In whatever way Madani Younis may later stamp his special mark on the Bush as the new artistic director, he’s certainly got one of the venue’s traditional flanks well covered: the mother and daughter regional working-class no-holds-barred marriage and sex talk-in.
It also side-steps the unambitious sitcom trap by using a format in which Barbara’s seventieth birthday party in a chalet at Butlins holiday camp in Skegness becomes a way of revisiting a daughter’s hen party in 1996, as well as Barbara’s own fateful wedding day in 1961.
The time frame is not always crystal clear in Younis’s boisterous production, but the power of the performances, especially those of Gillian Hanna as a dewy-eyed, husk-like Barbara and Monica Dolan, brilliantly aggressive as the more raucous of her daughters, Loretta (whom Dolan doubles with her unforgiving grandmother in 1961), more than compensates.
The play is co-presented with Live Theatre, Newcastle, and the dialogue has the salty tang of a wonderful Geordie, Rabelaisian forthrightness, especially when Loretta is passing round the sex aid straws, or trying to convert her mum’s party into Abigail’s.
Abigail, played with a delightful, moving gaucheness by Laura Elphinstone, is Loretta’s moody daughter, planning to leave her own unhappy marriage while retreating into a maudlin version of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” performed on her pop-up clavichord.
The play therefore works as both a revelatory flash back and a study in tension between Barbara’s landmark and Abigail’s parting. Only Paula (Sian Breckin) is anything like happy, and she helps bring Abigail alive with a dance move tutorial, while Loretta lays the cause of all the pain and bitterness firmly at the doorstep of inadequate husbands.
Abigail’s blonde sister Jolene – startlingly played in a more stop-go style by Robyn Addison squeezed into a little pink dress – makes the best of the Butlins setting; the Red Coats are certainly still providing a decent service as far as she’s concerned.
This is the same chalet Barbara has ritually visited every year. Not the least of the play’s pleasures is that sense of sadness and decline in a once culturally meaningful holiday destination.
The design by Leslie Travers reflects this, placing the actors on a great sloping plank surrounded by a battery of large coloured bulbs (lighting by Tim Mascall) that flare and flicker along with the hopes and memories of the women.