This is the first performance I have seen at the City Varieties since it was restored. City Varieties is my favourite theatre. Since I moved from Leeds to Wakefield, it is no longer my local one. It is not as big as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, nor as ornate as the Grand. But it has many fond memories, starting with the pantomimes I was taken to see as a child, forty years ago. I was worried that the replacing of the threadbare velvet and the chipped gilt would destroy that atmosphere of Victorian nostalgia and urban sleaze. The renovation has made the place feel different, and much less sleazy, but it has produced magnificent results. It is now the task of the people of West Yorkshire to get as much use out of the venue as possible, so that some of the patinas start to dull and the edges start to fray, like it was before.
As soon as we arrived in the auditorium, we were greeted by some members of the cast, including a comment from Ronnie (played by the director, Rod Dixon), a pugnacious Scouser with a red beard and wearing a towelling dressing-gown. He noticed the snow on my boots, and asked if I had walked all the way from Finland – a ready example of Scouse humour, demonstrating that it can be friendly and lovable, or rude and intrusive, depending on your point of view.
Ronnie is the character on stage when the performance starts. He is sitting on an armchair in his underpants and vest, and snoring with a newspaper on his lap. The set is a 1950s working class living room (because, while the play deals with the political and social tensions of the 1960s, interior décor had not had a chance to catch up at that early stage). This set showed the first evidence that two members of the team that produced the show used to be in Chumbawamba: flying ducks. Further evidence is provided later by a laundry-basket containing a sheet with, for the audience’s benefit, the lyrics of a left-wing song written on it in foot-high letters.
Tension is created by the disappointment that Jean, Ronnie’s wife, played by Lisa Howard, feels about the cooling of passion in their relationship. This is continued throughout the play by reference to the lifting of censorship on D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. There is generational conflict between Jack (Nigel Lister), who wants to be in a band and support Gene Vincent in concert, and Ronnie, whose head is stuck in Soviet Russia and who does not get rock ‘n’ roll. And there is a semi-conscious policeman in a cupboard. As Jean, the main narrator, points out to the audience, the policeman is the “ticking clock” in the story.
Barry (played by Harry Hamer, ex-Chumbawamba) is the Shakespearean fool who turns out to be wiser than everybody thought. He sings an excellent song, accompanying himself on a pink ukulele. This is one of those moments in music and theatre that demonstrate that, in capturing the attention of the room, it is much more important to have talent and something important to say than it is to command a fifty-kilowatt PA system. Barry’s mum, Mona, is played by Kyla Goodey.
Arthur, played by Adam Smith (the actor and musician, not the 18th century Scottish economist and philosopher), doubles as the hapless police constable and also plays the piano superbly. Arthur is the only character who doesn’t sing. The vocals, so often the weakness in a musical production, are excellent – strong, passionate, full of flair and perfectly in tune.
The writer, Boff Whalley, (the other ex-Chumbawamba element) gave a very candid interview about the play and his approach to writing it:
Boff refers to “the confines of one living room”, meaning the place in which the tensions from bigger, wider, weightier situations are shown and, eventually, resolved. For a comical piece of entertainment, I think this works well. Any-one wanting to find an in-depth analysis of social tensions in post-war Britain should look to something much longer and with fewer songs and more words in it. This holds up a mirror to what was happening then, and offers the intelligent theatre-goer plenty of things to consider or investigate.
I don’t often say this, but I would like to see a sequel to this production, dealing with the complex and, in some ways grimmer issues of the 1970s. I propose that it be set in the West Midlands, against a background of a car plant rather than docks. Working title: Kegs & Cogs & Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The show runs until Saturday 26 January 2013. There are tickets left.