Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 6th September 2018
“Jack Studio Theatre excels at taking calculated risks but here its bets are hedged with top talent”
In Matthew Townshend’s refresh of Harold Brighouse’s Mancunian masterpiece, the shift to 1958 makes surprising sense. Victorian throwbacks like Henry Hobson, obstreperously played by John D Collins, were still hanging on alongside the Teddy Boys, and despite the illicit pleasures of dancing to Rockabilly, the crushing sense of entrapment is still there in the narrative as the alcoholic shoe shop owner dictates the fates of his two younger daughters, Vickey (Kelly Aaron) and Alice (Greta Harwood).
In a time of youthful rebellion, it’s all the more telling that it’s the ‘over-the-hill’ daughter, Maggie (Rhiannon Sommers), judged by Hobson to be too sensible to be married off, who actually rebels. Through wit and willpower not music and make-up, she forges a romance with illiterate cobbler Willie Mossop, kept below stairs like a dog, who then flowers as a commercial rival to Hobson himself, under her beneficent control.
This gem of the Northern canon, whose meticulous characterisation recalls a lost world of music hall monologues and mercantile culture, has an enchanting and subversive plot in which the success of a shoe shop is at stake against the backdrop of a gritty and hard-working love story. To amplify this with irrepressible 50s music and dance, care of Ben Goble and Natasha Cox, as well as Martin Robinson’s technicolour outfits and clever set design, is to defy the accepted, grim aesthetic of David Lean’s 1954 film of the play and all other things Northern.
The Jack Studio Theatre excels at taking calculated risks but here its bets are hedged with top talent. While not being the wretched physical specimen portrayed by John Mills in the film version, Michael Brown copes just fine with the touching and funny role of Willie Mossop. And although it’s tough to be truly terrifying as a suffocating patriarch in an era where youth is taking over, the buoyancy of the show is undeniably aided by the illustrious John D Collins. Rhiannon Sommers has no such problem in adapting the role of Maggie for the 50s. Her rendition of steely character and the cheerful conviction that hers is the only choice for all the men and women that surround her, feels heroic and outshines all. Natasha Cox, meanwhile, almost pulls off a theatrical coup in her cameo as the arrival of Nurse MacFarlane, the embodiment of the NHS as cavalry coming to save – and forgive – the ills of society.
A touch of political relevance never goes amiss in a theatre, but if this play preaches anything it’s that in reality, it’s wit, charm and entertainment that get you through the tough times.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Peter Clark
Jack Studio Theatre until 15th September