I’ve been in quite a few imaginary pubs in my time. But the one currently on stage at the Wightman Theatre is by far the best.
Funnily enough, I find that the longer I stay in a pub, the more fertile my imagination becomes – and this play proves what I always suspected. “The best thing about a pub is the people”. Luckily, I just love people watching; observing them come and go…clocking their brief interactions with each other and wondering what happens to them next.
I suspect the playwright Jim Cartwright is much the same. I can just picture the author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’ popping into an unfamiliar hostelry, watching the regulars from over the rim of a pint glass, noting down what they say and do, and then constructing the arcs of their lives. “There’s a jolly good play is this”, he would have thought. And he’s right.
His northern creation won the Manchester Evening News ‘New Best Play’ award in 1989 and it’s been on stage somewhere or other in the world more or less ever since … and I’ll bet you a Boddington’s that this new production at The Wightman, directed by Robin Case, must be amongst the very best.
It’s quite a challenge for the two actors to fill the pub with such memorable personalities …both behind the bar, and propping it up. Between them they play a compendium of 14 completely convincing characters…all of which, in the briefest of scenes, succeed in touching a nerve.
Adrian Monahan really is a very fine actor and proves it with an amazing array of cameos. They range from a sad old man, perched on a bar stool in his cap and coat, telling us he is still in touch with his late wife. “She’s here now,” he says and you can’t help but glance around for her. A change of shirt and he turns into the pub-bore-cum-useless-lothario who holds hands with the woman he’s living off, whilst winking at all the others. His disco dancing is a hilarious disaster. (He must have modelled it on his dad).
Later there is tearful little boy, with his anorak hood zipped right up, who’s been left outside with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps by a dad who has subsequently forgotten all about him. But the most startling portrayal is of a brutal wife-beater, who has the audience flinching angrily in their seats.
Holly King’s characters are generally more reflective but equally expertly executed. She is the whimpering wife who can no longer stand her bullying husband but can’t walk out on him because he’s got the house keys. There’s an achingly sad soliloquy from an aging carer who has to carry her sick husband up and down the stairs and can only briefly escape to talk to her beer. “Why do we keep going?” she asks. And there’s a very forthright portrayal of ‘the other woman’ who sits in the corner to watch the man she is having an affair with enjoying a night out with his wife. People watching, with a purpose.
Holly and Adrian are at their very best in harness, playing couples; especially a cheerful middle-aged pair of chavs who reckon that are “old and fat and past it” … but are still hugely entertaining.
Whilst the customers come and go, the landlord and landlady pull the play together by reappearing again and again and progressively hinting at the past tragedy that has left them wrangling and reaching for the optics. Their bickering is as bitter as the beer slops … until last orders is called, the last pint pulled, and the stools turned up on the tables. Only then is there time to talk.
It’s a slick, snap-shot succession of incisively observed, washed-up, pop-up characters; each stuck in their own situation and all edging towards a degree of desperation. The show is cleverly constructed, sparingly written and beautifully performed … and is hugely evocative of a classic night in that most British of institutions. And there’s even time to go for a pint afterwards.
Visit www.thewightman.co.uk for bookings & more information