Thursday, 21 June 2018

Once A Year On Blackpool Sands - Theatre At The Casa, Liverpool.

Fringe Theatre is, I would say, the next step for aspiring actors to gain their experience, after drama school. Often produced on a budget, as any passionate theatre group or production company, they commonly turn to writing new pieces occasionally of an abstract or interpretive style.

On a welcome return to Liverpool, I jumped at the chance to see my first piece of fringe theatre in this city, produced by the perhaps inaptly named Manchester-based Skint Productions. Their well-written and well-executed presentation of “a new LGBTQ comedy drama” - based on a true story, or rather true experiences (with a bit of creative licence) - is powerfully emotive, passionate, witty and innuendo-ridden but perhaps a bit too long (One is reasonably wary when apologised to for the length of a show and questions why that is needed). It is not until later that we discover the reason to be that there is simply too much of the stories of each character to tell and are led to wonder where the focus should be. For me, and I am sure others, the LGBT storyline should be enough - the reason we are there - but the life stories of some of the other characters are questionably included. Could these not have been cut down after the decision to include the later bombshell within the LGBT plot stream (that too may not have needed to be included in such a strong way, if it were referenced earlier and more subtly)?

Nonetheless, their third ‘outing’ of Once A Year On Blackpool Sands at Theatre at the Casa is a compelling, grabbing and thought-provoking piece set in 1953 when homosexuality was still illegal. Written by Karlton Parris, this “gritty northern ‘comedy’” is meant to focus on the struggles of Yorkshire miners Tommy Price (Macauley Cooper) and Eddy Corkhill (Kyle Brookes) as they battle with hiding their sexuality in the only way they know, booking a hotel room in Blackpool and paying for refuge to be who they truly are without fear of suppressing their least in the safety of their room. I say “meant to” because the play begins with the first in a series of many instalments showing the expletive-laced (just for laughs?) life of ex-communist stripper showgirl ‘Red’ Ethel (Linda Clark), mother of - who I consider to be the real star of the show - eccentric, confident yet quirky ‘Withering Heights-on-Sea B&B owner Gladys Bracegirddle (Wendy Laurence James) who brings together all of the character streams. Her flirty, cleaner ‘in training’ “disappointing daughter” Maureen (Mollie Jones) takes a shine to Eddy and hears of their secrets and dreams through the “walls as thin as ham”. The final, and perhaps most interesting and captivating character is Mr Elbridge (Dominic McCavish) who is a transvestite who also attends the hotel to express and embody his inner egos. In short, “six lives will be changed forever” as we attempt to follow the journeys that ultimately lead to activism in the fight for equality and freedom.

Admittedly it may seem convoluted but the prominent story is that of naive and innocent Tommy and rampant Eddy who appears to have a monster inside him. The reason becomes all too clear as the show progresses. The power and impact comes perhaps from the fact that there is an underlying true story; that of real-life Tommy and Eddy who the director met in Greece some thirty years ago and heard their enthralling story where the two AIDS sufferers who has been friends since school were on holiday in Mykonos. Whilst there Tommy died in Eddy’s arms and later that year Eddy passed away too. This added dimension, although not included in the show - probably to save at least some time - highlights the need for openness, acceptance and support. The boys are understandably frightened at the prospect of being found out for being who they are that they even fear for Gladys’ reaction which we later find to be extremely open-minded and accepting.

With natural chemistry and well-choreographed (maybe slightly prompted on occasions) affection, Cooper and Brookes play a relatable duo brilliantly, even if Cooper does have to endure a lot throughout. McCavish’s portrayal of Mr Elbridge and his three inner female personas was nice to watch, as he cleverly switched between them within a whole scene. His sentimental scene with bee-hived “Ginger Rogers of the north”, Joan Crawford adoring Gladys was my favourite with quotes like “if you have these women inside of you, invite them to tea” and “no point in coming all the way to Blackpool and not doing it (of course, referring to the walking from North to South Pier as a woman)”.

Technically, the static set was well thought out and utilised but, whilst a clever and cost-effective way to set the scenes, the positioning/use of a projector meant that the image appeared on the faces of the performers as well as on the back wall. Scene changes were also slow meaning that actors had to ‘freeze’ before the lights went down for a blackout.

My points, I hope you understand, are mainly intended to be constructive as I did thoroughly enjoy the show and wish to commend all involved in making it a success. I was enthused and proud to hear of the forthcoming tour to Manchester (Three Minute Theatre from 11th-13th July) and Salford (Arts Centre on 20th and 21st July) before it makes it’s ‘Off-Broadway’ debut at the Davenport Theatre in New York, and that a film version goes into full production in October when all six members of the stage cast will reprise their roles.

As I hope you will join me in monitoring their success, I leave you with the advice to “embrace those fabulous creatures!”

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 19/6/18

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