Writer/Director: Kay Mellor
Music: Hal Lindes
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Kay Mellor is the epitome of the down-to-earth Northern writer, guaranteed to tell it how it is, get down and dirty, and miss off the sugar coating. After a tough upbringing by her single mum in Leeds, Mellor was pregnant and married at the tender age of 16, but vowed to get herself an education when she was older. She certainly did that and went on to pen some of our best-known television dramas. Amongst these was Band of Gold, which spanned three series in the 90s and revolved around the lives of a group of sex workers living and working in Bradford’s red-light district. At the time of writing Mellor said that she wanted to illustrate that these prostitutes had lives and a voice – in all previous dramas they were either “in the back of a shot or had one line to say”. She certainly brought them out into the open, and the series was a huge success. Now adapted for the stage this new take on the story looks set to reach the same levels of acclaim, and where better than to premiere than in the beautiful and atmospheric Leeds Grand Theatre on Mellor’s home turf?
The production begins with a personal voiced message by Kay Mellor apologising in advance for the bad language; and explaining that the action is set in the 1990s, still overshadowed by the grim spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper’s murderous spree. In true ‘whodunit’ vein, she begs for no spoilers to be revealed. Thus the scene is set, and the audience gleans a whiff that this is going to be a bit of a gritty trip.
Before a backdrop of dark and dismal multipurpose flats the action plays out, and the group of girls is introduced. Anita (Eastenders’ Laurie Brett) is a ‘somewhat mature girl’ who sings karaoke, and sticks with one guy, her ‘boyfriend’ George (Mark Sheals), who pays her rent and buys her furniture. Carol (local actress Emma Osman) is a house-proud mum, who sees her way through endless bottles of bleach when she isn’t pulling bedroom tricks with punters – who incidentally are forbidden to use her toilet. Rose (Coronation Street’s Gaynor Faye, Kay Mellor’s real-life daughter) seems to be in charge of the girls on the patch. She’s a tough cookie, quick to violence, but fiercely protective of those she cares about. Then there’s poor Gina (Sacha Parkinson) who nervously succumbs to selling her body when selling Avon doesn’t bring in the money to keep a loan shark off her back. Gina is on a downward spiral as her brutal ex-boyfriend Steve (Kieron Richardson) threatens her, and her careworn mother Joyce (Olwen May) can’t offer any more babysitting time for her granddaughter. There are plenty of influential men around with the spare cash to exploit the girls for their own ends, not least the seemingly kind Councillor Barraclough (Andrew Dunn of Dinnerladies fame), who has an agenda of his own … Even Police Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward, award winner for his role in Coronation Street) isn’t all that he should be …
There’s plenty of humour around the depressingly dark setting: pink sofas alongside “the wear and tear on the carpet”. Who could fail to snigger at the frozen chicken man Curly (Steve Garty) with his fetish for pink rubber gloves, black nylons and soaring stilettos? That image is for many the abiding memory of the television series, although the stilettos were red first time around and have now become black but nothing is lost.
Band of Gold is a shocking tale, all the more saddening because incidents like these actually happened in the locality of its premiere. The haunting scene and sounds immediately before the end of the first act will live on in most people’s memories for a long time. This is fiction, but so true to life as to be indistinguishable. These individuals deserve better, and one can only hope that dramas such as this will raise awareness of what a dangerous life this is to fall into. It is a no-holds-barred production that certainly opens the eyes and tugs at the heart.
Runs until Saturday 14 December 2019 | Image: Ant Robling