Association of Community Theatre

Show Reviews 2017


by Peter Quilter

Burnley Garrick


There is a subtle irony in the fact that the venue for this comedy by Peter Quilter happened to be The ACE Centre, a modern theatre built in 2009, and one that provides the town of Nelson, Lancashire, with an array of facilities. Its predecessor, The Nelson Palace Theatre, was demolished in 2010 and is now a carpark. The words of Jonie Mitchell resonate loudly to those who mourn the Palace Theatre’s demise: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. I certainly did not. I learned about The Nelson Palace long after the rubble had been cleared away and the dust had settled. My preoccupation at that time being was to save another Northern theatre in a neighbouring town and in researching the state and plight of that building, I came across The Nelson Palace.


Prior to watching the play I had already read a couple of reviews on previous productions: criticism of the humour (or lack of it, according to one reviewer) singling out the donning of a teddy bear outfit in an attempt to draw chuckles from a bored audience. Yet, this was the antithesis of my experience of the Garrick’s production.


When watching any play I ask myself, how would I react in the circumstances being played out before me? If I cannot share a character’s emotions, is this less interesting than if I do relate completely with the despair, hilarity or high drama on stage? The answer has to be no.  When the odds are stacked against you, what do you do? One might indeed panic – and one may act ferociously and perhaps even absurdly, to get those passions heard, in the hope that the wider community will share that verve and lend a hand.


And this is where some criticisms of Quilter’s play have, I feel, missed the point, in not actually looking beyond the surface action. I believe that is a great pity. With a very clear understanding of what it can take to save such a venue, perhaps with a rare empathy, I took my seat to watch what I consider to be an incredibly touching and insightful encounter with this issue.


In throwing together five women with a common connection (that of the deceased owner of the theatre building), a cacophony of emotions are thrown around the auditorium resonating up into the flies, as Michael (the deceased) continues to play with the emotions of his ex-first wife, Pam, in concocting a working relationship with his second wife, now widow, Jackie. In leaving the dilapidated theatre to the closest women in his life, through his will, Michael plays Puck from deep within his ashes’ cask. The women, including his daughter, his mother and his secretary, all knew Michael differently, and likewise, each woman brings a different dimension to the plot.


The dynamic is as clever as it is witty, and was wonderfully played out by Viv Thornber (Pam) and Susan Dinsdale (Jackie). Pam’s impersonation of Liza Minelli, in an attempt to draw in funds through a public concert, was delightful – and not one note had to be sung. One cannot but help feel compassion for both women, and Pam’s grief is as palpable as her resentment, being left not once, but twice – once when Michael left her for Jackie, and again when he died. This perceptive writing brings a depth to the play that makes it rise above the ridiculous, while preserving the humour. It also keeps the humanity and sentiment intact. Synthesising sharp wit and overt comedy, Betty (Kathleen Riley) and Sharon (Jamie-Leigh Hindman) were the classic clowns, delighting the audience both physically and poetically, quashing tensions at the merest whiff of them bubbling over, never allowing the situation to explode irrevocably.


Although not remotely an expert in theatre definition, I would certainly not describe this play as a farce, as some have done. Quite rightly, I feel, the production programme describes the play as, “The hilarious story of five women who inherit equal shares in a dilapidated theatre and plan to bring it back to life”. This could well be the writer’s own succinct analysis, and it is spot on. Yet, it is also so much more. There is a hint of genius at play when actors take on roles such as these and fill the stage with vibrancy through comic expression and dry cutting honesty simultaneously. It is even more remarkable when one discovers that Kathleen Riley suffered great discomfort with back pain throughout the last half of the rehearsal period and during play week; Jamie-Leigh Hindman was only able to be fully involved in the rehearsal process a few weeks before the play took to the boards. None of this was apparent on stage.


It is the central character of Theresa, however, that draws pure compassion. One gets the feeling that she is lonely, certainly feels unloved romantically, is grieving and is sincere in all she says and does. It is Theresa who opens the play, and with the exception of the dance reprise, it is she who closes it, with an honest, wistful and utterly convincing promise to the theatre and her father that, in spite of the fundraising concert failing, they would all be back to fulfil his wishes. Emily Williamson’s portrayal of a young woman lost – without lover or father, grieving and solitary, while trying to embrace the group in a collective objective, was superb. It is Theresa who tells us about her childhood memories in the stalls and backstage, and the impact of those on her as an adult. It is also Theresa who gives the audience hope that these beautiful buildings are worth restoring. There was an innocent naivety to her characterisation that was both believable and endearing, and when one considers that she joined the cast a matter of a few weeks before the curtain was raised, it was nothing short remarkable.


Many times I have heard the phrase, “That play (‘Curtain Up!’) needs a good cast”. I would say that any play requires a good cast, and that good casting can make or break the finest of writing. ‘Curtain Up!’ had a terrific cast. However, it is also a clever piece of writing. How many comedies are there that make one’s side ache from laughing, bring a tear to one’s eye through sentiment and provoke questions such as – why should a struggle be left to individuals when it comes to a community’s benefit? As an audience we were seduced into exploring what we value in our own families, and what we cherish in our social lives. Without our theatres, where would our lives be? Should historic theatres be left simply in our memories, and if so, what are we denying our children and grandchildren?


As with any society’s production, this one had its small and skilled army of soldiers behind the scenes, battling with staging complexities – how to produce an easily moveable box office, how to hint at time lapses between scenes, how to put an entire theatre into the auditorium so that the audience both engaged with and participated in the production. The concepts were easy, the realities less so, yet achieved they were. Director, Steve Grist and the solid production team, kept the set basic (realistic given that the script dictated only cleaning and superficial painting) and use of the actual venue’s auditorium and audience for the cabaret scene was both a surprise and success. The set-builders clearly worked hard. The clever use of music did not go unnoticed: as the auditorium filled and the audience took their seats, we were treated to an instrumental version of Lady Gaga’s work, perhaps masquerading as an orchestral piece, but the lyrics certainly popped into my head as soon as I opened my ears to enjoy it; the soothing, timeless tones of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli filled the scene changes, and the onstage blasts of ‘Bad Romance’ punched not only a fistful of hilarity during the dance workout scene, but a small stab of comic irony given the  disastrous end of Pam’s relationship with Michael. Lighting the stage was smooth and consistent, imaginative and worked well.


The reprise of the dance routine at the end of the play is a subtle footnote I feel, and although on the long side, the cast performed it well. Costumes were attractive and just right, sparkling, bright red, giving the audience hope that the theatre could indeed, have a future.