As the rest of the country settled down to watch England’s World Cup game, I joined a busy audience at the football-free Oldham Coliseum for the world premiere of The Road to Nab End, a theatrical adaptation of the best selling book with the same name, by author William Woodruff.

Set in Blackburn in the 1920s, The Road to Nab End is an autobiographical story of a millworker’s family and their struggles with poverty, politics and, amusingly, polygamy. Beginning in 1916 with his own birth in a Blackburn cotton mill, the tone of this extraordinary life is set when his mother, believing her husband to have died at war, receives a corrective telegram to say he is indeed alive and well.

What follows is a chronicle of young Billy Boy’s (Adam Barlow) life - humorous and touching anecdotes and incidents, leading him into adulthood. The scenes are interspersed with narration from the elder William Woodruff (Coliseum stalwart Kenneth Alan Taylor), providing an easy to follow explanation of the history and outcomes of the episodes we see. Taylor’s narrator is captivating and knowledgeable, while Barlow’s portrayal of Billy from small boy to teenager is endearing, real and subtle. 

The two leads are joined by an ensemble of 6 talented actors, each cleverly playing numerous roles. The accomplished cast are all superb, but special mention must go to recent graduate Frances McNamee, whose authentically classic look and sublime singing voice commands attention.

Designer Alison Heffernan’s authentic costumes and set are faithful to the period. The lighting, designed by Thomas Weir, provides a clear appreciation of time and a blinding understanding of the dawn of electricity. The stage adaptation was written by Philip Goulding and directed by Artistic Director Kevin Shaw. Their collaboration has extracted the most entertaining and significant yarns from the book. The only quibble is that it is unclear when the story might end, though on reflection the clue is in the title. However, the clever weaving of action with poignant folk songs keeps the production fresh and the era authentic.

At the end of the performance it was delightful to hear that we were joined by Woodruff’s family from the USA, who must have been thrilled to get so close to their north western heritage, which is a significant part of British history to commemorate.

- Francesca Waite