Writer: Bill Naughton
Adaptor: Lawrence Till
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
‘You don’t get to choose the story you’re told ’
A landmark on the Bolton landscape, and a cultural gem the Octagon Theatre is proudly celebrating 50 years of theatre. In a world where we are constantly finding arts and cultural endeavours pared down and marginalised, this is no mean feat. What better way to celebrate than to showcase the work of local talents, reflecting on the town that has supported its fifty-year heritage, and letting it shine.
This is exactly Elizabeth Newman’s plan with the commission of The Big Corner, describing it as a ‘Love letter to Bolton’. The big Boltonian heart comes in the form of Bill Naughton. Lawrence Till, in a sort of homecoming, brings back an adaptation with elements taken from Naughton’s short stories., including Spring and Port Wine, the first of many Naughton works Till directed for the Octagon.
The venue provides that warmth and simple comfort which all theatres should, it is an emotionally accessible space (plans for improved physical accessibility will be realised during the impending refurbishment), and the gentle friendly buzz of the space is perfectly in keeping with the piece.
Within the eight walls awaits a solitary lamppost, on the corner of the intersection of two cobbled roads. A quiet unassuming young man tells us earnestly to ‘carry on, don’t let me stop you’ and proceeds to make small talk with the assembled audience. And from that very moment, the magic spell is cast, and time both stops, and moves more quickly than ever before.
The old adage that if one truly understands something, they can explain it simply is never truer here. Both Naughton in the stories’ infancies, and Till in his skilful adaptation understand the sheer importance of putting storytelling at the heart of a piece of theatre. This is ‘kitchen sink’ drama lifted up, elegantly and reverently presented for what it truly is – simple, elegant theatre which everyone can access and relate to on some level, but more importantly inspires and takes its entire audience on a beautiful journey, with so many layers woven in that even the most cerebral of minds is thoroughly engaged. This is, at times, a dying art, in a sphere where the need to be more adventurous and technically advanced can override the integrity and initial beauty of a piece.
Bill (Dan Parr), with understated and graceful ease, slips from being seven years old to 50, and regresses back and forth and in between. It is a joy to watch him engage and play with both his cast mates and the audience alike, ensuring that the audience are along with him at every step. The chemistry between the cast makes for a truly authentic feel to the relationships on stage. The ‘best friend – but never second best’ Alfie (Harry Long) is an amiable and charming sidekick. This trio is completed by Jenny (Lauren Samuels), and even during the most bittersweet of moments, there is love, and care, and stunning depth to every syllable.
We see stereotypical representations of folk we all know and love from our own childhood – the overbearing grandma, the worried mother, the terrifying clergy of the Catholic church, all skilfully brought to life by the cast, in particular by Mitesh Soni. There seems such an injustice to his minimal use throughout the entire piece, until Bill finally gets to tell the story he has been repeatedly topped on. At this moment, Soni transforms into Spit – the ‘first best friend’ and his skill and fluidity both physically and vocally in those few minutes makes everything worth it! Jessica Baglow, always fully immersed in every scene, but with a different character gives a true meaning to the definition of actor – she embodies flawlessly each new role, and the audience see a character, never the actor – beautifully done.
Thanks to Amanda Stoodley’s thoughtful and minimal design concept the view is constantly refreshed as pieces of furniture and even bikes are brought on, used, and then elegantly disappear.
Put simply – this is a beautiful play, made even more exquisite by the love and attention the creative team and cast have shown it. It is a proud offering of the story of a simple life, which when contemplated and shown, is actually more than anyone could ask for. A proud jewel in the crown of a landmark season.
Runs until May 5 2018 | Image: Richard Lakos