Shelagh Delaney’s precocious taboo-busting soap opera was always more theatrical than Tony Richardson’s kitchen-sink film version gave it credit for after Joan Littlewood’s original production appeared in 1958. So it goes in Bijan Sheibani’s five-year-old National Theatre production, recast for its current tour, and introduced by pianist David O’Brien’s jazz trio doing an impressive turn as the sort of combo permanently in residence at northern English basement dives of the post war era.
They’re the sort of places Jo’s mum Helen knows well. This is clear by the way Jodie Prenger as Helen leans against the piano as if adorning a pulp fiction paperback, a bottle-blonde would-be diva who wields a lipstick-stained cigarette like a weapon that could stab your eyes out. Gemma Dobson’s Josephine may be able to namedrop the classics, but she and Helen spark off each other with the sort of lacerating love/hate exchanges that binds their spiky and self-destructive relationship like a more feral template for Eddi and Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous.
Set solely in Helen and Jo’s latest fly-by-night flea-pit, Hildegard Bechtler’s elaborate set allows Jo to hold court as the host of a Saturday night variety show might, so each scene is more or less a dramatic duet, first between Jo and Helen before Tom Varey’s boozed-up spiv Peter shows up. Jo’s doomed dalliance with Durone Stokes’ sailor Jimmie subsequently gives way to another kind of domestic bliss with Jo’s gay best friend, Geoffrey, played by Stuart Thompson.
There’s a musicality to Sheibani’s production that goes beyond Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s live score, with each character having something akin to a theme song. For Geoffrey it’s Mad About The Boy, while Jimmie does a mean doo-wop version of Burns’ My Love is Like a Red Red Rose. While never overplayed by Prenger, Helen’s early asides point up what is structured more like a set of vaudevillian turns punctuated by Delaney’s ricocheting dialogue that goes some way to prove it’s not always grim up north.
The Herald, September 25th 2019