Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan
Lawrence Batley Theatre, The Dukes Lancaster, Oxford Playhouse and The Watermill Theatre digital co-production
October 4-17, 2021, available for 48 hours on purchased date: 1hr 15min
The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield lost no time during lockdown moving to digital film productions – not least among them the very clever variant of The Importance of Being Earnest written for them by Yasmeen Khan (see here, reviewed in April).
Now they’ve come up with a co-production (written by Yasmeen and artistic director Henry Filloux-Bennett) that uses many of the same techniques and pulls many of the same comic levers as that one did – and once again has big names in the cast.
The trick, of course, is to have a script that allows some to be video-recorded as cameos: Stephen Fry, for example, is heard as narrator, but never seen.
The story is of a little theatre company in “Matchborough” and how it tries to salvage itself from disaster in 2020-2021 by inventing a community production of “Wizard” – we all know it’s meant to be The Wizard of Oz, but of course for rights purposes no one can actually say that.
So it’s set against the background of the pandemic and events that were so immediate a year or so ago but already seem to be receding into the mists of time (who was that Hancock chap they reference near the start?), and even some of the moving-out-of-lockdown authenticity already feels dated, though I’m glad they kept in the line where two characters who run a newsagents shop have a moan about the “shitty customers who refuse to wear face masks” – quite right; it doesn’t hurt anyone to wear one.
First we see the theatre management committee holding their chaotic first meeting on Zoom (been there, done that). They bring in Vic (Shobna Gulati), estranged wife of director Frank (Matthew Kelly) as writer – “she was pre-long-listed for the Bruntwood” – while Maggie (Penny Ryder) manages to muddle most things up but volunteers her own dog as Toto (and thereby hangs a tail). Young and bossy marketing girl Rae (Sarah Hadland) thinks she can take everything over with her “pandemic planning matrix” and a “fully encompassed skills toolkit”.
There are hilarious audition scenes (including one by Yasmeen Khan) as they try to assemble a cast, and then they strike gold with beautiful, talented Gail (Emma McDonald, from the Watermill stable) as Dorothy – and dross with the over-sized ego of Billie (Nicole Evans) who’s a walking theatrical nightmare.
As with Earnest, the best aspect of all this is that we see actors imitating characters they know only too well from experience (frustrated writer, weary director, selfish prima donna, young innocent, old stalwart): among those the portrayal of Frank, by Urmston’s own Matthew Kelly, is outstanding and alone worth the price of viewing.
It gets a bit sentimental at the end, with a plea for struggling companies in danger of closure; but productions like this are a sign that in reality there is too much life in our theatre for their art to die.
Age guidance: 16+