Writers: Craig Cash & Phil Mealy
Director: Caroline Jay Ranger
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
It’s fifteen years since Craig Cash and Phil Mealys’ superb BBC sitcom Early Doors finished on television after only two series. It attracted fantastic acclaim at the time and has grown an increased fan base over the last decade and a half. It is now set to go on tour as a live stage show to arenas around the country – not before it beds in with a three week sold out run at The Lowry in Salford.
The Grapes pub is the ‘precinct’, as Cash calls it – the setting for the mixture of eccentric characters that frequent it with military precision and home of landlord Ken (John Henshaw), girlfriend Tanya (Susan Cookson), and interfering, manipulative mother (Judith Barker). Not much has changed then in the last fifteen years and the stage show picks up where the sitcom stopped. That said, it has obviously been impossible for Cash and Mealy to reassemble the original cast after all this time – especially with a couple names like James McAvoy and Maxine Peake reaching stardom status. The result is a very peculiar mix of half the original cast and half excellent mimic actors. What is even stranger is that the beloved yet oddball couple Eddie and Joan (originally played by Mark Benson and Lorraine Cheshire) are replaced with the identical in every way Freddie and June (Neil Hurst and Vicky Binns). Why Cash and Mealy afford an apology for these two characters to be replaced in the script yet none of the others seems a very bizarre, mysterious and inconsistent choice. At times, it feels almost like watching the Early Doors tribute show.
The plot centres on landlord Ken’s love of his life, Tanya. With romance finally blossoming after twelve television episodes the stage show begins with his intention of proposal – not that this can be kept a secret on the grapevine in The Grapes. At the very top of the show director Caroline Jay Ranger allows the fourth wall to be broken as Ken prepares the ring in order to pop the question. Over the following two hours, the audience and actors are then unsure of the ‘rules’ they should adhere to. Perhaps inviting audience interaction now may be good practice for their arena dates further down the line.
This is a nostalgia comedy lapped up by an audience, at last, allowed to see a beloved show live onstage. Cash and Mealy’s script have all their usual excellent gags and punchlines. The dialogue is a gift for the comic actors who can hit every beat and timing, with the standout gag of the evening reserved for Lisa Millett’s Debbie about dropping off her kids at their Dad’s. Some of the jokes seem a little base at times, especially old Tommy IBS problems (or Irritable Bugger Syndrome) as the regulars have rechristened it. With a strong first half, the script loses focus into the subplot in the second half and could do with a bit of tightening over this previewing period.
The beauty and the success of the television series was, as with its predecessor, The Royle Family, the mix of comedy and pathos. Because you know the characters so well in both of these sitcoms they can have you laughing and crying the space of a breath. This stage production does attempt to salvage some of this but with an audience allowed to interact and shout out the catchphrases at the right times, this is an impossible feat – and something that this reviewer fears will become obsolete once this production goes from the 500 seater Quays theatre at The Lowry to stadiums holding thousands!
This is a celebration of a comedy that has a very fond place in the hearts of many, especially in the north of England. However, there can be no warm and cosiness found in its initial incarnation in a stage show that becomes, at worst, catchphrase comedy. It should please the majority of its fans but by the musical number at the end it veered more towards Mrs Brown’s Boys rather than the comedy that had heart.
Running until 22 Sept 2018