First published in The Times, Wednesday June 5 2019
When the stage version of Summer Holiday premiered at the Blackpool Opera House in 1996, the big talking point was the double-decker London bus that trundled across the stage, with a lustrous Darren Day at the wheel.
Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti’s production, the first in this year’s Pitlochry summer season, is all the more enjoyable for its determinedly lo-fi approach. The bus (one of the iconic white coaches from the local Elizabeth Yule fleet) is represented first as a photo backdrop and later as a scale model, which the ensemble has great fun zooming around the stage and auditorium.
Pic: Douglas McBride
It is a neat touch, perfectly in tune with a show that’s full of the dynamic “can do, will do” spirit of those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney zingers Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band. Rather than spilling into the foyer marvelling at wondrous hydraulics, here the audience leaves the theatre, singing.
The 1963 Cliff Richard vehicle is the template for Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan’s stage adaptation, with additional finger-clicking hits woven into the action and the plot adjusted for contemporary sensibilities. In this version, the women display plentiful sass and the cascade of holiday romances includes a sweet gay courtship. “The sunniest picture this side of the Equator” sets a high benchmark yet Newman and Occhipinti’s lively staging allied to energetic performances (the ensemble multitasks on a range of musical instruments) and Amanda Stoodley’s bold set and costumes capture that potent mix of innocence and possibility that characterised the period.
Pic: Douglas McBride
While the emphasis is on fun, widening horizons and love, the show doesn’t lack poignancy. The attempt by stage mother Stella and her acolyte Gerry (a pair of hilarious turns from Barbara Hockaday and Matthew Tomlinson) to thwart starlet Barbara’s (Lynwen Haf Roberts) romance with bus mechanic Don (David Rankine) is an old tale, played here for laughs. Yet it speaks eloquently of intergenerational clashes of ideas and values down the ages.
When Cliff sings The Young Ones, it comes across as a paean to youth. In this production, slowed in speed and performed by Rankine, the song acquires a melancholic edge, its entreaty to embrace life and love while the flame burns bright offset by an awareness of the comprises to come.