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The Flannelettes is thought-provoking and entertaining

The Flannelettes with Emma Hook (Delie);Geoff Leesley (George); Suzan Sylvester (Brenda); Celia Robertson (Jean)
The Flannelettes with Emma Hook (Delie), Geoff Leesley (George), Suzan Sylvester (Brenda), Celia Robertson (Jean), The Kings Head Theatre Photo by Francis Loney

As part of their 45th anniversary year The Kings Head brings us The Flannelettes, a new (revised) play by Richard Cameron, Award Winning Writer of The Glee Club and Great Balls of Fire, directed by Mike Bradwell, the founder of Hull Truck Theatre company and former head of London’s Bush Theatre. Bradwell has a first-rate cast to work with including Olivier Award-winning Suzan Sylvester (for Best Newcomer in A View From A Bridge in 1987), James Hornsby (The Glee Club, West End) Geoff Leesley, Celia Robertson, with Emma Hook and Holly Campbell as newcomers to look out for in the future. The result is a thought-provoking, entertaining, memorable evening at the theatre.

Described as ‘a tough and tender new play’, The Flannelettes takes an uncompromising look at love and violence, relationships and secrets. Set in a women’s refuge in a small shattered Yorkshire mining community in decline, a (surprisingly good) Motown tribute band in the refuge, The Flannelettes, provides a bittersweet soundtrack of sixties soul throughout the play. The play’s hard-hitting no-nonsense setting is not all doom and gloom, with a surprising lot of laughs, particularly in Act 1, alongside broken and ugly relationships. This is in fact the weird reality of life, that amidst real tragedy and bleakness there are always unexpected moments of almost surreal hilarity. The comedy combined with great 60s songs also makes the play accessible to a much wider audience than a straight hard-hitting stark play about domestic abuse might be. We are entertained and educated as well as being shocked and thought-provoked. A powerful combination that stays with you longer…

She could teach more folk round ’ere about what’s bloody well important in their lives – when it comes down to it. What matters… That precious bit of you that gets buried in shit, and she’s there clearin’ it all away.”

But we also go home with a few uplifting songs in our heads …‘To know know know you is to love love love you…’

There are two story strands through The Flannelettes: Delie’s 4 week summer holiday and friendship with newly arrived Roma, and secondly what happens in the women’s refuge both collectively, and then personally for Brenda and the two men in her life. Delie, played with great warmth and heart in an outstanding performance by Emma Hook, is ‘special’. Delie is in fact in her twenties but has a mental age of twelve. She’s very proud of being presented with a trophy from the Mayor where she lives for picking up litter in the town, and every summer holiday she goes to stay with her Aunty Brenda, sharply and powerfully played by Suzan Sylvester, at the women’s domestic abuse refuge she runs. Delie also loves to sing and has the voice of a diva angel, and looks forward to Aunt Brenda reforming The Flannelettes, a Motown Tribute Band, every summer. Delie meets Roma, poignantly and sensitively played by Holly Campbell.

Roma used to work on the streets in Rotherham, but now desperately wants to create her own dream home in a caravan with her new dream man and forget her appalling former life on the streets of Rotherham. Delie and Roma become new best friends, both young woman having someone to confide secrets in for the first time ever. Their shattering scene in Act Two is exceptionally powerful.

Brenda believes in the work she does in the refuge but it understandably grinds her down. Escape from the brutal realities of daily life supporting and helping victims of abuse in the devastated community around her comes through Delie’s glorious voice and the summer reformed Flannelettes.

Current refuge guest Jean, played by Celia Robertson, on the run from an abusive partner, along with local pawnbroker George, played by Geoff Leesley, whose alter ego loves to dress up in drag and sing, are only too happy to join the band also wanting to escape, albeit briefly, from difficult and dull lives, George is a steadying influence on the refuge and the women, and Leesley’s performance was a delight throughout. George also acts as narrator in some scenes and this was particularly powerful at the devastating end of act one.

The other complication in Brenda’s life comes in the form of married Community Copper Jim played by James Hornsby. Jim is madly in love with Brenda who has been in a relationship with Jim but now just feels completely taken advantage of and the more Jim pursues her, the angrier Brenda gets. Suzan Sylvester and James Hornsby have great chemistry together and their obvious experience and authority on stage is abundantly clear, giving a real authority to the play. Jim is also involved in dealing with the terrible abuse we see unfolding in Roma’s new life, shattering her so-fragile dreams as she desperately tries to cling on to them despite all the brutal evidence that her perfect new life is a cruel fantasy. As a result of Roma’s crushed dreams, Delie tries to communicate with her, confessing unexpected and shattering secrets of her own. It is clear that without music and the ‘escape’ it provides, life would be unbearably bleak and desperate indeed. It also begs the question as to how many people day by day ‘put on’ a protective face of ‘nothing’ wrong’ whilst in actuality hiding truly devastating wrongs.

The whole cast work together extremely well, presenting a completely believable scenario with compelling, expressive, pacey, memorable performances. The writing is the star of the show as Cameron’s incisive, quick-witted dialogue, both shocks and makes us laugh, is credible and entirely convincing. Emma Hook delivers a stand-out heart-breaking performance as Delie, an adult woman with the character and openness of a child who speaks her mind, asks questions that grown-ups only think, who trusts everyone and so does as she is told and asked, who only wants to be happy, collect litter to make the world a better place and to sing. Emma also has a beautiful, crystal-clear, authentically Motown voice that should carry her into a few West End musicals in the future!

The Flannelettes is an important and impressive play from Richard Cameron. Damaged lives, even badly damaged lives, still have moments of lightness and levity even if they are fleeting. Cameron’s characters are impressively real and plausible and conversations heart-breaking. Mike Bradwell directs with sensitivity and care, keeping the reality of abuse central and present but making it accessible and he has a sympathetic and highly skilled cast who tell the story with passion and finesse.

4 stars

Review by Catherine Françoise

THE FLANNELETTES
Written by Richard Cameron
Directed by Mike Bradwell
Designer: Mila Sanders
Musical Direction & Arrangements: Wendy Gadian
Lighting Designer: GeorgeBach
Sound/Music Designer: Alexanra Faye Braithwaite

Playing from 13th May until 6th June 2015
Monday to Saturday 7pm
One matinee only on Sat 6th June at 3pm
www.kingsheadtheatre.com 0207 226 8561

Monday 18th May 2015

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