Tuesday 3rd December at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Kay Mellor writes and directs this adaptation of Band of Gold, bringing the 90s screen hit to the stage as a play which is as much about a nostalgic return to a groundbreaking show many have loved as it is about highlighting the persistent problems still causing strife now. I’m not considered ‘too young’ for much these days, but I did miss the boat in seeing the Band of Gold TV series – though I have it on good authority that this play does it justice. For me though, Band of Gold the play is something of a rarity on the touring theatre circuit: a brilliantly cast, genuinely gritty play which handles both comedy and drama well – while also landing a fair few upper cuts to the face of continuing social injustice.
The play follows the lives of sex workers in Bradford, costumed here in all their 90s street walker suggestiveness by Yvonne Milnes. Each has a tale to tell and each has a backstory to justify their presence on ‘the Lane’ even while the Yorkshire Ripper prowls. That may sound grittier than the play actually is though. There’s plenty of humour as well as pathos here and the cast bring Mellor’s varied and thoroughly entertaining women to life with a great combination of emphatic Northern charm and defiant gumption.
Now, Mellor’s writing may be pretty great all by itself, but this cast also deliver the goods. Sacha Parkinson owns Act 1 as Gina, the sweet lass led astray by circumstance and a classic loan shark in the shape of mean Mr Moore (Joe Mallalieu). Kieron Richardson’s performance as the aggressive alpha male Steve strengthens our connection with Gina, allowing Parkinson to really hammer home the domestic distress behind the character’s decisions. Olwen May handles the obtuse but sympathetic role of Joyce with a mixture of timeless maternal concern and outdated notions of love and marriage which audibly dismay a 2019 audience. The gasps Mellor inspires via Joyce’s character marks a definite high point.
Laurie Brett’s Anita is by far the most charismatic of characters – desperate, deluded and past her best but willing to cling on to impossible dreams of castles in the sky. There’s an inherent charm to the character as written but Brett’s performance perfectly captures a dotty optimist with an occasional potty mouth and she is a welcome addition to any scene. Rose is the perfect Anita antithesis – Gaynor Faye’s take is gritty and viciously self-preserving, landing some great acerbic one-liners while maintaining a hollow sense of detachment.
Emma Osman is the stand out here. As Carol, she’s both unapologetically blunt and hilarious – particularly when the risible Curly (Steve Garti) provides an unexpected source of grimy comedy. She’s also completely relatable as a woman fighting for herself and her child. Carol’s hardness is not like Rose’s; it takes a different tone and shape even though it’s cut from the same cloth and Osman certainly makes the distinction known.
This is a nicely pacy play which shifts between scenes constantly and while Janet Bird’s set designs are perfect reflections of the women inhabiting them, the transitions between the scenes are frustrating within an otherwise compelling piece of theatre. Sliding blocks mask the shifting of set pieces while Hal Lindes’ brooding original music fittingly takes us way back to the sounds of classic 90s dramas. But it becomes far too repetitive a sequence: Jason Taylor’s lighting dips, the music plays and the blocks slide. Initially quite smooth and entirely lending itself to the pace of the piece, it becomes far too frequent and borders on the onerous.
In the programme notes, Mellor writes of the poverty faced by sex workers then and now. Her characters are skewered by a plethora of impoverished situations – aside from the financial troubles, they’re often emotionally impoverished in some way too. It’s very apparent that these characters have depth and Mellor works hard to give each enough airtime to sell the full spectrum of their personalities, circumstances and backgrounds. That doesn’t always come to fruition precisely because there’s so much to cover; this production lands its drama and its tragedy and its comedy very nicely, but the gravity of certain moments isn’t always given space to reach its full potency before the narrative ploughs onwards.
Band of Gold is more than a very well written drama, it’s a play which has a lot to say even as it seeks to entertain first and foremost. These women, with their wise-cracking and cagey self-preservation are fleshed out and humanised where they would likely be marginalised and silenced elsewhere. In highlighting stories of sex workers in the 90s, Mellor’s work is absolutely highlighting the distinct parallels between then and now for women simply trying to get by. It’s funny and it’s entertaining without a doubt – but it’s also a probing look at how times are in many respects changing at a glacial pace.
Band of Gold plays the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until December 14th 2019 – tickets can be found here.