Once Upon a Time in Wigan - LIVE!

Mick Martin
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo

Once again, the Octagon ends its spring and summer season with a spectacular presentation featuring a live, on-stage band. Rather than the usual actor-musician productions of the recent past, this show features a permanent band and a separate small ensemble of four actors.

Although set against the backdrop of the weekly 'all-nighter' Northern Soul nights at Wigan Casino between 1973 and 1981, Mick Martin's play is really a romantic comedy about four young people whose lives revolve around their Saturday nights at the Casino. Eugene obsesses over and pursues Maxine but when he has her his obsession switches to the Northern Soul night itself above his job, his life and even Maxine. Danny spends the whole week preparing himself for his Saturday nights and has detailed knowledge of the Northern Soul music scene and an extensive record collection; he has a "will they or won't they?" thread with Maxine, despite the fact that she keeps talking about a man back in Burnley who wants to marry her, which lasts right to the end of the play.

Although this production is listed as one of the Octagon's 'world premieres' in the current season, it has actually been around for quite a while and was, in fact, previously reviewed by the BTG at the Contact Theatre in Manchester over four years ago (the playwright seemed a little mystified by this billing in a recent interview). However there have been changes to the script and the addition of the word 'live' and an exclamation mark to the end of the title, as well as swapping the original recordings used in the previous production for a live band.

Using a live band in a show about young people dancing to records may seem an odd change to make and perhaps one that could distort the play to fit the theatre's traditions, but it actually works well. Music is used in the scenes when the characters are dancing or listening to records and also as a link between scenes, and it is here that the band, on a platform above and behind the action, gives much more visual interest than just a recording. The seven-piece band is superb, fronted mostly by the deep, rich tones of ex-Flying Picket Paul Kissaun with Jackie Wilson hair, and later by the powerful soul voice of Shirley Darroch. The PA sound isn't as good as it should be, with an overall muddiness and lack of clarity to the overall sound quality and a balance that sometimes has the drums drowning out the lead vocals.

The script seems to have been tightened up considerably and, with Mark Babych's well-paced production, crackles along with a great deal of life and humour. Chronologically it is all over the place, with Eugene's narration looking back at the last ever night at the Casino and flashbacks within that, but it makes perfect sense and is never confusing.

The cast is all superb. Rupert Hill seemed a little uncertain at the very start as Eugene, but very quickly found his confidence and produced a convincing, likeable and frustrating character. Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi, recently seen at the Octagon in Meet The Mukharjees and at the Lowry in the National Theatre production of Rafta Rafta, is excellent once again as the intelligent, confident Maxine. Richard Oldham has previously played the part of Eugene, but in this production he slips into the part of Danny as though it was written for him, and also plays another very funny little cameo at the beginning. Laura Bonnah has created a wonderful character as the sour-faced Suzanne with her little flights of Daily Mail wisdom. There is some very impressive and energetic dancing from all of them, choreographed by UK British and Wigan Casino Northern Soul dance champion — and British European Thai Boxing champion — Sandy Holt.

The play isn't exactly heavy on plot, but as a light romantic comedy that examines obsessions that can destroy relationships and revives an interesting part of local music history, it is very entertaining, funny, energetic and superbly performed by all the actors and musicians.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

Are you sure?