion she is having a love affair with the vicar as she knows full well he too is gay. In fact, there seem to be so many gay people in the neighbourhood, she remarks, it is hard to see how they can justifiably be described as a minority. Yet Helen does not seem able to recognise her husband is probably having an affair, even though it seems obvious to her friend. As health and political issues creep into the daily discussions, Helen and Linda have more to consider than just TV programmes.

Director Stewart Campbell sets an atmosphere which, while not without eccentricities, is warm and welcoming, the central point of the play being the willingness of people to suspend judgement and keep an open mind. At the time the play is set, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had begun and Section 28 of the local government code had prohibited the promotion of homosexuality. These developments are referred to euphemistically in the play as if the characters are too polite to discuss such traumatic subjects in a domestic setting.

The play is set in a slightly different reality from the one we inhabit; for one thing, Didsbury has a branch of the Mafia. A character is not physically or mentally challenged—he just comes from Ormskirk. There are suggestions which seem extreme but have a certain appeal: The Isle of Man should no longer be considered as being in the north and Stockport should be napalmed. References to once popular TV programmes like The Bill and now extinct companies like Betterware bring a nostalgic vibe.

The unexpected emotional depths and adaptability of ordinary people are explored with sensitivity and lots of humour. There are, inevitably, groan-worthy jokes which are so bad they are good. "It says here John Major is an arse", "No, he is an ‘Aries’."

Impressively, Natter avoids sentimentality, and the ending manages to combine a bittersweet atmosphere of resignation with a gloriously silly moment. Although Natter cannot take itself seriously, it handles potentially traumatic subjects in a way which is inspiring and great fun to watch.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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