Sex and the Three Day Week

Stephen Sharkey
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Liverpool Playhouse

Sex and the Three Day Week at Liverpool Playhouse Credit: Topher McGrillis

Thank heaven for friends. For in the hour of need and much to the relief of the cast, a dozen die-hard supporters stuck with their pals through thick and (mostly) thin as Liverpool Playhouse presented their Christmas show Sex and the Three Day Week. That only left 994 others…

Sometimes you just want to grab hold of someone and ask “why?” or perhaps more pointedly “how?” Presumably somebody, somewhere must have read Stephen Sharkey’s script and concluded, for reasons best known to themselves, that this was a superbly crafted, side-splittingly funny piece of theatre and one that the general public really needed to see. Or perhaps they just owed Mr Sharkey a favour.

It’s saying a lot when the biggest laughs of the night happened when characters simply pretended to trip up (seven times) or hobble around the stage with one shoe on and one shoe off. Such antics raised a few titters, which as just as well because laughs in the actual script were few and far between.

Sharkey’s play is set in 1973, a bleak period of recent history characterised by power cuts and when employment and cheer were both in short supply. It’s one of many baffling decisions which blight this play.

There’s actually no compelling reason to enter the grim austerity of 1973 and indeed at times one is left with the distinct impression that the playwright has forgotten all about the milieu in which the play is set. With the exception of a few references to power cuts we could be in any decade.

But where this play really falls down is in its rather eclectic casting. While Sharkey can’t be blamed for trying to sneak this under the radar, there’s simply no excuse for poor casting.

The McManamans (Edward Harrison and Natalie Casey) are a couple who, having been married for fifteen years, are experiencing a slump in their marriage. And yet the two actors portraying this couple—allegedly in the midst of midlife dissatisfaction—don’t look a day older than 25! I mean we know the seventies were a bit suspect, but even I know you couldn’t get married at the age of 10.

Casey attempts, primarily via a weird falsetto voice, to aim for Sybil Fawlty, but instead of Prunella Scales ends up doing a constipated version of Mollie Sugden. Casey and fellow cast member Catrin Aaron clearly have a long way to travel down the highway of subtlety. This production was screaming out for an Alison Steadman or a Paul McGann. It got neither.

But gravitas only comes with experience and this production was woefully short of that. It certainly needed as a minimum actors with masses of stage presence and experience of the farce genre. So why anybody with even the slightest understanding of theatre would cast actors at least ten years younger than they ought to have been is a complete mystery.

These kids never stood a chance of pulling this off. Where the amateur theatre sometimes has little choice but to miscast in terms of age, the professional arena has no such excuse. It was like fielding Liverpool FC’s youth academy team in the FA cup final against Chelsea’s first eleven.

Poor Eileen O’ Brien though tried to bring some technique and class to proceedings, but she too was fighting a losing battle. Miss O’Brien was asked to randomly wander in and out of scenes with a snake in a basket and a mynah bird in tow (minor, geddit? Three day week?) for reasons that shall remain known to the playwright alone.

Add to this a sexy French au-pair girl (inexplicably invisible to the sex-starved Mr McManaman) who seduces a geeky student with leftie sympathies, detectives who look like they’ve come straight from school, Spanish reception clerks attempting to do Andrew Sachs and you have a recipe for disaster.

It’s surely saying something that the best things about Sex and the Three Day Week are the McManaman’s rather nifty, authentically tasteless seventies living room and the equally gauche reception area of the Hotel Paradise. Full marks to the tech crew who delivered a devilishly clever piece of stagecraft here. The floating reception desk was mildly funny, but like many other jokes in this play, soon wore off after the tenth time it was played.

Some titters are heard when Javier Marzan’s Sebastian does a turn in front of the curtain while the set is changed. It’s a nicely played bit of audience banter revealing a promising comic bent. Ironically when this production wandered briefly off script the whole thing lifted instantly. The problems began when it went back on script..

Six theatre-goers amongst us though couldn’t get enough of this, springing to their feet at the end of the evening a little too readily. The standing ovation given by these six will, I have no doubt, be duly returned in the not too distant future. You scratch my back.

“The worst day of my life,” says Eileen O’ Brien at one point. Amen to that said 994 others.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick