The Pros, The Cons and a Screw
One of the last times the old Derby Playhouse was full of people with smiles on their faces was for Steven Dexter's production of Stepping Out two years ago. There wasn't much joy after that as the theatre lurched from one crisis to another before closing.
The management then handed over the running of the building to the University of Derby and the city council's arts organisation Derby LIVE.
Coincidentally the first professional, home-grown offering at the renamed Derby Theatre is directed by Dexter. The result is almost identical: an audience delighted by a superb piece of theatre which would grace many bigger and more prestigious venues.
Former Derby Playhouse artistic director Mark Clements commissioned Tim Elgood eight years ago to write a play about prisoners forming a rock band. For various reasons it was locked up until recently.
It was even scheduled as part of a Playhouse season when Karen Hebden and Stephen Edwards were the creative team. But financial problems meant the play was sentenced to remain behind closed doors.
Now Derby LIVE has taken the bold step of choosing The Pros, The Cons and a Screw as its initial presentation. Judging by the evidence of press night, the play is in extremely good nick.
The Pros, The Cons and a Screw isn't a rock musical or a collection of songs from a particular era wrapped around a flimsy plot. It's a play with ten songs which have been chosen to reveal intimate details of the character performing them.
When I first saw the list of songs I wasn't impressed because they didn't seem to be connected to one another either in time or genre. But a slight change of lyrics or treatment gives them a new significance.
The Pros, The Cons and a Screw is the story of how singer-songwriter superstar Kieran O'Connell is sent to prison for perjury and finds that fame doesn't lead to favours. But he's persuaded to join a band which makes its own kind of jailhouse rock.
Elgood's writing is crisp - "what's the difference between the cons and a screw? The pension!" - while the plot is clever without being contrived and there's an abundance of humour.
The author's research, which included spending a week in three different prisons, has paid off handsomely. The scenes during an anger management class are especially impressive, with six inmates showing diverse, distinctive characteristics.
The cast comprises ten actors who are also fine singers and musicians.
Stephen Gray is perfectly cast as the wise-cracking, garrulous yet irritable Irishman O'Connell while Stuart Neal is cheeky Ziggy, the prisoner-cum-narrator who reveals the drama behind the other inmates' court cases.
Nick Haverson is convincing as a thuggish Guscott; Leon Lopez gives us a quiet yet contemplative Lopez - he delivers a strong and poignant Jealous Guy; Peter Morton is the intellectually challenged yet likeable Choc Philpott; Adam Deacon is a hot-headed mixed-up Shaz who turns the Pretenders' Brass In Pocket into a delightful rap; and Nicole Faraday is the teacher in the education unit who wants to break out of her existence in the say way as the inmates.
Probably the most extraordinary performance comes from Elliot Davis. As well as gaining sympathy as the timid, nervy, embezzling accountant Bill, he's the musical director and also wrote with Elgood the song Desdemona, a seriously good powerful rock ballad.
There are small drawbacks with the production: ironically Gray is marginally the weakest singer on stage and doesn't quite pull off Springsteen's Born To Run. On press night there were occasional sound imbalances which should be ironed out before long.
Derby Theatre could have begun a new era with a safe box-office success to bring back the crowds. Their gamble of staging a world premiere by a Derbyshire playwright seems to have paid off. The Pros, The Cons and a Screw is a fabulous production which deserves captive audiences.
"The Pros, The Cons and a Screw" runs until November 21st
Reviewer: Steve Orme