Remember television in the nineties? Remember when Hyacinth Bucket would put on a floral hat and say “hand-painted periwinkles” in a silly voice and then fall into a canal? Remember fighting with your little sister over which one was Robson and which one was Jerome before realising that you were actually watching “London’s Burning”? And do you remember the night that Posh Spice and her fellow Valkyries rode in and victoriously launched Channel Five, saving us from the monotony of four channels and creating a whole new realm of monotony where Robson Green could find work and show us the fish he caught?
Now buried somewhere in Crinkley Bottom, the television of the nineties has largely passed from the flickering screen into our hearts, a place reserved for nostalgia, the smell of shirts being ironed on a Sunday night and the cultural relevance of the Pog. And that was the fate of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s Birds of a Feather, an immensely popular and enjoyable show of the nineties which disappeared as suddenly as pigeon into an extractor fan. Until now, that is…
Played by the original stars of the show, Essex sisters Sharon and Tracey are flying together once again. Joined by Leslie Joseph’s Dorien, a woman whose overflowing sexuality could make a randy rabbit feign a headache and put the light off, the pair embark on a brand new and laugh out loud adventure. Times are hard for the former gangsters’ molls: the recession has bitten hard, Trace is trying to hide the criminal secrets of her husband’s past from her son and Sharon has been signing on since bowl cuts were still chic. Enter Dorien, former neighbour and now owner of a nursing home with a few vacant positions and you have the perfect situation for a situational comedy.
The three women are in fine form, acting as well as ever comically and bouncing through the two hour production with all of the warmth and passion of the original series. A slim-lined Pauline Quirke still has that loveable selfishness; those comforting cockney vowels still swim around Linda Robson’s throat like an eel in a pot of jelly; Leslie Joseph’s voice still has the pleasing sound of a bag of gravel passing through a corn-thresher. The chemistry between the three is excellent, amplifying the already funny script enormously. To see this production is to have an audience with three Queens of Comedy.
What is most surprising about the staged version of Birds of a Feather is how fresh that it feels. There have been several recent attempts to make the theatre an oversized 3D version of UK Gold circa 1999, staging the comedy contemporaries of Sharon and Tracey. These have been largely dull and as unwatchable as dusty old cassettes with a broken tracking button.
Comparatively, John Phelps and Gary Lawson’s version of the show finds the balance between the nostalgic and the new, still energetic and full of bawdy, ballsy humour. The script contains more jokes about semen than a pirate stand-up comedy night and there are some wonderfully enjoyable scenes when it has as much good taste as a pickled whelk. Smut sells. And the audience are happy to buy.
If the production fails anywhere, it fails in the writing for the secondary characters of the play. With the exception of Charlie Quirke in the role of Tracey’s son, the “non-Birds” feel like living cartoons, caricatures of villainy, undeveloped and badly written. And there’s the rub. We’ll accept that Dorien is still wearing a skirt that could pass for a string of dental floss if she wore it to the dentist because she’s a familiar face. It’s almost like meeting an old aunt in the pub: she has been drinking cheap white wine since four ‘o’ clock, she has coral lipstick on her teeth and her face has wrinkled like an elephant in a bathtub but, God, it’s nice to see her, isn’t it?
The familiarity of the faces and characters in this production are a tonic… and one best served with a slice of lemon and a gin.
Birds of a Feather is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until 20 April, 2013.