Tony Christie is looking and sounding as good as ever. His mane may be silver – he is 75 – but he is lithe, trim and sprightly and trots around the Wolverhampton stage, shiny suited, as if he’s just got off a plane from Las Vagas. Last winter he was appearing in panto in Cambridge, as King Christie. This summer he is appearing as himself in ‘Ladies’ Day’, the latest in-house production at The Grand Theatre. And he’s still covering new ground … singing his melancholy ballad ‘Didn’t We’ live for the very first time. And I bet he hasn’t performed with four frumpy fishwives as backing girls before, either.
Amanda Whittington wove the lyrics of Tony Chrstie’s back catalogue into her script for ‘Ladies’ Day’ when it was a ‘starter’ in 2005 … in an Abba-ish sort of way. But he’s never actually performed in the show before. He does now; like a 70s pop icon Greek Chorus, commenting – in song – on the plot unfolding before him.
After 32 years of filleting fish for Tesco’s, Pearl (a stable performance by Deena Payne) is retiring whilst she is still young enough to enjoy life. To celebrate, she takes the factory girls to the elegant Ladies’ Day at Tunstall Race Course. They get there – suffering from itchy hats – to discover it’s “friggin’ sold out” … but a little bit of daylight ticket robbery solves the problem. “It’s not stealing – it’s karma”, she says. It soon becomes clear she has an ulterior motive … an assignation with a stallion with two legs rather than four. If I tell you that she’s backing a horse called ‘Broken Dreams’, then you’ll get the gist.
However, there’s barely a sniff of the ultimate issues before half time. The strength of the play is in Whittington’s trade mark, raucously witty dialogue and its delivery by four excellent women and a most versatile man.
Highlight for me is Cheryl Fergison’s over-weight, washed up, 50-something Jan.
Her life seems to revolve around her weekend caravan in Bridgnorth (she’s that posh) and seeing how much Pimms she can consume before e falling at the final fence. Her drunk act is quite brilliant. The fear that she might puke at any moment had the front row ducking for cover…in the Grand Circle, even.
Roisin O’Neal is empathetically loveable as the dowdy single Irish girl Linda, who is sacrificing herself to care for her wayward mother. When she meets a kindly, world-weary, jockey looking for affection, the audience is willing her to remove her blinkers and get her feed bag on.
Sex siren Shelly – a lively filly – is played by a most appealing Emma Rigby as a go-get-it, no-hoper, Holly Willoughby wanna-be. But her vulnerable bubble is emphatically burst by an indecent proposition from a crusty television presenter twice her age … a scene written before the recent scandals.
Mind you, all four women would love to be on TV, and crowd round the on-camera commentator like dolly birds round the disc jockey on Top of The Pops.
The presenter – and all the other men in the play – is played by chameleon-like Sean McKenzie who has a remarkable ability to switch characters and moods with ease. His ‘tick tack’ routine is a slice of rapid, rib-tickling comedy business; his discourse on the privations required to be a top jockey is surprisingly poignant; and his account of becoming addicted to racing rings painfully true. He is the solid, shining, centre of the show. A clear favourite.
There can be no denying that this is a manufactured show; embracing familiar plot components such as the pain of friendship betrayal, class-divide comedy and, yes, the broken dreams of women who know there must be something better than ‘this’. You can almost see the trowel with which all this is laid on. But it is also a very witty and, at times, inventive crowd pleaser with some fine set pieces and cantering performances. And Mr Christie’s songs are very well worth hearing again…before he is finally put out to grass.
So the ‘going’ is ‘good’ at Wolverhampton this week.
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