Writer: Amanda Whittington
Director: Lucia Cox
Reviewer: Brian Gorman
A stifling hot evening in a jam-packed dark room is never a good thing. Unless you’re kept entertained, enthralled, and enlightened by a first rate company, that is.
Under the quite wonderful high ceiling of The King’s Arms Theatre, which lent a Cathedral-like atmosphere to proceedings, the newly-formed Asphalt Roses Theatre Company made their auspicious debut. Manchester-based actor/producers Hannah Blakeley and Leni Murphy were quite rightly fed up with the dearth of female rôles available in the industry, and decided to form their own all-female company to provide more opportunities for women in the North West.
Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby provides ample opportunity for actors to shine, with half a dozen female characters. The story, set in 1964, involves four pregnant young women virtually imprisoned in an austere mother and baby home, under the watchful eye of a barely sympathetic matron. In a society unwilling to accept any behaviour outside of ‘traditional family values’, the unmarried mothers-to-be are faced with a life of shame and scarce employment prospects unless they give up their children for adoption.
What could have been a scathing indictment of a backward-thinking society, a kind of female One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is unfortunately on this occasion, more of a gentle tale of woe. Whittington’s script avoids any truly harrowing scenes (apart from the mental disintegration of Bethan Caddick’s Norma), and all the unfortunate girls actually seem to have a pretty good time.
A fine ensemble cast led by Hannah Blakeley as the awkward teenage Mary, do absolute wonders with the material, but everything seems a little too sugar-coated. Dressed in uniform white slips, the girls resemble angelic creatures; healthy, glowing, and with little to suggest any real stress about their situation.
Lucia Cox’s direction is tight when it comes to the well-choreographed musical interludes (the girls often break out into the songs of the day, and there is one superb scene with Leni Murphy’s hard-as-nails Queenie morphing into a sultry nightclub temptress), but is a little too gentle with the material. There was a dream-like atmosphere, but little sense of actual despair.
Morag Peacock is suitably restrained as Matron, but one really wanted more of Nurse Ratched. Her steely demeanour weakens for an unguarded moment when her past is revealed. Victoria Tunnah is delightful as the impish and ill-educated Delores, while Laura Campbell as Mrs Adams is a frightening battleaxe of a woman.
Set in the round with an old, iron-framed bed at its heart, there was a suitably claustrophobic feel about the evening. Overall, a tremendous start for this new company, with a wonderful cast, and some fine surreal moments (are the girls actually angels in limbo?), but it’s the overall lack of true grit that lets the show down.
Runs until 11th July