Once Upon a Time in Wigan
Contact Theatre, Manchester
Once Upon A Time In Wigan is a tribute to the Northern Soul "all-nighter" - dances to American (mostly) soul classics of the 60s and 70s that lasted for eight hours from Saturday night until Sunday morning - in particular those held at Wigan Casino from 1973 until 1981. This play attempts to conjure up the enthusiasm and devotion of the crowds of young people who got themselves through the week, working in jobs that they complained they hated, only by thinking of their weekly pilgrimage to this magical place. We are introduced to the music (available on CD in the theatre foyer), the spectacularly energetic dancing (both from the actors and in film clips from when the play is set) and the characters who lived for both.
Although Mick Martin is credited as the writer, this is very much director Paul Sadot's story. He tells in the programme of his own experiences in the 1970s at "all-nighters" around the country, including Wigan, which are recreated in the play. Sadot's enthusiasm for these days and the Northern Soul scene come through very clearly in the play, the programme notes, the leaflets and the web site dedicated to the play at www.onceuponatimeinwigan.com. The development of the play began with four character monologues, which were developed into scenes by the director, cast and writer, and then the writer developed these scenes into the finished script. This is similar to the Joint Stock / Out of Joint method created by director Max Stafford-Clark that produced some great plays in the 1980s from such writers as Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker.
The actors produce some very good performances. Richard Oldham stands out as the main character Eugene, whose joy and enthusiasm for the weekly ritual is infectious, but his obsession becomes frustrating when it ultimately threatens to destroy his relationship. Ryan Pope as the nerdy Danny, obsessed with the details of who recorded what and which records are in and with a large collection of rare vinyl, Sally Carmen as the worldly Maxine whom Eugene obsesses over and wins and then makes a mess of their relationship, and Emily Aston as the innocent Suzanne with the mysterious boyfriend are all excellent.
However ultimately, this is a series of moments, many of them very well-written and well-acted in themselves, that do not hang together. There are some great scenes and monologues, often very funny or moving, but just as the plot starts to move the scenes end and a record or some documentary film footage begins that lasts too long to be simply a bridge between scenes. This destroys the pace and means that some great potential storylines - Eugene and Maxine's relationship problems, Eugene giving up his job to sell drugs, Suzanne's revelation about her boyfriend, Danny's big decision when the club is closing - do not get the time to develop properly and so are dealt with superficially. Despite this, act one moves at a reasonable pace that keeps the attention for most of the time, but after the interval the play seems to drag a bit, with most of the scenes repeating the same discussions about what they are going to do when the club closes and whether Eugene and Maxine are going to stay together. Northern Soul fans will like the music and former frequenters of the all-nighters, particular those in Wigan, will love the reminiscences about the music, the dancing and the disgusting toilets, but as a piece of theatre this play does not make the best of some potentially very good material.
"Once Upon A Time In Wigan" runs until 31st January, then tours the UK until 3rd April
Reviewer: David Chadderton