Writer: Amanda Whittington
Directors: Jason Capewell and Alasdair Harvey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Four disparate and apparently breezy ladies escape their humdrum lives in a fish packing company for a day, celebrating Pearl’s retirement by having a day at the races. During their day away, we find each has hidden depths as secrets are revealed. For each, the day is a turning point in their journey: will any of them find happiness today?
That brief synopsis might not sound atypical of a number of gentle productions that follow a similar story-telling structure. What sets Wolverhampton Grand’s production of Ladies’ Day apart is the depth with which each character has been written, the charm of the ladies’ intertwining stories and the strength of characterisation the cast brings to these ladies.
Ladies’ Day was originally written in 2005 for Hull Truck Theatre when Royal Ascot was temporarily held at York during a period of refurbishment. Writer Amanda Whittington has reworked her original to relocate it geographically and temporally to present-day Wolverhampton so our ladies mention the local area in passable Black Country accents while references to the world outside their bubble have been made more contemporary and some jokes updated. This means this production, the second in-house production at the Grand in recent times, rings true, and the stories, surely universal stories, don’t feel dated.
Deena Payne is dependable Pearl, salt-of-the-earth, who is retiring after many years to have more quality time with her husband. From the outside, she’s got a good life with good friends and a successful marriage. Of course, that’s not all there is to Pearl as Payne allows her motivation for suggesting the day at the races as their day out to gradually become clear. Her frustration as it appears her mission for the day will fail is nicely painted. Emma Rigby brings us Shelley; loud and vulgar, she seems to be the ultimate reality show contestant wannabe. She is clear that a day at the races gives her the opportunity to mix with the rich and famous; her secret will see her needing to face some home truths and make some hard decisions. Rigby’s performance navigates the line between pathos and melodrama well, as we begin rooting for this brash girl. Róisín O’Neill is Linda, a young Irish girl brought up by her grandmother because her mother was incapable. Her memories of that time include listening to the records of Tony Christie, and she is a true fan. She hopes to meet him at the races – after all, he lives in nearby Lichfield – to escape her past life. While Linda doesn’t get to meet Christie, he does make several short appearances singing snippets from his songs live, often during scene transitions, forming a commentary on the action. His appearance certainly adds another level to the show.
The fourth member of the quartet is Cheryl Fergison’s Jan. Jan is a single mother whose daughter, Claire, is about to fly the nest for university in far-off Leicester. Level-headed, it’s obvious Jan carries a torch for Joe, the factory foreman. He’s announced he’s off to Australia – after all, what’s to keep him here? How can Jan get her happy ending? Fergison dominates the stage whenever she’s on and her performance as an increasingly drunk and confused Jan in the second half is comedy gold with superb timing.
Deep down, it seems that all our ladies are searching for something, or someone, missing from their lives, and Sean McKenzie provides all the male rôles – among them, Joe, the foreman, Patrick, a past-his-best jockey who befriends Linda, and a slightly sleazy TV presenter, also past his prime, who seeks to prey on Shelley. He copes with the changes of costume and character very well, so that there’s never any doubt who he is at any time. McKenzie ensures each character is truly different with his own traits that come out well.
The play feels the right length, with plenty of setting up in the first half and, of course, crisis and resolution in the second as the storylines untangle. Directors Jason Capewell and Alasdair Harvey ensure there’s never a dull moment, assisted by designer John Brooking’s functional set.
And alongside the feelgood moments of genuine hilarity, there is also poignancy – which is perhaps a touch underplayed – in a warm and cosy evening of entertainment that’s worth catching. And to top it off, live singing from Tony Christie – what’s not to like!
Runs Until 28 July 2018 | Image: Graeme Braidwood