Showing posts with label The Lowry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Lowry. Show all posts

Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: The Thunder Girls (Blake and Squire)

Thursday 26th September 2019
The Lowry, Salford

On Thursday 26th September, I was at The Lowry in Salford for the press night of Blake and Squire’s The Thunder Girls on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on the station on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Written by Melanie Blake and directed by Joyce Branagh, The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry from 24th-28th September. I was at the press night on Thursday 26th September, which saw a rather enthusiastic crowd attend. Unusually – almost unheard of – for a debut play, The Thunder Girls sold out its entire run at The Lowry, and the press night was certainly full to capacity.

Based on Blake’s novel of the same name – which she adapted for the stage with Fiona Looney – The Thunder Girls tells the story of an 80s girl band who are brought back together 30 years after an acrimonious split. The play is (almost) entirely carried by the four actors playing the members of the band, with just one other character ‘appearing’ through phone calls made on speakerphone. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the play selling out its run was the cast – and more on that anon – but (and this was certainly true on press night), there was also a great deal of curiosity as to how Blake’s script would be informed by its writer’s experience of working in the music biz – and of orchestrating reunion gigs for 80s bands.

The play is billed as being about the ‘Reunion Dinner from Hell’. While this is certainly a fair description of Blake’s novel, it doesn’t quite seem accurate for the play. The play takes in the lush – if somewhat brash – mansion (created with some excellent attention to detail in Richard Foxton’s set design) belonging to Chrissie, the Thunder Girl who split the band all those years before, took the copyright and royalties and forged a successful solo career to the disgust of her former bandmates. Chrissie and the band’s former manager Rick have summoned Roxanne, Anita and Carly to the house – but there doesn’t appear to be any dinner on offer! Instead, the women work through their festering resentments with a hefty side order of Prosecco, which they down liberally throughout the show.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The first to arrive at the house – and the first person we see on stage – is Carly, played by Sandra Marvin. Carly was the youngest member of the Thunder Girls, but she was the songwriter behind their greatest hits, which she has been prevented from playing solo due to legal wranglings over rights with Chrissie. Carly is followed by Roxanne, played by Beverly Callard, who has fallen on harder times since the band split. Roxie is a heavy-drinking single mum, who is trying to make ends meet running a clothes shop. After some back-and-forth between Carly and Roxie, Chrissie (played by Carol Harrison) makes her entrance – but it’s not until the end of the first act that we meet the fourth Thunder Girl, Anita (played by Coleen Nolan), who has been missing since a disastrous Eurovision performance.

The Thunder Girls is really very well-cast. Blake has been hands-on with most aspects of the production, and she cast the show herself (with Angela Squire). There are some well-judged decisions made. Callard, Harrison and Marvin are all well-known from soap operas, meaning that they are well able to handle the high-drama, histrionics and stinging dialogue. (And this is the only play I’ve seen this year that’s listed a ‘Cat Fight Director’ (Kaitlin Howard) in its programme!) The casting of Nolan as Anita adds a nice extra layer of self-referential humour, as not only was Nolan (of course) in a famous 80s girl band, but it was Blake herself who brought about the band’s reunion tour in the 2000s. The final performer is Gary Webster, who is voice of Rick, playing Charlie to the Thunder Girls’ Angels but also, perhaps, one of the architects of their various misfortunes.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Of the performances, Callard and Nolan were real standouts for me. Callard is really very funny as Roxie – she gets some fantastic lines, which are delivered with lovely northern relish – but she also imbues the character with a sweet vulnerability full of regrets and sadness. Nolan is great as Anita, revealing a strong sense of comic timing that hits the right notes. Marvin and Harrison are also very watchable, though they don’t quite get the opportunity to stretch their range. Marvin’s Carly is the band member who seems to be most content, but the points at which her smiley optimism cracks offer the more interesting performance. She also gets to deliver a hilarious retort to being asked if she’s had a boob job (‘Nah. It’s cake.’) Harrison begins the play as an unrepentant villain, but the second act introduces some more compassionate interactions with Roxie to soften her character.

That said, there are few surprises in characterization here – in many ways, the appeal of The Thunder Girls lies in familiarity, rather than shock, and so the character arcs play out pretty much as we might expect. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. Even though I had a pretty good idea from the start where things were going, I still found myself genuinely caring about the four women and their friendship. Admittedly, there were a couple of fluffed lines here and there, but the cast made up for this with some well-judged ad libs at other points. At one point, a line about Steps provoked a rather dramatic reaction (and some visible corpsing from the cast), due Claire Richards being in the audience. To be honest, I think this was completely forgivable though, as the audience felt like we were all in on the joke.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The Thunder Girls isn’t a musical, but it does include some music (written by Blake, with Lee Monteverde and Jack Wheeler). Each of the characters performs a solo song and, as you may well expect, there is a group number at the end. The solo numbers did feel a little bit superfluous, as they mostly just reiterated aspects of plot and character from the dialogue. The final number was a lot of fun, and certainly got the audience to their feet. However, the Thunder Girls’ big number (supposedly their signature tune) is a little anachronistic. Musically, it feels far more 1990s than 1980s, and I struggled to imagine it being a hit thirty years ago.

But overall, The Thunder Girls is a very enjoyable show, with some excellent (and very funny) dialogue, and a rare opportunity to watch older female characters taking centre-stage and talking about age, life experience and regrets in an engaging, humorous and honest way (except for Chrissie, who isn’t admitting her real age). If the show does tour, I can see it being a great success, and it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry, Salford on 24th-28th September.