Review Band of Gold
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Review: Kay Mellor’s Band of Gold
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – 4th February 2020
Is it really over 25 years since this gritty northern drama hit the small screen with Geraldine James, Cathy Tyson and Barbara Dickson in the starring roles? Impossible.
It certainly made a big impression at the time, two Bafta nominations and viewing figures of 15 million helping to make it one of the most popular TV dramas of the 1990s.
Fast forward to 2020 and we see the UK tour of the stage version visiting Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre with Kay Mellor, the TV series’ originator, in the driving seat as writer and director.
Kay is well known for her painfully real-life drama both on screen and off: Fat Friends, The Syndicate, Strictly Confidential, In The Club, to name but a few, winning her a fistful of awards and an OBE.
So how well does a drama specifically penned for a 1990s TV audience fare in the modern theatre? The very essence of filming TV dramas is implied threat, suspense and what you don’t see. Subtle camera angles, lighting and editing can make a good script very powerful (anyone else a fan of modern Scandi-dramas?) so the enormous Mayflower stage tends to make the actors look rather exposed and the action a little stilted – for instance the ‘asides’ look a tad over-theatrical and, combined with the black humour that is a trademark of Mellor ironically has the opposite effect by losing some of the dramatic impact.
Despite prior warnings that the show contains adult themes and swearing, the raunchiness, punch and grittiness that made it work so well on TV is a bit watered down. By today’s rather graphic standards, the ‘adult themes and swearing’ seem almost tame. Perhaps it is because it has deliberately been set in the 1990s before the days when poverty and debt were overtaken by sex/people-trafficking and drugs as main factors influencing the ‘oldest profession’.
But as a standalone play it is really gripping, especially from the end of the first half onwards (no spoilers but the scene setting and suspense take on a much more dramatic turn from that point).
It’s moody, clever and witty. Mellor is a first class observer of human behaviour at the sharp end of life.
The story revolves around a group of prostitutes ‘working the lane’, of how they came to be there in the first place and how they fight against pimps, loan sharks, authority, misogyny, violence and poverty to eventually hold their heads high.
It is a snapshot of life on the street for the girls who worked them and as such it is frank, honest and inspiring. The story also has enough twists and turns to keep one gripped throughout. It is a mystery drama as well as anything else.
The cast of 14 (of whom nine have appeared in Coronation Street, where Mellor herself cut her writing teeth) provides a strong ensemble with some powerful performances from the outset, especially by the main quartet of Girls: Rose, Anita, Carol and Joyce played respectively by Gaynor Faye (Emmerdale, Calendar Girls), Laurie Brett (best known for playing Jane Beale in EastEnders), Emma Osman (relative newcomer but you wouldn’t know it) and Olwen May (veteran stage and screen actress with a list of credits as long as your arm, including Bodyguard, Happy Valley, Silent Witness and Life on Mars).
In fact, as drama goes, Olwen May’s performance as hapless Gina’s mother, is a standout especially in a particularly powerful and disturbing scene opposite her son-in-law Steve, played with manic realism by Kieron Richardson. Olwen may have had the best lines to enable that but she certainly deserves the accolade; for me that snippet reaches the top notes of drama in the play and I rather wish that the whole could have been that high too.
The part of Gina, inexorably drawn into a life she doesn’t want but cannot avoid, is convincingly played by Sacha Parkinson, who has perfected the choreographed fight scenes where she seems to be pushed around or dragged by her hair.
Veteran actor Andrew Dunn as Barraclough and X Factor winner Shayne Ward playing the ‘copper with a past’ are instantly recognised by the audience, whilst Steve Garti and Mark Sheals complete the main line up playing a couple of seedy local ‘men in authority’– as a lot of Mellor’s male characters are inevitably portrayed.
Janet Bird’s striking set comprises six full height moveable flats portraying subtle black and white, grimy, urban street scenes. They silently slide in and out to turn streets into bars, bedrooms or various living rooms. Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is moody and dramatic throughout, helps those semi-transparent flats conjure atmosphere by a creative mix of front and and back lighting.
Particularly clever are the prowling car scenes where you only ever see the headlights or tail-lights complemented by surround sound audio effects from sound designer Mic Pool. The cast seamlessly and invisibly push props and furniture on and off the stage accompanied by 80s instrumental music (Hal Lindes of Dire Straits, who also supplied the music for the original TV series).
I wonder how much more powerful it might have been by bringing the story up to date? What was a conventional setting in the 1990s now seems like a period piece and a bit too quaint to be really gritty.
But all in all a gripping yarn well done and I have no doubt that audiences in the remaining seven venues of this tour will love it and come away entertained as well as impressed by Mellor’s amazing ability to write great drama about everyday themes.
Band of Gold plays at The Mayflower until Saturday 8th February – more details can be found by clicking here