First published in The Times, Monday March 11 2018
In many ways, the bingo hall is the ideal place in which to set a site-specific show. Like live theatre at its best, a night at the bingo is a collective experience that’s a little different every time, leaving its participants trembling on the edge of their seats, on the verge of elation or disappointment.
It is surprising that this new musical comedy, produced by Stellar Quines in collaboration with Grid Iron, the leading company specialising in site-specific work in Scotland, makes no attempt to fully immerse its audience within such a giddy atmosphere. We watch the action unfold against the glittery backdrop of Carys Hobbs and Becky Minto’s set at one remove, and the experience is akin to spying on a party to which we haven’t been invited.
In its opening moments, the show (book and lyrics by Anita Vettesse and Johnny McKnight with music by Alan Penman) appears to be leading us into the kind of territory occupied by Tony Roper’s The Steamie or Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, introducing us to a disparate group of mainly female characters who come together within a nostalgically realised setting.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Early on, though, the action makes a lurch towards melodrama, as one of the gang’s number, Louise McCarthy’s Daniella, cracks under the pressure of having spent money saved by the group for a hen weekend in Vegas, and runs amok with a fire safety axe, eventually holding her pals hostage and provoking a media storm when an online video of her antics goes viral.
While, at its most outrageous, Jemima Levick’s production recalls the pitch black farce of Almódovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, overall it struggles to reconcile its mix of anarchy, earthy realism and earnest sentimentality, distractedly changing gears at a head-spinning pace.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
McCarthy is very moving in the dramatic sequences as the downtrodden and dissatisfied Daniella, and Wendy Seager, in the role of her rancorous mother, Mary, provides strong support while also delivering the show’s best song. The other members of a talented cast (Darren Brownlie, Jo Freer, Jane McCarry and Barbara Rafferty) give energetic performances in underdeveloped roles.
As that rarest of theatrical beasts, a new, full-length musical, the show features remarkably few songs while Darragh O’Leary’s choreography has to contend with a narrow, cluttered staging. The script, as you would expect from writers of the calibre of Vettesse and McKnight, is full of sharp, vivid observations, but the show’s virtues never quite add up to a satisfying whole.