Thursday, 2 May 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: Widows' Paradise

Well-performed laughs eclipse the trite plot in a popular play

Slightly anaemic but generally amiable, Alan Haslett's production of Sam Cree's Widows' Paradise is tailor made for the Give My Head Peace crowd – and your mileage may definitely vary there.

Stripped to its bare bones, Widows' Paradise (watch a teaser for the St. Patrick's Drama Group production of the play below) is a feature-length sitcom in a Portrush caravan, laden with pratfalls and visual gags. Not surprising, really, considering that Cree wrote for the Carry On films and George Formby. While its admirably fast pace offers plenty of opportunities for genial and knowing laughter, it prevents us from truly caring about anyone in the play. It's due to the convincing acting on stage, particularly from Chris McIvor and David Haslett, that we feel any real urge to go along with it. And go along with it we do.

To the tune of Cliff Richard’s "Summer Holiday", which bookends both acts one and two, five women – fiery Ruby (McIvor), her timid daughter Sylvia (Jenny Patton), "special case" Lucy (Nonie O'Sullivan), worn down Rachel (Mary Conlan) and pompous Vanessa (Caroline Barker) arrive in "The Port" for an "escape from men" holiday weekend. They've all been badly treated by the men in their lives, so Ruby sees this as remedy. "Men think we women can't do without them - but we will prove them wrong." Is it spoiling much to say that she is proved wrong?

Clichéd feminist banter flies rapidly between this not-so-Fab Five, with a sprinkling of admittedly amusing lines repeatedly inspiring raucous laughter from the Waterside Theatre audience. That would be all very well, if it didn't drown out the dialogue several times, making one suspect and possibly fear that this play will have to live or die on its so far not-very-promising comedy.

Fortunately, the comedy and the situation get better for the audience, if not necessarily the five ladies. Soon, our "heroines" find out they've camped in the wrong caravan, a la Father Ted and Dougal in that famous "holiday" episode of Father Ted. Cue the arrival of three (gasp!) men – fiery Harry (David Haslett), his son Alan (Jason Barr), and "special case" Ernie (Jim Gallagher) – and a forced living arrangement that rather predictably leads to further discomfort, a "battle of the sexes" and each of these guys eventually ending up with their would-be soul mate.

Widows' Paradise is laden with locally oriented, sometimes innuendo ridden laughs, with a little heart (at the end of the second act, thanks to a tender moment between Ruby and Harry). Highlights include a literal "Iron Curtain" between the lads and ladies in the caravan, which inspires Harry to fire off some of his most pointedly inventive insults at the fairer sex, and a priceless scene where Lucy hypnotises Ernie into falling for her, but he remembers nothing about it later.

Barker, wisely retaining her English accent, clearly relishes her role as the faux classy Vanessa. It's hard not to be amused when Vanessa tries charming a couple of potential suitors in the area only to find that one, Ken Canning's Wilfred, is not as rich as he claims to be, and the other, Trevor McGarrigle's Yorkshire-accented John, has twelve kids. The mid-play revelation that Wilfred is in fact Rachel’s ex-husband raises chuckles too.

Yet you're left longing for something more. Sylvia and Alan, and later Vanessa and Wilfred, disappear for long periods; a transparent way to make room for Ruby and Harry's verbal sparring and the Benny Hill-esque antics of Lucy and Ernie. This would be fine if the individuals were well drawn, but they're not. Hence Widows' Paradise works best as an ensemble piece, a group farce.

While the audience seem well into the swing of it all, right on the eve of another swinging event (the four day City Of Derry Jazz Festival), this viewer finds Widows' Paradise a decidedly mixed bag. See it for the performances and remember it for the humour that works, but don't expect anything ground-breaking.