The decline of the North of England (post-Thatcher) is a theme that has been well examined in various films, plays and musicals over the past few decades. However, it has never been done to a soundtrack of 60s pop. Richard Cameron (of The Glee Club fame) cleverly blends the bittersweet music of The Ronettes and The Supremes with the cruel social and economic hardship faced by the residents of a Yorkshire town, with stunningly interesting results.
Delie is a young woman, “twenty-two going on twelve,” who gives her mother a break every summer to go and stay with her Auntie Brenda. Brenda runs a women’s domestic abuse refuse in an impoverished, old mining town in Yorkshire. Once a place where young lovers filled with joy would go dancing at “The Palace” every Friday night, it is now a messy pile of used needles, prostitution and anger. However, Delie and her aunt find joy in The Flannelettes: their Mowtown tribute band with George, the pawnbroker. Together they sing and dance to 60s soul and pop, and along the way help some women who have run away from a different kind of pain altogether. The Flannelettes is at once a comedy and a tragedy.
The best thing about The Flannelettes is its sensitivity. With plays of this nature, the playwright often tries to make a loud, powerful statement, and the prioritisation of this can diminish the other qualities that an audience enjoy, like vivid characters and an exciting plot. The Flannelettes keeps the political commentary relatively subtle. In fact, the only overt anti-Thatcherite moment appears on a T-shirt: the audience are left to draw their own conclusions from the action on stage, and the play is all the more compelling for it.
Emma Hook is truly superb as the fragile yet hilarious Delie, and delivers her lines with a comic timing rare to see on such a small stage. A contrasting tower of strength is provided by Susan Sylvester, who’s performance as Brenda is as fierce as it is gentle. The transformation of Jean (Celia Robertson) is brilliant to watch, as she gradually morphes from a timid, battered woman into a disciple of Brenda herself, whilst Roma (Holly Campbell) takes a roundabout route to do the same. Indeed, the play is full of these fascinating dichotomies, the soundtrack being another example. The sweet, melodic tones of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “To Know Him Is To Love Him” mask a hidden darkness, a submissiveness much like that of the beaten women in the domestic abuse refuge. The town is stuck in a time-warp, and the roles of men and women in the 60s seem to, sadly, still apply. Indeed, a criticism can be made here of the male characters and actors, whose performances are not nearly as nuanced as their female counterparts. Whilst Geoff Leesley is entertaining and kind as George, and James Hornsby convinced as a stuffy policeman, they largely remained the same throughout the piece, and Hornsby in particular was a little wooden at times when his character had to step out of this role.
All in all, The Flannelettes was a highly entertaining piece with a good, light heart despite its dark themes. The music and the comedic script provided respite from the harsh realities of Northern poverty depicted by Cameron and Bradwell. This made Cameron’s indignation at the situation of his characters easier to take. Catch this whilst you can. You won’t regret it.