Early Doors, the stage show of the BBC2 pub sitcom, returns to the Lowry for a limited run, and even the hottest day of the year can’t keep its punters away.
The theatre is packed to the top, and it’s no surprise given the size of the Arena venues the cast has previously been playing to on tour. Back in Salford for its final few dates, The Lyric stage must feel positively intimate in comparison.
This intimacy is felt by the audience too. From the moment landlord, Ken (the wonderfully warm and characterful, John Henshaw) walks on stage, the audience is drawn in like one of his regulars.
Henshaw is one of many of the original cast members from the 2003 and 2004 TV series, including writers Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, as drinking buddies Joe and Duffy. And, just as for Henshaw, there is an eruption of applause whenever a familiar face first appears on stage.
It is clear a large majority of the audience are fans of the TV show, but if you’ve never seen it before (I hadn’t) don’t let it hold you back. Unlike many of the TV to stage sitcom nostalgia fests, knowing the characters beforehand is not a must. Cash and Mealey have created a brand-new, stand-alone story that is easy to follow and quick to warm to. I never realised just how popular it was as a TV show, but the stage show has made me want to search out re-runs on catch-up.
Sit-coms convert well to the stage, as the action is confined to a handful of spaces. Here it all takes place within The Grapes, a Stockport pub, with a double layered set dividing the bar and working area from the living area upstairs where Ken lives with his battle-axe mum, Jean (a funny and fearsome, Judith Barker).
The main story revolves around Ken and his romance with Tanya (another popular original face, Susan Cookson), with sub-plots for each of the regulars weaving in and out. James Quinn and Peter Wight are back too as lazy coppers Phil and Nige, with their catch phrase, ‘Crime doesn’t crack itself!’, supping free whiskey and bemoaning how times have changed now ‘evidence’ is the new buzz word. Yes, the script updated to 2019 – no smoking in pubs now – and the banter includes internet dating, telephone scams, traffic diversions and some improvised lines about the weather and our new prime minister. The humour is very Northern and can be crude in parts, but the overall warmth of the show is what shines through.
The story rolls along in a deceptively gentle fashion with gags moving at such a pace there’s never a lull in the 2 hours 20 minutes. Cash and Mealey know how to win an audience, dropping in rich morsels of popular culture from Take Me Out to Star Wars. They also cleverly throw in some popular panto traditions, building on lines in a round as part of gently escalating banter with Henshaw the butt of the joke; and ending with a big musical number that has everyone uplifted and ready to jump to their feet in an ovation at the end.
Surprisingly, this is the first show Cash and Mealey have written for the stage. After the success of Early Doors I hope they start to love the theatre as much as its audience clearly loves them.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Early Doors is at The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays from 24 July to 3 August 2019.
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