First, let's get a couple of misconceptions out of the way about this play: none of the five ladies of a certain age meeting daily to chat have blue rinses (they are far too 21st-century for that) and the Green Park Bench refers to the seats (of which there are two) rather than the location (ie, it's not Green Park, London, but a park in central New York).
These details matters little, of course, for John Penzotti's bittersweet comedy is an everyman (or should that be every-woman?) story of rites-of-passage: a sort of Golden Girls meets Heaven's Gate. The five old dears had their moments in life - in careers, relationships, families - but they are all ultimately unfulfilled. The question now is, will they be able to find true happiness after death?
Director Chris Colby has assembled a fine ensemble cast for this new production: screen star Shirley Anne Field, Neighbours' Anne Charleston, Jean Fergusson from Last of The Summer Wine, Ruth Madoc from Hi-De-Hi and recording and musicals artist Miquel Brown.
All are painted very differently - both physically and in their personalities. Field's Anna is trim and immaculately turned out but struggling to deal with the onset of Alzheimer's. Charleston's Rose, the closet (at least from her four friends) lesbian still blames herself for a public show of affection which cost her lover her life to a bunch of queer bashers. Then there's Brown's La-La, the second-division club singer who's still banking on one more comeback opportunity; Madoc's Gladys, brow-beaten after years with her devoted but dull husband; and Fergusson's Eva, the upright socialite now bent double with grief at her late husband's infidelities and her inability to have children.
As the women reveal their stories to each other in a series of elegantly-crafted mini-biographies, they expose strengths and weaknesses so touchingly that they achieve the ultimate - they become real people that we can truly care about. Penzotti's script gives each plenty of scope, with some great one-liners and moments of poignancy in 20/20 hindsight.
Their collective second chances come after the interval when they meet again the key figures from their lives - either a lover, errant husband, theatrical agent or a brother who died too young - on the "other side". Okay, it might all be a little schmaltzy at times, but Five Blue Haired Ladies is nevertheless a charming, gentle comedy of the here and hereafter.
- John Lawson (reviewed at Norwich's Theatre Royal)