NODA Review - Ladies' Day
Amanda Whittington's gently humorous play - inspired by the relocation of Royal Ascot to York in 2005 - tells of the comical trials and tribulations of four working class Yorkshire women as they mingle with the toffs on Ladies' Day. Our merry band of fish-packers from Hull were brought to life in a most engaging fashion by the always reliable troupe at the Hippodrome, with James Claxton excelling in a number of roles throughout the evening. Perhaps the number of female dominated cast lists I've come across in quite a few productions recently ('Calendar Girls', 'Steel Magnolias', 'Slim Chance', 'Ladies in Lavender' 'Stepping Out' etc) is an indication of the abundance of female talent in the area: it certainly rings true of the good ladies of 'Ladies' Day' in Todmorden! When we take into account the addition of the assured direction of Sylvia Thomas, this was very definitely a triumph for the fairer sex! I think a male fight-back is overdue, if only to prevent the juggernaut of Steel-Calendar-Magnolia-Girls laying waste to the local theatrical schedules...
Our story begins on the fish-packing line in Hull as we're introduced to our diverse cast of characters and the first of a series of neatly staged scenes, transforming quickly and neatly into the racecourse (and back again) later. The staging throughout was simple yet effective, sleek and colourful and very successful, with a series of small trucks and back projection setting the scene impressively throughout the evening and which also made for speedy scene changes. The soundscape conjured up by the Sound Designer, Dylan Jones was also very impressive and added that little extra touch to an already very polished production. The staging made sure that nothing got in the way of the performances which were all of the very high standard audiences have come to expect from the Hippodrome team.
Leading the way as Pearl, Gilly Walker was well cast as the maternal figure who sets the plot in motion with her plan to take the girls on an outing to the races; the less worldly Jan was nicely brought to life by Christine Kidd; feisty would-be 'WAG' Shelly was a vivid creation from Phoebe Farrington and Rebecca Crampton did a fine job of bringing Tony Christie fan Linda to life. In a remarkable feat of theatrical multi-tasking, all the male roles in the production were played by James Claxton (one at a time you understand, not all at once!) in a bravura display of varied characterisation. Director Sylvia Thomas clearly brought the best out of her cast who all worked well together, creating a solid, tightly-knit and believable ensemble.
The play takes us from the drearily industrial setting of the fish-packing factory floor to the glamour and excitement of Royal Ascot, a gently humorous journey which at the same time manages to probe - ever so slightly and never terribly deeply - the hopes and disappointments of our working class working women. I thought it was interesting that we seemed to be asked to sympathise with Pearl's long-term infidelity rather than question it: I for one saw the character in a much different light when this aspect of the plot was revealed and it is to Gilly Walker's credit that she managed to put the character across so well. Jan's 'drunk scene' was handled well too, never tipping over into over-the-top slapstick and much more believable as a result. Each of James Claxton's characters was clearly defined and awaiting his next appearance in a different guise quickly became a highlight of the production; great work James. I appreciated the way the realistic tone was maintained throughout the piece, with the characters being very much 'flesh and blood' creations rather than walking cliches or 'types' shoved on stage to deliver vaguely comical asides to raise a laugh or two: I did wonder if perhaps the humour of the play was a little underdone as a result but there was a gain in that each of the characters on stage became worth spending time with, as opposed to being merely a series of comic turns. That said, I did find the play's denouement between Pearl and Barry something of an anticlimax and with so many everyday concerns jostling for position (an ungrateful daughter, a difficult mother, unrequited love, a secret love affair etc) it was difficult to really put too much emotional time into caring too much about Pearl and Barry's rather tawdry affair. That said, Shelly's humorously brassy confidence was also very well expressed and helped to highlight the hollowness of our celebrity obsessed age into the bargain!
This was a solid, polished production which went a long way to disguise the rather thin material afforded by the script and made a virtue of concentrating on making the characters really come to life. Everyone in the cast is to be commended on a first class performance and by the time we reached the end of the show, the fact that we had grown fond of our fish-packing 'fishes out of water' meant that the warm glow which came with the feel-good finale was present even in a cynical old NODA reviewer like me! Another sure fire success from the Hippodrome; may there be many more. My thanks go to everyone at the theatre for a particularly warm welcome and another rewarding evening at the theatre.