Once upon a Time in Wigan is billed as “The Story of Northern Soul” which can be seen as a justification for the extremely thin story-line if the music has any real impact. However, this is only apparent on the two occasions when Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” gets an extended and sufficiently loud airing. Other Northern Soul tracks bubble under tantalisingly and the listless dancing by an ensemble of 16 gives no hint of the presence of a movement director and a choreographer as listed in the programme.
Mick Martin’s play needs, I suspect, a much more dynamic production than George Perrin gives it. The story is initially narrated by Eugene, the butcher’s apprentice whose life is turned round by the discovery of Wigan Casino, drugs and Maxine, a pert and intelligent shop assistant. The play is about same gender friendship as much as sex and romance, with two loners cementing relationships with Eugene and Maxine. Danny (maintenance man) only lives for the Saturday all-nighters at the Casino, Suzanne (drycleaners’ assistant) alternates waspish comments about the nature of men with innocent fantasies about love and marriage.
The play majors on the closure of the Casino. It seems much of the second half consists of characters asking themselves and each other what they will do now and lamenting the end of life as they know it. Having placed his characters in boringly routine jobs, Martin astutely divides them into those who hope to have a future and those who only have a past – and the fault-lines are not always predictable.
Four personable young actors are pleasant company for the evening without really convincing us that the events matter. Alan Morrissey (Eugene) is a likeable narrator and has a pleasing line in teenage gaucheness, but his niceness sometimes seems at odds with the script. Katie West is attractively straightforward as Maxine and handles the script’s more poetic moments most effectively and Becci Gemmell is touching and funny as Suzanne. Craige Els manages a reasonable job in the dance lesson for Eugene and builds increased sympathy and hints of a third dimension to the character as the play progresses.
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