ONCE UPON A TIME IN WIGAN
by Mick Martin
It is always exciting when one goes along to see a play for the first time. Even then, one has occasionally heard or read about it without actually seeing it, but tonight was the first time for me from any aspect you care to question. As you probably know I spend a lot of my time in the evenings, wandering around watching plays and I consider it a privilege to be invited to see so many. In addition, much of my life outside teaching has been involved with theatre. How then could I have missed this one?
First produced in 2003 at the Contact Theatre in Manchester; later at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton; written by a fairly local author; about a famous place in Wigan; frequented over the years by crowds of young people from all over Britain who had become involved in Northern Soul Music, and had found, through the music, a new reason for living and a life changing experience from early 70s onwards. And I missed it. I had heard Soul music but Northern Soul and Wigan Casino? Please accept my apologies!
The George Lawton stage had disappeared and been replaced by doors SL, SC and SR. Entrance door up a flight of stairs dominated CS rear and doors SL and SR to dressing-room, office etc. A couple of tables SL and SR were frequently used and the cast moved other temporary blocks as and when necessary. This minimal dressing created ample space for cast movement and their illustrative dancing, or involved choreography as required throughout. After the play finished, it proved no problem to strike such furniture as there was, so that the members of the audience could contribute their own efforts towards the famous “all-nighters”, without taking the whole week-end, of course, as their predecessors sometimes were allowed to do. We could therefore feel and experience what it must have been like all those years ago as we danced to the music of Kev Roberts, one of the original D.J’s who told us what it was really like to be there.
The cast comprises four actors and, as you would expect as their characters exit relatively rarely, there are masses of dialogue to be learnt. This takes many forms – two-way, four way and individually to the audience, which requires a special skill of its own as, in this case, it takes the form of telling stories (a skill of its own) to people who are not specifically known to you in your life. You tell them the history of Wigan Casino or, as here; how you discovered it – what the place was all about, what difference it made to your life, and its legacy to you – in other words – what now? It is an intensely deep and caring situation for an actor to find him/herself in, and all four of you positively bared your souls, and we saw heart revealed in all you did and said tonight.
Frank Williams played Eugene, and Deane Dixon-Foster was his mate, Danny, while Kira Richardson plays Maxine, who becomes friendly with Suzanne, played by Katherine Farrow. I am not describing our actors individually because they weren’t and what applied to one applied to all four of them. They weren’t required to work as a team, or for each other, at first, but as familiarity grew, that is what they became. And we grew with them to recognise their innermost thoughts, emotions and problems. I began to feel, as we journeyed through the second act, as if they weren’t acting. Acting is pretence, only I didn’t feel that our four were pretending. To sustain and portray characters like these requires experience and technical acting ability at a high level. When tears, anger, despair, hopelessness, decisions came and affected how things were being expressed, they came from within, not because it was the product of rehearsal. Overall, loomed the spirit of this place, the Casino, and the effect of this incredible Soul music, and that was what our actors offered us. The joy of Eugene’s choreographic ability emphasized the success of Danny’s teaching was virtually tangible. I’ll bet there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the girls came together in a hug towards the end. “I’m scared I won’t see you after tonight”. I thought the individual comments made by the Director and cast in the programme explained exactly how they felt, and how they were able to feel, in order to give such memorable performances.
I feel I have to mention the over-abundance of foul language used throughout the play mainly by the male actors, although Maxine and Suzanne had to use it on occasions, and of course, it was all in the script, so none of it was gratuitous in that sense. I am of a generation who had to do National Service, so it is not as if I had never heard it, but I feel I have to ask whether it was necessary for that frequency on stage?
Lee Brennan directed the play, and he master-minded a memorable production which will live long in the memory. He drew from his cast performances from deep down which were a dedication to their art, and he created a fitting memorial to Wigan Casino. Congratulations and well done to all involved, on and off stage.
Many thanks for your ever-friendly welcome and hospitality. Happy Playmaking.