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Ladies' Day (Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Amanda Whittington has slightly amended and updated her script for the new production by Matt Devitt at Hornchurch to take account of certain changes since 2005. The racecourse which the four friends – whose stories provide the plot – attend is now Royal Ascot, rather than York and some out-of-date cultural references have also been deleted. It's still a story about women escaping from a dead-end job into another life. Even if that lasts for less than 24 hours.

Women may be the main characters, but it's men who dominate their thinking. We meet a whole bevy of them – from foreman to television commentator, jockey to part-time lover, inebriated gambler to... They are all brought to us by Simon Jessop in a series of quick changes of wig, makeup and costume, not to mention a corresponding array of accents. It's a bravura performances which earns its round of applause.

Not that the ladies are left at the starting-gate. Their apparently calm centre is Pearl, treating her friends as she takes early retirement (or is that an euphemism for redundancy?), but with a secret which unlocks to heartbreaking effect in the second act. Pearl calls out from Helen Watson a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman beached up on the rocks of middle age with both love and hope drifting away on the receding tide.

If Pearl is the lynchpin for the group, then Shelley {Sarah Scowen] is the Catherine wheel sparking off it. Loud-mouthed and ablaze in her scarlet finery with gravity-defying heels to match, Scowen gives us a girl with ambition but too little knowledge and not quite enough ruthlessness to achieve the celebrity status she craves. The quiet ones, at least when we first meet them, are Jan (who's pushing her daughter through university without any help from an absent husband) and Linda, whose sponging mother is draining all her youth away.

Lucy Thackeray, demure in lemon and with just the right handbag, is a charming Linda, gentle but never too naïve as she learns to make her own decisions and to stand by them. Drunk scenes for women are always slightly problematic on stage; Jane Milligan does very well with her's. Claire Lyth's lilac outfit for her is again precisely accurate. Lyth has provided an excellent and flexible set, peopled with mannequin groups for the races and transforming neatly from fish-packing factory to the different Ascot locations.

It gradually becomes apparent that the real catalyst for the drama is not the fact of Pearl leaving work but the wedding of a colleague (Kelly) some time before the action of the play. Three of the four Ascot frocks and hats were last worn then, and certain relationships were either initiated or began their dissolution. One quibble, however: once we leave the factory, there's no problem with accents. But, at any rate on the opening night, a lot of the initial dialogue seemed swallowed up in the attempt to sound properly north country. That's a pity, as it takes us a step back from immediate engagement with the people we have just met.


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