Giles family look great on stage but sadly Grandma was unable to save the day
PUBLISHED: 13:36 01 May 2019 | UPDATED: 13:54 01 May 2019
Review: Grandma Saves The Day: A Musical featuring The Giles Family, by Phil Willmott, New Wolsey Theatre, until May 18
The New Wolsey Theatre is quite rightly renowned for its rock'n'roll pantomimes and its stylish, well produced actor/musician musicals. Over the years it has produced some classics including Once, Mods and Rox, Sugar, Leader of the Pack, Our House and 20th Century Boy.
With artistic director Peter Rowe, the theatre has built up a talented and reliable company who can turn their hands to almost anything mixing first class musicianship with wonderful comic timing and genuine pathos and drama when the situation requires it.
Many of those exceptional actors James Haggie, Adam Langstaff, Ben Goffe and Steve Simmonds are in this current show which has much to commend it. Newcomers Christina Tedders, Grace Lancaster, Lana Walker and Peter Manchester are also very engaging.
Director Peter Rowe realises the Giles family well. The characters are well visualised and are instantly recognisable from the original Giles cartoons and designer Cleo Pettitt does an outstanding job creating a 1980s black and white cartoon world for these characters to inhabit. She has completely absorbed Giles' drawing style and you wouldn't know that the drawings which frame the stage were not created by him.
Peter Rowe gives the show plenty of atmosphere, carefully choosing songs from the time that instantly takes us back to the 1970s and 1980s to the winter of discontent, the strikes and Mrs Thatcher's continuing war with the unions.
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For me this is where the fun stopped. Unlike last year's Our Blue Heaven which was a carefully scripted, lovingly put together memory of a specific moment in time when Ipswich Town won the FA Cup. Grandma Saves The Day feels clumsy and generalised.
The music does set the scene: Simply The Best, Killer Queen, Our House, Addicted To Love, One Way Or Another, Pina Colada and Chas and Dave's Gertcha take us straight to that era but the political satire element simply isn't clever or funny enough. It has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and just jars with the self-contained 1970s cartoon world which has been carefully drawn on stage, and with the homely nature of the Giles world.
Giles was political but his commentary was very focused on how the world at large came into contact with his Giles family. Phil Willmott's script feels more like a crude Spitting Image style satire, particularly when Mrs Thatcher makes an appearance and starts demanding the closure of a local hospital as a bizarre birthday present.
At the beginning of the evening the play feels like an engaging cross between a pantomime and a surreal comedy of manners set in a musical landscape. But, as the action develops the play goes increasingly off-the-rails – or rather the script does – which is a pity because the performances are first rate. Grace Lancaster and Guy Freeman are wonderful as the teenage star-crossed lovers intent on being a real-life Romeo and Juliet and Ben Goffe virtually steals the show as the agile Eric Giles while Christina Tedders makes the most of her role as the knowing young mum Carole Giles who seduces the wonderfully named politician Rupert Farley Rusk, played with a twinkle in his eye by panto favourite James Haggie.
However, it is Grandma who casts the biggest shadow over the stage and is brought to startling life by Steve Simmonds and the sight of her grimacing at the audience, while playing bass, slumped in an armchair is something that will stay with me for a long time.
There is much to enjoy in the show, the performances and the excellent songs but sadly a lot of this good work is destroyed by a script which is simply not good enough. It lacks cohesion. There are too many disparate ideas that have been merely bolted together with no thought about how it will all work as a joined up story.
The other drawback is that much of the humour in the political sections is simply not funny. There's plenty of political posturing but no actual laughs. Giles always had laughs.