Victoria Wood’s comedy series ran on BBC television from 1998 to 2000 and was immensely popular. David Graham has adapted the scripts to fashion a two-hour play which will certainly please the fans of the original though I’m not sure that this Comedy Theatre Company tour will appeal so much to those who never saw it when screened.
The canteen set designed by Malvern Hostick is realistic and incorporates a surtitle device which tells us where we are in the eight months’ spread of the story. The author is also the director, which may be part of the problem, for all too often his actors are left standing in a line listening to whoever is speaking at th time and not always reacting. The audience laughs, but are they laughing at what they actually hear, or what they think they do?
Core of the story is Bren (Laura Sheppard) the deputy manager of the canteen. She’s apparently unflappable and yet vulnerable; Sheppard makes her a thoroughly credible woman who can’t quite accept that she might be having a mid-life crisis. Bren is further saddled with a bag-lady mother self-named as Petula (Jacqueline Clarke) who spins a nice line in fantasy and has a less acceptable tendency to kleptomania, not to mention being thoroughly selfish.
Emily Butterfield is Twinkle, the teenager who no sense of time-keeping, nicely contrasted with Shobna Gulati’s simple Anita, a girl who will automatically grasp the wrong end of any stick offered to her. Louise Dumayne is Philippa, the mean-well do-ill manager of the works human resources (formerly known as personnel) department. Stella Rose plays Jean, whose husband has gone off with a dental hygienist, and Liz Bagley is her friend Dolly.
Popping in and out is are more than usually involved canteen customers Jane (Joanna Lee Martin) and, in a hilarious cameo, Peter Brad-Leigh as Bob. The two main male characters are canteen manager Tony (Andrew Dunn) and janitor Stan (Barrie Palmer). Dunn makes the former understandable as he uses bluff bonhomie to disguise an inner uncertainty and we come to realise that his slightly off-colour joking is mere facade.
Palmer is initially funny as the man with the least pleasant jobs, always coming up against other people’s technical incompetence. He is moving as the son who finds it difficult to articulate his fears over his father’s ill-health (and subsequent death) and it is he who finally sends Petula on her way and (we hope) finally out of Bren’s path to happiness. There’s a moral in there, somewhere.