Friday 6th April 2018 at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds.
John Godber and Jane Thornton’s Shakers is a uniquely entertaining piece of theatre which provides actors with a goldmine of opportunities. Set primarily in a swanky bar in which four feisty waitresses tackle the behaviour of both punters and each other, this play doubles as a whirlwind display of mini skits as the four-strong cast take on a wide array of characters from many walks of life; the cast play both waitresses and their various customers as well as frequently shifting into the narrative of four local shop girls out to celebrate a birthday. Set against a backdrop of 80s music and cultural references, the cocktail bar receives an influx of yuppies, over-excited shop girls and self-satisfied pompous middle-agers as well as gross lovers and lecherous but ultimately tragic drooling young men…all for our judgemental delight. Each waitress has a cross to bear and the audience gradually learns of these inner struggles over the course of the piece but between the seafood pasta and Long Slow Comfortable Screws being served by the bar, there are a plethora of comical moments to unfold.Neil Knipe’s production features a talented cast which I saw in Bite My Thumb’s recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (review here) but interestingly, while one individual remains a real force to be reckoned with, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing another excel in a more prominent role here. Olivia Cole, who gave a standout performance as Quince, here completely steals the show as Carol with a tour de force performance nailing every character as distinct and notable in their own right. She uses her voice as brilliantly as she transforms her physicality, giving each diverse character personalised mannerisms – and she is by far the most reliable for landing comical lines. Sophia Becie appears from the shadows of the minor role of Snout to rugby tackle every role into a striking and hilarious formation; her depiction of a thoroughly disinterested shop assistant as well as her aggressive take on the role of Mel are great highlights. It is the exchanges between Becie and Cole as the stomach churning French lovers and the awkward randy youths which really capture the audience, and rightly so – they are a superb comic combination.Leanne O’Rourke’s Adele is perhaps the most sympathetic performance and O’Rourke works hard to capture the angst of her story as well as the comedy within the snide altercations within the waitressing ranks. Beccie Allen’s Nicky is slightly more vacant than expected, as are a good few of the other characters Allen briefly dons, but it is her performance of Nicky’s naive monologue when the goofy faces are replaced with sincerity and her raucous turn as a desperately under-sexed male that give her the edge here. What’s wonderful about Godber’s writing with this play is that none of the cast are tied to a particular storyline, tone or character – they can be a heartbroken, downtrodden and struggling waitress one moment and a cackling drunken lass having the time of her life the next; it’s nothing if not constantly on the move and thoroughly entertaining.I like that Bite My Thumb’s production advocates for the blank canvas; no props but for three basic chairs; no notable manipulations of lighting (Alistair Fox) save for classic visuals of broad spotlights and no set design of any kind; this piece rides solely on the shoulders of Godber’s writing and the cast’s ability to meet the complex demands of an incredibly lively script. It’s certainly unusual to see a piece of theatre on a main stage which takes this approach these days and it takes a little time to acclimatise when we’re so used to some form of backdrop, but there’s real enjoyment to be found in embracing this kind of performance. Yet while for the most part this total neutrality beautifully highlights the strength of the performances, there are times when the mimed aspects are far too loose and undermine the clear efforts to showcase the strength of simplistic stagings like this. A small number of scenes also feel distinctly lacking in the energy and momentum of the piece in general; the supermarket scene stands out as a particular example. There are however some lovely synchronised sequences giving a taste of the impact and style possible with a production like this – I’d have very much liked to see a feast of those strengths rather than a taste…
Shakers remains a gift to any cast, with John Godber and Jane Thornton allowing any actress the opportunity to showcase an impressive breadth of acting skills. It’s like an extended showreel and as such it gifts an audience an expansive showcase of the beauty of skilful transformations; Shakers is a love letter to the art of multi-roling and this production, although it takes a few minutes to warm up, does justice to the writing and is very much worth the trip.
Shakers continues to tour until May 29th 2018 and you can find tickets here.