Jodie Prenger

A Taste of Honey

24/09/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I first encountered Shelagh Delaney through The Smiths, way back when, before Morrissey disgraced himself. His gorgeous early songs are littered with her words, and her face features on both album and single covers. As a young Moz-fan with literary pretensions, of course I read A Taste of Honey; of course I bought a video of the film. Since then, I’ve seen a few theatre productions too, but – honestly – tonight’s interpretation is my favourite of the lot.

Bijan Sheibani’s Honey might not be as gritty as some versions, but it illuminates the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play more effectively than I have seen before. The characters are more ordinary, more credible, than they sometimes appear, the quirky expositional dialogue rendered somehow hyper-real.

Jodie Prenger excels as Helen, the non-maternal mother-figure who dominates the play. She’s resentful of her teenage daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), seeing her as an encumbrance, a dead weight dragging her down. Unsurprisingly, Jo is resentful too; she demands attention, yearns for Helen’s love. But Helen’s too busy thinking about herself and her sex life to care what her daughter’s up to, and Jo has learned not to expect much from life. Even as she’s losing her virginity, in thrall to erudite sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) – whose race doesn’t seem as relevant as it did in 1958 – she’s gloomily predicting that he’ll walk out of her life.

And she’s right.

Jo seems doomed to follow in Helen’s fucked-up footsteps: by the second act, all too predictably, she too is a pregnant teenager, alone and dreading motherhood. Her best friend, Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), really wants to help; he’s even prepared to try to make a heterosexual relationship work. But Jo knows that can’t fly – and Helen’s not about to let Jo find happiness anyway.

In this National Theatre production, relationships are centre-stage. Poverty is less of an issue than it usually seems in this play: Helen’s marriage to the rich-but-odious Peter (Tim Carey), for example, seems borne more from greed than financial necessity.

The ever-present three-piece band is an interesting touch, lending the piece a kind of louche, lounge-bar-style seediness. The songs are beautifully sung, underscoring the emotional effects of the characters’ actions. I like the direction (although perhaps the scenery doesn’t need to be moved quite so much): the business and bustle, the use of understudies as strange double/twin stage hands.

This really is a ‘revival’ in the truest sense of the word – breathing new life into an ageing classic, making it relevant to today’s audience.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

Fat Friends

20/04/18

Edinburgh Playhouse

There’s a lot to like about Fat Friends, not least its cast of disparate characters, whose lives are all dominated – in one way or another – by the slimming club that some of them attend. It’s refreshing to see such diverse body types represented on the stage, and for the larger characters to be just as fashionable and attractive as their slimmer counterparts. It feels very human, and there’s an appealing honesty that pervades throughout.

Our protagonist is Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who enjoys living above her parents’ chip shop and doesn’t worry one jot about her weight. Why should she? She’s happily engaged to Kevin (Joel Montague), and he loves her just the way she is. She’s proud of her mum (the rather marvellous Elaine C Smith), of course – Betty has lost five stone on her weight-loss plan, and is a contender for the prestigious Slimmer of the Year award – but Kelly doesn’t feel inclined to follow her lead. Until, that is, she discovers that her dream wedding dress isn’t available in her size. Determined that her big day should be perfect, she decides there’s only one thing for it: she’ll join Lauren (Natalie Anderson)’s slimming class, and enter into a race against time to fit into the dress.

The play is written and directed by Kay Mellor, and the characters are convincingly realised. Kevin Kennedy’s turn as Kelly’s hapless father, Fergus, is most enjoyable, but this is definitely the women’s tale, and the actors make the most of these boisterous, raucous roles. Elaine C Smith is a particular delight, and Jodie Prenger leaves no one in any doubt as to why she stays in work: she’s a bold performer, commanding our attention at every turn.

It’s not a perfect musical: the lyrics are quite simplistic, and the songs tend to comment on the action rather than informing it. That said, the music is lively and engaging, and it’s all very well sung. Some of the humour is a bit bawdy for my taste (think Loose Women and you’ll be in the right territory; if you’re a fan of that, you’ll enjoy this one) but there are people laughing all around me, so that’s probably just me. I love the set – a quirky facade of tipsy windows and shop fronts, which turn to reveal what’s behind the doors (the wedding dress shop, the church hall, etc.).

All in all, this is a bit of fun, with some great performances. It’s well worth seeking out.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Shirley Valentine

30/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Willy Russell’s 1998 play has endured largely because of the strength of the writing and the fact that so many women identify with the character of Shirley Valentine. Essentially a comic monologue, the play was opened out for film in 1989 and this is how most people remember it – but the play has more power, simply because we view everything through the eyes of jaded working-class mother, Shirley, a woman so marginalised by her husband, Joe, that she has resorted to having conversations with her kitchen wall.

Jodie Prenger – who first came to the public’s attention when she won the BBC’s I’ll Do Anything, and went on to land the coveted role of Nancy in a revival of Oliver! at the Year Royal, Drury Lane – has a field day with the role of Shirley. She’s funny, assured and has an evident gift for physical theatre: many of the evening’s biggest laughs come from the way she deports herself as she talks. We spend the first two acts in Shirley’s kitchen as she initially cooks her husband’s dinner (an unscheduled plate of chips and egg) and then prepares to go on holiday to Greece with her friend. The final act takes place on the beach itself, where we learn that Shirley has had a brief fling wth a local barman and that she has now graduated to having conversations with a rock. What’s more, having reinvented herself in the sunshine, she has no intention of returning to her former life…

This is a charming slice of theatre, hugely appreciated by an enthusiastic audience and, while it must now be considered a period piece, it nonetheless offers a highly entertaining night at the theatre.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney