The Syndicate – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Kay Mellor

Director: Gaynor Faye

Kay Mellor’s TV series are among the country’s best-loved, taking ordinary people and placing them in extraordinary situations with humour and empathy. Her ensemble BBC1 series, The Syndicate, initially aired in 2012 and spawned a further three series. Tonight’s play is condensed from the first series in which each episode focused on one of the five members, their secrets and their ultimate destiny.

Bob is the manager of Right Buy U, a small Leeds supermarket with a staff of four: assistant manager Stuart and his ne’er-do-well brother, Jamie, Leanne and the older Denise. They all have secrets – Jamie is in debt to the mob, Stuart can barely keep afloat, especially now his girlfriend is expecting another baby and they have lost their home, for example. They are all in a lottery syndicate so surely their problems are over when they win big, with each expected to receive £4.8m. Who hasn’t mentally spent that sort of money as they complete their lottery entries?

Mellor has had to make a number of compromises to condense five hours of TV drama into a stage play – and it shows. The cast is pared back, with few characters outside of the syndicate appearing – principally Stuart’s somewhat selfish and self-centred girlfriend, Amy – and the focus is firmly shifted onto Stuart and his brother Jamie. This does mean that there is limited opportunity for other characters to develop their arcs, as their experiences largely occur offstage and we mainly learn of them secondhand via their reports.

The set is largely static – before the interval, it’s a pretty detailed recreation of Right Buy U, including the staffroom and Bob’s office; afterwards, we’re in the new mansion that Stuart and Amy have moved into. Before the interval especially, it feels a touch claustrophobic, though maybe this is part of Designer Bretta Gerecke’s concept, subtly reinforcing that each character is trapped in their own way. While Jason Taylor’s lighting design is effective in demarking areas in the shop without affecting the pace, it’s still true that the first half takes a while to get going.

William Ilkley’s Bob is totally believable and warm, a source of comfort to his staff when their jobs are unexpectedly at risk. Ilkley brings magnanimity and charm to the character. Stuart’s personal crises are palpably brought to life by Benedict Shaw as things spiral out of his control. However, the unlikeable Jamie (Oliver Anthony) is far too two-dimensional and lacking in nuance: we only get rare glimpses of his vulnerabilities and what drives him. And the other characters are inked in even more sketchily: the cast members do what they can with the material, but depth and character development are lacking.

Fans of the TV show will find enough that is familiar to enjoy and it’s an undemanding night out, but as it stands, the balance isn’t quite there and one feels that these characters and their stories deserve better.

Runs until 25 June 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Undemanding Fluff

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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