Alan Plater's claim that ‘plays can only be born out of obsession’, could raise concerns about some of his fellow playwrights. He lists the obsessions that gave birth to The Last Days of The Empire as ‘comedians, variety theatre, popular music and the 1950s’.
‘The Empire’ refers both to the soon-to-close theatre, and the dying British Empire, Plater gives us a wry elegy for what these two institutions stood for. So we find ourselves in the peeling dressing room of a run-down 1950s variety theatre, in the company of Pedro Gonzales and his Caribbean Rhythm band. Only, none of them has ever been to the Caribbean. Instead they hail from closer corners of the Empire: Birmingham, Glasgow, West Hartlepool and Leeds.
In the first half, we enter the world of these travelling players, and are transported to an era where calypso vies with rock ‘n’ roll to be the next big thing and the television revolution has begun (with the screening of the Queens coronation), putting paid to many a night out at the variety theatre.
You gotta get a gimmick to get an audience – from calypso to nude revue. Cue thirties double act Mike and Peggy Gorman who’ve reinvented themselves to live off their one hit, the Coronation Calypso, but they’ve lost their lead vocalist - and their exotic dancers.
Just when it seems Plater has made his point before the interval, he introduces his coup de theatre in the form of Joe – a genuine Jamaican, armed with musical and vocal talent, and people skills honed during his stint as a Birmingham bus conductor. He’s the replacement lead vocalist and he’s clearly a character close to Plater’s heart.
So the play takes off again with something new to say about the experience of Commonwealth workers, who find the mother country they loved from a distance does not welcome them with open arms.
Darren Saul’s Joe makes the most of his opportunity with a terrific charm offensive. Elsewhere strong casting provides a convincing double act in Paul Greenwood’s Mike and Susan Jane Tanner’s Peggy. There’s an equally effective double act from world-weary bass player Les (Jim Bywater) and cynical young percussionist Spike (Oliver Judge), with Heather Panton the perfect foil as the fresh-faced pianist.
It’s not groundbreaking but it’s just thought-provoking enough – perfect fare for a summer evening out.
- Judi Herman