Everybody Loves a Winner is one of the most ambitious pieces of theatre that I have seen in years. The iconic Royal Exchange space and foyer is transformed beautifully by Miriam Buether into The Rex Bingo Hall, as we are transported into a world of heartache, suspense, hope and disappointment.
Sally Lindsay plays Linda Chappell, the Bingo Hall Manager; stoic and anal on the outside, yet struggling with her conscience, as she is fully aware this is where more dreams are quashed than come true. Her team consisting of Joy (Amanda Henderson), Debbie (Emily Alexander) and cocky ladies man Joe (Warren Sollars) are not exactly the hardest working bunch, as they view their workplace as a soulless cash cow, full of desperado customers.
The women (and a couple of men) are a mixed bunch with different reasons for wanting the big win. Yet all of them gain friendship and a place to belong, even if they rarely go home with a prize of greater value than a dusty old box of milk tray. The anchor who keeps everyone on the ground, bingo-caller Frank (Ian Puleston-Davies) is also becoming jaded and is on the verge of a breakdown.
Winner has a fascinating concept, as the audience are invited to take part in a real bingo game. Well, two actually, to get the newcomers used to the rules. There are real prizes and I can vouch for this, having won second prize of £20!
The cast work incredibly hard and this is a real team effort with Lindsay capturing the frailty of a woman scared for her future. Puleston-Davies quips and ad-libs his way through the proceedings, yet highlights his character’s fragility perfectly.The trio of workers are pitch-perfect, including their beautifully rendered harmonies during the song and dance numbers.
Of the women, Susan Twist is perfectly poised as flirtatious Lesley, Sally Bankes is scarily good as aggressive Maureen and Sherry Ormerod and Nicky Goldie stare at the audience in desperation. But with such a big cast, many of the roles are underwritten and we do not really find out what makes them tick. But like the brilliant Joan Kempson as old dear Elsie, many of them try admirably to fill in the blanks.
Writer and Director Neil Bartlett has crafted a play for the Manchester International Festival which contains much of the wow factor missing in theatre today. But its strengths are also many of its flaws, as it has not got much to say beneath the flashy, albeit, brilliant concept. The overall tone is Victoria Wood meets Dennis Potter and although the musical sections work, the pace is sometimes sacrificed as a result.
But it’s efficiently delivered and captures the spit and sawdust of these halls of dreams. Getting you to join in means that you can at the very least put yourselves in the punters' shoes also, even if you lack a greater understanding of why they continue to play and lose nightly.
This brave show is flawed, and sometimes too slow but you cannot help but sit open-mouthed at the sheer scale of the piece, matched by even bigger performances. Ultimately, whatever the shortcomings, Winner is bloody good fun, carried by a great cast, a stunning set design and audience participation and it deserves a full house.