Saturday, 28 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Thunder Girls - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Last night I attended what turned out to be quite a star-studded event but then this was by no means an ordinary show. This was The Thunder Girls, an adaptation of the book written by the sassy, headstrong, multi-talented and creative PR guru Melanie Blake, and directed by Joyce Branagh. Blake had initially made a start on the book in 1999, and it sat tucked away in a cupboard for 15 years. After some pivotal moments in her life Blake decided life was too short and so wanted to live her own dream again, and so she took the bull by the horns and in 2018 she rewrote The Thunder Girls. It was finally released in July 2019 it became a best-seller. As we took our seats at The Lowry, Salford, it was a lovely touch that every seat in the packed-out auditorium had Blake’s golden covered book on it and a great memento to take home!

The Thunder Girls broke the record for the fastest selling ticket sales for a new play at the Lowry theatre, and has a well-known line-up starring Coronation Street’s Beverley Callard, Nolan sister Coleen Nolan, Eastenders’ Carol Harrison, Emmerdale’s Sandra Marvin, and not forgetting Minders’ Gary Webster. This is an outright comedy show but also touches on some much more emotional and in-depth issues further on into the performance and which takes the audience on a rollercoaster journey. The gags are hilarious and the audience lapped them up. “I should have played the field a bit more” said Carly (Marvin) A great comeback from Roxy (Callard) “There’s a lot of s*** in fields” had the audience in hysterics.

The play focuses on the lives of the once-famous members of the former chart-topping girl band that reunites 30 years after one of its members Chrissie, played by Harrison goes solo, steals her fellow bandmate’s (Roxy’s) man, and is felt to be the mean, selfish one of the all-girl group. An opportunity has arisen that could offer them all a new and exciting lucky break, performing as the opening act at an otherwise all-male-artiste concert at Wembley Stadium. This opportunity leads to breakdowns, fighting,( involving a fabulous slap from Callard and which was expertly directed by company fight director Kaitlin Howard), crying, more crying, secrets being uncovered and all this within a backdrop of lots and lots of comedy moments.

The set design by Richard Foxton was simple yet effective. We are in Chrissie’s mansion which is adorned with beautiful drapery from floor to ceiling and clear hints at their past success adorning the walls. This is the reunion dinner of all reunion dinners and where it all ‘kicks off’ so to speak. With the spacious stage used to its advantage, separate areas are made clear with the use of lighting and blackouts. Callard’s Roxy was a clear winner with me using her natural wit and don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Her native accent only highlighted the comedy gags for me and made them even more funny. Marvin as Carly brought a real warmth to this production, I felt she was the peacemaker and tried to be a friend to all, though was definitely torn at times. Some excellent use of comedy and I loved the way she delivered her line in response to being asked if she’d had her boobs done. “No, it’s cake!” was her reply, again one of many laugh out loud moments in the show. There are lots of sexual innuendos in The Thunder Girls and a few blue moments within the language but it all felt very naturally placed within the script and I didn’t feel offended at all. I felt the pace did drop a little during the first half and perhaps this was due to in my opinion it being a little too long as there were occasional moments where I wanted to move the story along. I loved the phone calls via Alexa with Rick the band manager throughout the play. It reminded me of Charlie Townsend played by John Forsythe in Charlie’s Angels, a great touch!

Chrissie played by Harrison was a much more unlikeable character of the (so far seen) trio of women during the first half. She was the 'lady in red' and wanted everyone to know it. Harrison played her role with an edginess that made me feel a little edgy at times, I’m not sure if intentional or not but there was a definite slightly neurotic side to Chrissy and her frequent pouting. As we got to know her more during the play she really softened and allowed herself to become vulnerable, which proves versatility to Harrison’s work. Their was a poignant moment on the stairs between Harrison and Callard that was really lovely to witness, where after some opening up emotionally from both of them, they had gone from cat-fighters to hand-holders and shoulders for each other to cry on. Callard mellowed into an almost new role and showed real emotion.

With Anita played by Nolan and her dramatic arrival at the end of the first half, you just knew you were going to be in for a treat. Well she didn’t disappoint and added a great energy and pace. Her being genuinely (I think) out of breath after singing a number was a particular highlight, we the audience had to wait (which we didn’t mind) for the delivery of her next line. With lots of ad-libbing she is a natural crowd pleaser and definitely looks like she enjoys performing to an audience. Nolan kept the pace up for the rest of the play and I think she had more than one or two fans in the crowd, a great performance from her.

Regarding the singing where all four actresses delivered a song I think there may have been a little miming via the use of pre-recorded songs, this did de-value the performances a little for me as I love live music and I’m all for even if it’s not perfect, give it a go! However the play is a little kooky at times and the miming was spoken about in conversation regarding some group members who used to mime so perhaps it gelled within the story. Bar a few line fluffs here and there it is a very slick and sassy show and, as a, a-hem, slightly older actress myself, I was delighted and comforted to see a stage full of female performers and definitely inspiring that this is very much a women power production. Gives me hope! I would like to mention Webster who did an excellent job of playing Rick, the only chance we get to see his face (although we have heard him) is very briefly at the end, oh I wish we got to see more of him!!

The final show-stopping number at the end got everyone on their feet, singing and clapping away and there were not one, not two but three encores! Id like to end by quoting from director Branagh, who’s words are what this whole show is all about, readdressing the balance, letting females take the driving seat on their own work and ultimately doing a damn fine job of it: “I’m always looking for female-led drama. That’s my thing, just to sort of redress the balance a bit. I think sometimes people are a bit snobby in theatre and they ask: is it challenging? Is it educational? All of those things are brilliant, but it doesn’t all have to be like that, and this is entertainment. It’s got soapy elements, it’s got pop elements, it’s kind of Dynasty meets Dinner Ladies and its rare to have an all-female over-40 cast, writer, director and producer team in theatre.”

Well I like rare things and hope this production of The Thunder Girls entertains as much as it makes you proud to be a woman and see what can be achieved when, like Blake, you take those bull's horns and run with it! Life, as I know only too well, is short.

Reviewer - Mary Fogg
on - 26/9/19

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