Paul T Davies reviews Once A Year on Blackpool Sands at Harlow Playhouse.
Once A Year on Blackpool Sands.
15 June 2018
Set in a clapped out boarding house in 1953, director and writer Karlton Parris has fashioned a play that explores the deeply closeted lives of gay and transvestite men who seek refuge, just for a week, from their everyday lives. Whilst this is laudable, Parris’s play feels like three plays mashed into one. Upstairs there is Red Ethel, returned from her time in Russia and lamenting the communism that Britain doesn’t have. Her daughter, Gladys, runs the boarding house, and downstairs there is Mr. Elbridge, a married transvestite seeking the confidence to walk down the sea front in drag. Checking into the Withering Heights On Sea Guest House, (yes, it’s called that), are two miners, lovers Eddy and Tommy, seeking their annual wakes holiday.
The play begins well with foul mouthed Red Ethel, a wonderful and funny performance by Linda Clark, who is vocally excellent and strong in characterisation throughout. She steals the show, but that’s not difficult as the first act goes into free fall and is let down by some poor acting and, worse, dreadful diction and projection from the rest of the cast. In a small studio space, most of the lines failed to be delivered at any volume by the majority of the cast, a real problem. Gladys, Wendy Lawrence James, is an awful caricature of the 1950s Northern housewife, as is her daughter, “flighty” Maureen, (Mollie Jones) and the problem with Parris’s script is that he never misses the chance for a cheap double entente. If you were playing Carry On Bingo, you’d score a full house when “Hide the sausage” finally makes an appearance. Macaulay Cooper shows great sensitivity as Tommy, and has a lot of potential, but Kyle Brooks is far too shouty as Eddy, and his aggressiveness makes the relationship look like one of coercive control.
Frankly, the first half is a mess, but in the second act some stronger story telling begins to emerge, especially Dominic McCavish’s performance as transvestite James Elbridge, who is given more of a chance to shine. Gladys reverses her character and reveals she was once a chorus girl who has “seen it all” which makes me wonder why she was so vile to the miners in act one, and the play ends with a walk of defiance along the sea front which becomes a Pride mach- sadly unconvincing, as it has not been earned.
The play goes on a short UK tour and then has an off Broadway run as part of Brits on Broadway. What the Americans will make of such a parochial play I can’t imagine, but there are several things that can be dealt with now to improve the production. Firstly, a good vocal coach is needed to aid clarity, secondly, basic flaws need to be cut out- the men’s underpants are contemporary boxers, not 1950s Y Fronts as they should be, and the set becomes cluttered with too many props that are not cleared and cause radios to crash to the floor. But thirdly, and mainly, a good dramaturge would edit and shape the play and focus it into the good play that is struggling to get out. By giving equal focus to all six characters, the story of Eddy and Tommy becomes sidelined. In reading the press pack, I discovered that Parris met the real life Eddy and Tommy in a bar in Greece, their final holiday before they succumbed to AIDS. Right there the bigger story that needs to be told.