ComedyDramaNorth WestReview

Withering Looks – Oldham Coliseum

Writer: Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding

Director: Noreen Kershaw

Reviewer: Lizz Clark

The Brontë sisters are an unimpeachable part of the British literary canon, their works echoing down the centuries. But there is also a reverent sense of mythology surrounding their own lives – three imaginative young women sequestered in a vicarage on the blasted moors of West Yorkshire. As such, Manchester’s beloved Lip Service theatre company, in the form of performers Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, have taken it upon themselves to tell the story of the three Brontë sisters, their lives and writings. This is despite the fact that there are only two of them.

Fox and Ryding could read the telephone book and have an audience tittering. They are playing two enthusiastic if shambolic historical reenactors, Audrey and Olivia, whose performances are constantly interrupted by their own petty disagreements, not to mention the need to keep things relevant to the GCSE students they presume to be in the audience. Flipping into and out of character as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, they build up a picture of their subjects which is appropriately confusing, peppered with anachronisms, blighted by the lack of Anne – who ‘just popped out for a cup of sugar’, they keep reassuring us, because of budget cuts – and otherwise delightfully silly.

As for Audrey and Olivia’s take on the Brontës’ writings, it is equally incomplete and distorted. These works of romantic grandeur are conveyed using everything from tabletop puppetry to song-and-dance routines, and the bleak moors, said to be haunted by lost souls, are brought to life in a characteristically irreverent style. The whole show is a cocktail of ideas and skits, tied together by the scenes in which Audrey and Olivia come ‘out of character’ and speak directly to their audience to clarify points or try and flog their ‘authentic Brontë’ merchandise.

The laughs are patchier than Lip Service’s recent Jane Austen spoof, Mr Darcy Loses the Plot– but this is an old show, revived for the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth, so perhaps it is no wonder that Fox and Ryding have refined their art since its conception in the early 2010s. Everything comes to life when the pair get a chance to milk the conflict between Olivia and Audrey for all it’s worth, or in scenes between the pragmatic Charlotte and the windswept, passionate Emily.

The pair are such charming performers that it’s hard to resent the occasional parts that fall flat – we still want to know what they will do next. A set-piece finale, the cinematic high point of Audrey and Olivia’s ridiculous reenactment, doesn’t disappoint. But the purest joy is in those moments when, amid the slapdash silliness, something small – Fox’s eyebrow, say, or Ryding’s lip – will reduce the audience to helpless giggles.

Runs until 20th October 2018 | Image: 

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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