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Oct 19th

The Lady from the Sea by Ibsen at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

By Caroline May
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In spite of the Royal Exchange still basking in the glory of its 1978 success with The Lady from the Sea which starred Vanessa Redgrave and transferred to London, I gained the impression on the opening night of this new production that hardly any of the audience (including me) actually knew the play. 

Naturally we were anticipating the usual Ibsen-esque scenarios of gloomy Scandinavian settings, plenty of middle-class angst, a doomed dysfunctional family, and a well flagged-up tragic ending. 

Well, our expectations were utterly confounded by a work which is partly a laugh-out-loud comedy of manners, and partly a modernised legend whose supernatural themes are almost operatic in their emotional intensity.

At first this seems to be the story of an unhappy second marriage between the tipsy Dr Wangel (Reece Dinsdale) and a glamorous woman barely older than his own daughters.  But his new wife Ellida appears to be a mythic figure, like The Little Mermaid or Rusalka, who has been torn from her home, the sea, and struggles to cope with confinement on dry land.  As if that weren’t enough she is haunted by a menacing and mysterious figure from her past, a shape-shifting sailor (Bill Ward) to whom she once pledged herself and who has vowed to return for her.  Neve McIntosh cuts an appropriately romantic figure as the doomed Ellida, and her sense of frustration and claustrophobia are tangible as Wangel tries to pathologise the evil spell that has been cast over her.

It is a thing of wonder how Ibsen manages to graft a tragic myth onto a situation comedy and make it work.  At times it’s like watching a parody of his greatest hits, as themes from A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts are all subverted to comic effect.  The talented local artist Ballested (a beautifully judged cameo by Paul Kemp) is revealed to be a struggling painter and decorator; lucky young Lyngstrand (played as delightfully deluded by Samuel Collings) has about as much good fortune as a human albatross; the pretty child Hilde (subtle Catrin Stewart) is a morbid and nasty prototype goth; and her sister’s romantic former tutor Arnholm (Royal Exchange stalwart Jonathan Keeble bravely playing against type) is a ridiculous, balding middle-aged man. 

Liz Ashcroft’s elegant, sparse design allows the drama to unfold swiftly.  The bleached bare floorboards and handful of empty-framed props are stylish and well-suited to this in-the-round space - something as simple as the gutted carcase of a rowing boat moving through Jack James’s watery video projection creates an astonishing effect which is well in keeping with the metaphorical nature of the play.

Although David Eldridge’s version of a literal translation makes the dialogue often sound clunky and awkward, Sarah Frankcom’s pacy production has the audience on the edge of its seats.  Don’t wait another 32 years to see this fantastic and fascinating play in Manchester.

 
The Lady from the Sea is on until Saturday 6 November 2010

Prices: £9-£30

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 26 Oct]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 26 Oct @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

www.royalexchange.co.uk

Sep 19th

A Streetcar Named Desire at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
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Brace yourself for the sultry atmosphere of summer in New Orleans as Bolton Octagon stages Tennessee Williams’s modern classic about sexual power play between the faded remnants of America’s effete southern aristocracy and a new wave of unromantic European immigrants.

 Blanche and her younger sister Stella are all that remain of the once wealthy DuBois family.  Stella left home ten years ago and has embraced a new life in a poor inner-city area as the wife of rough, working-class Stanley Kowalski.  But Blanche stayed loyal to her gentrified roots, and after a long separation of both time and space she arrives unexpectedly and incongruously on Stella’s rickety doorstep.

 Blanche’s self-centred behaviour and superficially refined ways rub up against Stanley’s extremes of vulgarity and machismo, and Stella’s loyalty to her past and present is constantly put to the test.  Aside from the domestic conflict, the play’s fascination lies in the gradual revelation of Blanche’s tragic past and the multi-faceted nature of her character.

 Director David Thacker’s focus on the characters is strangely unambiguous - the audience sees Blanche with Stanley’s harsh realistic gaze rather than through her own rose-coloured spectacles because Clare Foster’s Blanche is not ethereal and whispy but harsh and strident from the word off.  Amy Nuttall as her sister Stella is the most sympathetic character on stage, torn between the needy Blanche and her demanding husband, but Keiran Hill, although physically imposing, is too clean cut and plain nice to make Stanley into the archetypal he-man. 

 This production feels closer to the sharply defined realism of Arthur Miller than the woozy and feverish impressionism of Tennessee Williams.  Partly this is due to the challenge of staging these dream-like dramas in-the-round, as with the Royal Exchange’s production of The Glass Menagerie.  The playwright describes layers of rooms coming in and out of focus, their walls sometimes alive with reflections, lights and shadows - the design of the long-running Woman in Black is a brilliant example of how this can work - while Ciaran Bagnall’s set design can only offer us a floor plan and fixed furniture (although costume designer Mary Horan’s lavish frocks, furs and finery are to die for).  Even Carol Sloman’s music struggles to create any atmosphere.  In the end it is the sheer power of the story that carries the evening.

 A Streetcar Named Desire is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 9 October 2010

Tickets: from £9.50

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30pm

Matinees: Fri 17 Sep; Sat 2 & Wed 6 Oct @ 2pm  

Box Office: 01204 520661

www.octagonbolton.co.uk

Sep 15th

Doctor Faustus at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

By Caroline May
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Christopher Marlowe’s re-telling of the Faust legend is a theatrical extravaganza, and Toby Frow’s vibrant in-the-round production at the Royal Exchange uses puppetry, masks and magic tricks to fill the stage with an unforgettable pageant of angels, devils, spirits and vices.

John Faustus is a German scholar who has become bored by conventional studies in theology, natural sciences and philosophy, and forsakes them for the intellectual challenge of necromancy and its rewards - even at the risk of eternal damnation.  Patrick O’Kane powerfully conveys the character’s internal conflict as Faustus struggles intermittently with his conscience, and if his descent into puerile trickery and practical jokes leaves us with the impression of Derren Brown in a doublet then that is Marlowe’s fault. 

Ian Redford’s trilby-wearing Mephistopheles is an Anglican version of Father Brown, stuffy, middle-aged and pompous, an interpretation which completely ignores the depths and contradictions within the character.  However Stephen Hudson is louche and quietly wicked as Faustus’s servant Wagner, and Rory Murphy makes an excellent professional stage debut with a genuinely funny turn as the dim-witted clown Robin.

The cast is swollen by an enthusiastic ensemble of acting students from Manchester Metropolitan University who throw themselves wholeheartedly into the endless orgies, fights and scenes of general depravity.

Designer Ben Stones’ imaginative giant puppets and masks, coupled with Mark Jonathan’s atmospheric lighting and Richard Hammerton’s evocative sound design, make for a night of amazing spectacle.

 

Doctor Faustus is on until Saturday 9 October 2010

Prices: £9-£30

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 21 Sept]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 21 Sept @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

www.royalexchange.co.uk



Jun 30th

Charley's Aunt at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
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If a picture is worth a thousand words then the accompanying production shot should tell you a great deal about Brandon Thomas’s 1892 farce Charley’s Aunt, which has just opened at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.  If you examine the photograph carefully you will notice that Oliver Gomm, who might be said to share the title role, is not playing a conventional Victorian widow.  But then, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez is, in her own words, “no ordinary woman”.

Dating from the same period as The Importance of Being Earnest and the Savoy operas, Charley’s Aunt is every bit their equal for verbal dexterity, ridiculous situations and favourite stock characters - the silly-ass lord, the tyrannical uncle and the gauche lover are all present and correct.

The simple premise - two Oxford students invite their prospective fiancées to lunch and require a chaperone at short notice - is complicated by (among other accidentals) a jealous guardian, an impoverished (but titled) father, and the imminent arrival of a millionaire aunt who has never met her orphaned nephew because she’s been living in Brazil - “where the nuts come from”.  And in the best tradition of English farce there’s plenty of elaborate business, clowning about and slap-stick. 

Oliver Gomm is lovably daft as Lord Fancourt Babberley, and his virtuosic comedy cadenza with the piano in Act 3 earned him a round of applause on press night.  Stephen Hudson as the put-upon valet Brassett acts as a kind of world-weary Chorus, Malcolm Rennie is terrifyingly pop-eyed as the apoplectic Uncle Spettigue, and Briony McRoberts is charming and mischievous as the relative from the New World.

Director Braham Murray has slightly updated the setting to the 1920s for no discernable reason, although it is to the detriment of the plot device: the extremities of Victorian propriety might necessitate a cross-dressing chaperone, but the Bright Young Things of Brideshead-era Oxford could happily have managed without.  And if the intention was to give a Wodehousian flavour to the proceedings it doesn’t work because the most of the playing is far too naturalistic.  But at least the business is performed with flair and fluency, and all the physical comedy is first-rate.

Designer Johanna Bryant gives us three delightful sets, and the ladies’ flapper costumes are ravishing.  Truly, if the Royal Exchange were ever to go up in flames it would be the wardrobe department that I would rush in and save.

Those who have seen Charley’s Aunt before know it’s one of the English stage’s most copper-bottomed comedy classics, a treat never to be missed, and will already have booked their seats.  If you haven’t seen it before then you should make arrangements to remedy this situation as soon as possible. 

 

Charley’s Aunt is on until Saturday 7 August 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 6 July]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 6 July @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

www.royalexchange.co.uk

Jun 10th

The Importance of Being Earnest at Manchester Library Theatre

By Caroline May
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The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people”, gets a seriously good revival in the final production to grace the Library Theatre stage.

In just over a century this pearl among plays has taken its place alongside the classics of the canon.  Wilde’s sparkling wit and idiosyncratic style reach their acme in a text which is now so universally familiar that, like Hamlet, every line seems to be a quotation.

Director Chris Honer has assembled a cast of familiar faces (including old favourite Leigh Symonds as a brace of butlers) alongside a new generation of acting talent.  Among his discoveries is floppy-haired fop Alex Felton, a long-limbed, lissom youth who seems to have been born to play the role of the incorrigible Algie.  Florence Hall’s Cecily is perfect as the Victorian type of unspoiled innocence, although Natalie Grady as the more worldly Gwendolen has the edge on them both when it comes to comic timing.

Simon Harrison brings humour and sweetness to the otherwise stolid Jack Worthing, and Olwen May’s very funny turn as dotty governess Miss Prism gives the character more than her usual share of charm.  However Malcolm James’s cameo as the inveterate celibate Rev Chasuble nearly steals the whole show, wringing a laugh from every line without ever overplaying.  In fact the whole production is an example of what can be achieved from truth and taste, something Wilde would have appreciated.

It may seem strange, but the best example of this self-imposed restraint is the director’s decision to have Lady Bracknell played in drag.  Russell Dixon’s solid bulldog build and uncompromising masculinity mean that even though he speaks in low and moderate tones his Lady Bracknell has an underlying authority.  Ironically this enables him to play her as a living, breathing woman, rather than as the shrill caricature which is often the character’s fate. 

Designer Judith Croft’s opulent sets consist of a wall of slats with a beautiful cut-out design and a well-matched assemblage of antique furniture,  And her mouth-watering costumes almost deserve their own billing: the Lady Bracknell tout ensemble plays a huge part in Russell Dixon’s transformation, while Alex Felton seems to have become Ms Croft’s fashion muse.  How else could she have dreamed up those divine crimson shot-silk breeches?  And who else could possible have carried them off with such aplomb?

There can’t be a theatre-goer in the region who doesn’t have a soft spot for Manchester’s lovely Library Theatre and who doesn’t regret the closure of the little auditorium buried in the Central Library’s basement.  However the Library Theatre Company itself lives on and will be performing at The Lowry for the next few seasons.  And at least The Importance if Being Earnest is a high-point for the company to take leave of its home of more than half a century.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest is on until Saturday 3 July 2010

Prices: £8.00-£18.00 (concessions available)

Eves: Mon-Thurs @ 7.30pm; Fri & Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Thurs & Sat @ 3pm

Box Office: 0161 236 7110

www.librarytheatre.com

 

May 19th

Pygmalion at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
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Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s most popular comedy, has achieved such ubiquity over the last century that it’s now one of those plays where the audience are practically saying the lines with the actors, like a classical equivalent of The Rocky Horror Show.  And if they’ve seen the musical version, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, then they’ll probably be singing along too.

So the challenge for any director is to try and shine a new light on the story of a Cockney flower girl who is transformed into the convincing likeness of a duchess by an arrogant phonetics expert.

This version features Exchange regular Simon Robson as Henry Higgins, who with his imposing height and noble Roman looks initially comes across as a formidable combination of Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Miller; a self-absorbed scholar with no interests beyond his learned pursuits.  However when Colonel Pickering (whiskery Terence Wilton), uneasy about Eliza’s welfare in a masculine ménage, bluntly asks, “Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?”, Higgins’s sexuality suddenly comes centre-stage.  The rest of the exchange, for all the professor’s professed cynicism, only serves to illustrate that despite his intellectual mien this Higgins is no bloodless ascetic - even the extraordinary way Simon Robson deploys his long legs is intensely physically expressive.  And the distinct frisson of attraction that later passes between him and Clara Eynsford Hill (Harriet Barrow) on his mother’s chaise longue is something I have never seen before.

Contrasted with the Professor’s transition from emasculated academic to red-blooded male, Cush Jumbo’s Eliza makes the opposite journey, one that takes us back to the story’s mythic roots where a man creates a sculpture and then brings it to life.  Her bedraggled street vendor persona is a fiery force of nature, but from the moment she begins her transformation into a “lady” Eliza is less a human being and more an animated statue - cold, aloof, self-contained, the long, slim Edwardian fashions and constricted vowels merely adding to the impression. 

Among the other iconic roles, Ian Bartholomew stands out as irrepressible dustman Albert Doolittle, and although it was his Act II monologue that drew the spontaneous round of applause, I was particularly taken by his crestfallen bridegroom in the final scene - the combination of chirpy east end rhetoric with silk hat and morning suit is irresistible.

Designer Ashley Martin-Davis strips the stage of all but the bare necessities in the way of furniture and props, which makes for a Covent Garden somewhat lacking in atmosphere but allows space during the drawing-rooms scenes.  And the sound design is simply magnificent.  Where Shaw, unlike Alan Jay Lerner, has carelessly failed to demonstrate the methods and progress of Eliza’s tutoring, Peter Rice uses scene changes between acts to mash up combinations of increasingly sophisticated piano music and elocution exercises to illustrate her phonetical progression.  

Director Greg Hersov and his lead actor Simon Robson have amply succeeded in redefining aspects of a play that is very familiar but which still has surprises bubbling under the surface. 

 

Pygmalion is on until Saturday 19 June 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 25]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 25 May @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

www.royalexchange.co.uk

May 16th

Rafta Rafta at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
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If you’ve ever seen an old black-and-white film called The Family Way starring John and Hayley Mills then the plot of Rafta Rafta will seem very familiar.  Bill Naughton, Bolton’s genius loci, based the script on his own play All In Good Time, and Salford writer Ayub Khan Din (East is East) has brilliantly adapted and updated it to a contemporary, though still northern, setting.

The tale of a newly-wed couple whose attempts at marital consummation are constantly thwarted by their overbearing though well-meaning parents might appear to have little resonance in modern mainstream British culture.  But tweak the setting slightly - such as basing the story in the Orthodox Jewish community, like the Lowry’s recent Cling To Me Like Ivy - or in an Indian family, as here - and suddenly the sexual naïvety and innocence make sense.

There are strong domestic themes based around a domineering father who bullies his studious son and a young wife whose close bond with her daddy is resented by her mother.  Director Iqbal Khan elicits powerful performances from his cast when required and really pushes the boundaries of the drama. 

However the production never forgets that this is an outstandingly funny play, even occasionally veering towards farce.  Simon Nagra as the domestic tyrant Mr Dutt keeps the undercurrent of violence at a nice simmer without losing the comedy in his character.  Harvey Virdi as his ever-aggravated wife is radiant in the face of adversity, even accomplishing the surely impossible task of being a kind and loving mother-in-law.  Darren Kuppan and Bhavna Limbachia are sweet and touching as the newly marrieds and get the audience rooting for them wholeheartedly.  And there’s some lovely work in the smaller roles, notably Tony Hasnath as the groom’s cheeky kid brother and Kaleem Janjua as the bride’s doting and over-protective father.

Designer Lis Evans uses a well-compartmentalised stage to create the floorplan of the Dutt’s home for this in-the-round staging, which can be seen in Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre straight after the Octagon run. 

A strong ensemble and great script make this an incredibly entertaining evening at the theatre.

 

Rafta Rafta is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 5 June 2010

Tickets: from £9.00

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Sat 22 & Wed 26 May @ 2pm  

www.octagonbolton.co.uk


Apr 26th

Beautiful House by Cathy Crabb at Library Theatre, Manchester

By Caroline May

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Cathy Crabb’s comedy Beautiful House returns to the Library Theatre stage in a full-blown professional production after its success in the 2009 Re:play Festival.

Middle-aged, middle-class Bridgette and Ronnie appear to have come down in the world with a bang when they take up residence in one of Salford’s less salubrious tower blocks.  The mystery of how they find themselves exiled from the rural idyll of Delph and living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours like pink-velour-track-suited Paula and chavvy Otis is eventually revealed over several fraught and occasionally alcohol-fuelled encounters.

The title is a metaphor that works on several levels.  Bridgette’s beautiful house is the rambling wreck she’s spent years renovating; for Otis, it’s the dream of a better life for his family a long way from the inner-city.  But to Paula, who (astonishingly) works on reception at the Manchester Museum and has become obsessed with Egyptology, “Beautiful House” means the special place where bodies go to be eviscerated before they are mummified. 

Cathy Crabb’s script is brilliantly funny, littered with killing one-liners, hilarious anecdotes and sharply detailed observation of life.  Her characters are raw and sometimes painful to watch, especially Ronnie and Bridgette with their shockingly cruel and destructive relationship - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has nothing on this.  Janice Connolly, all condescending air and semi-refined accent, convincingly reverts to Bridgette’s native Failsworth idiom at the drop of a hat, and John Henshaw blusters about as her dull but dependable chemistry teacher husband.

Sally Carman is very funny but slightly cartoony as Paula - I miss the blend of the pathetic and the ridiculous which Cathy Crabb herself brought to the part last year.  However James Foster, reprising his role as nice-but-dim Otis, is superb once again.  His wordless reaction to Paula’s holiday story is unforgettable, a really great piece of acting.

Did I mention that it’s funny?  The cast has the audience roaring the whole way through, while Noreen Kershaw’s direction keeps the whole thing on an even keel.  A great evening’s entertainment.

 

Beautiful House is on until Saturday 8 May 2010

Prices: £8.00-£18.00 (concessions available)

Eves: Mon-Thurs @ 7.30pm; Fri & Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Thurs & Sat @ 3pm

Box Office: 0161 236 7110

www.librarytheatre.com

 

Apr 23rd

Organised Chaos Productions present Afternoon Tea by Lindsay Kernahan at Taurus Bar, Manchester

By Caroline May

It’s been a long time since I saw a play at Taurus, and in the interim it has either been brilliantly revamped to make the tiny, cramped downstairs bar into a viable performance space with decent viewing lines, or emerging theatre company Organised Chaos have worked wonders to create an almost site-specific production which cleverly evokes the genteel and refined pleasures of an upmarket tearoom. 

We come down the basement stairs to find two couples tête-à-tête at neighbouring tables which are decked out with all the accoutrements of a leisurely and indulgent afternoon tea.  The white linen tablecloths, fine china, teapots and cafetières, not to mention the laden cake stands and mouth-watering array of pastries, made me want to summon a waitress and look at a menu at once - designer Alice Allen’s attention to detail is spot on.

What playwright Lindsay Kernahan and director Emma France then set up is a Siamese-twin of a comedy, with styles of writing and acting almost diametrically opposed, as the couples chat over their refreshments and intriguing stories come to separate but equally dramatic climaxes.

Jean (Celia Carron) and Poppy (Dianne Rimmer) are nicely turned-out ladies who lunch - or in this case, take tea.  Being of a certain age their conversations range across all the problems that can beset a woman in her middle years - ex-husbands, new partners, grown-up children, antisocial cats, transgender internet dating - that kind of thing.  With just a hint of the Cheshire Set about them (though that set is perhaps more Hollyoaks than Wilmslow) their bantering northern humour is reminiscent of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, and the characterisations are broad without being over-the-top.  I don’t know whether first-night nerves caused these scenes to played at a snail’s pace with Pinteresque pauses, but the snappy comic dialogue seemed to demand something a great deal less languid.

At the next table William (Laurence Pickford) and Abigail (Julie Burrow) are in a more modern and downbeat style of comedy.  William is divorcing his wife to be with his much younger girlfriend, but their long weekend away in the country is not turning out to be as romantic as anticipated, partly due to the age gap, and partly due to Abigail’s jealousy and William’s wandering eye.  The two actors establish a convincing relationship, conveying genuine emotion and even arousing our sympathy.  The humour comes less from the dialogue than the playing - small but true moments, such as when the slightly vain and self-absorbed William includes the whole audience in his lascivious stare, or glimpses his own smile in the wall mirror and stops to admire it.

Tonight’s performance really tweaked the audience’s funnybone.  If you miss the company’s work this time around there’s a further opportunity to catch one of their previous Taurus shows at the Buxton Fringe Festival this summer.

 

Evenings: 22nd to 24th April @ 7.30pm

Matinee: Sat 24th @ 5pm

Tickets: £7 (£5 conc) from Quaytickets: 0843 208 0500 or www.quaytickets.com

 

Taurus Bar

1 Canal Street
Manchester

M1 3HE

 

www.organisedchaosproductions.co.uk

www.taurus-bar.co.uk

Apr 19th

Comedians by Trevor Griffiths at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May
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A text for tonight.  Perhaps we can’t all be Max Bygraves.  But we can try.

You’re an aspiring stand-up comedian; you’ve been coming to this evening class in a rundown FE college in Manchester every week for months; you’ve absorbed the wise words of the tutor, one-time bill-topper Eddie Waters, “The Lancashire Lad”; you’ve taken his advice about being honest, true, compassionate and working through the laughs not for the laughs; you’ve honed your act, practised at home, learned the lines: now it’s the big night when you’re performing an open spot at the local Working Men’s Club and secretly hoping to impress that agent from The Smoke, Bert Challenor, who’s in the audience supposedly just to assess your work but who might offer you a route to the big time and an escape from your miserable life. 

And then Bert gives you a tip-off: all he wants is gags. 

So do you scrap your act and try to remember as many near-the-knuckle one-liners and Christmas cracker jokes as possible in an attempt to ingratiate yourself with the man handing out the contracts?  Or do you stay loyal to your art, and Eddie?

Although Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play is astonishingly specific in its period and locale, it couldn’t be more topical at a time when the biggest names in stand-up can sell out arenas, and Manchester is teeming with classes ranging from the improv games of Comedy Sportz to a BA (Hons) Comedy: Writing and Performance at Salford University.  And although the politically correct alternative comedians of the 1980s were supposed to have killed off the bigoted world view epitomised by Bernard Manning, not only have those frilly-shirted, bow-tied gag-merchants come back to enjoy a post-modern popularity, but the new breed of stand-ups are constantly crossing the lines of taste and decency with their “ironic” reclaiming of the offensive.

The playwright assembles a group of comic stereotypes, including a Jew and two types of Irishman, just like the set-up for a shaggy dog story, but David Thacker’s excellent actors transform them into completely rounded human beings while retaining the flavour of their archetypal origins. 

John Branwell is brilliant as Cockney wide-boy agent Bert Challenor, a salty cynic who believes in aiming for the lowest common denominator, and Richard Moore makes a fine contrast as the lugubrious and slightly tragic tutor Eddie. 

While all the comic wannabees are clearly drawn and well-detailed, Mark Letheren as Phil Murray, the born straight man, gives the most unselfish and thankless performance of the evening; for a gifted actor to take half-funny lines and kill them stone dead takes real skill as well as self-sacrifice.

Even the tiny roles are a delight: Howard Ward doubles up as the grumpy college Caretaker and virtuosic club pianist, and Simon Nagra plays lost student Mr Patel like a bemused Lou Costello.

Kieran Hill as the iconic Gethin Price is big, beautiful and just a touch camp.  When he reveals his Mohican-style shaved head and thick white greasepaint, the intended homage to Grock the clown smacks more of a character who has escaped from Taboo: The Boy George Musical.  At this point you realise that his turn isn’t comedy but performance art, and that even if he never plays Hulme Hippodrome he only has to wait for the Greenroom to open 1983 to be showered with Arts Council funding.

Helen Goddard’s design cleverly switches from a frighteningly accurate reconstruction of a down-at-heel 1970s classroom, (even the square metal dustbin is an authentic period piece) to a seedy northern club with a low-rent compère (Russell Richardson).

Seeing Comedians is like coming across the final episode of a six-part sit-com where all the characters have long been established and the grand climax has no context or emotional resonance for the casual viewer; and for a play about comedy it’s surprisingly unfunny.  However David Thacker’s enjoyable, well-paced and superbly acted production is highly recommended - for the drama, if not the laughs.

 

Comedians is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 8 May 2010

Tickets: from £9.00

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Fri 16, Sat 17, Mon 19, Sat 24 and Wed 28 Apr @ 2pm  

www.octagonbolton.co.uk