Only twelve months have passed in real time since we last gathered ourselves around the bar and tucked into every available space of the Lass O' Gowrie to sample a taste of life down our favourite cobbled street. In Weatherfield however, the passing of nine years sees us transported to the Queens Silver Jubilee year of 1977 - a time where punk is squaring up to disco and far more colourful clashes take place with regularity behind the curtains of the Rovers Return and the adjacent terraced dwellings. Under the skilful guidance of casting director June West once more a collection of the most ideal performers imaginable bring to life the characters of this most classic of eras on 'the Street' and the direction of Colin Connor and David MacCreedy ensures that it maintains it's quality edge throughout.
The small handpicked team of scriptwriters that had been gathered together by the time these shows were being aired were the cream of their generation and brought a level of humour into the larger than life characters that would have put many sitcoms before or since to shame but never lost sight of the humanity within them and always balanced it perfectly with the dark and more challenging moments that life would throw their way. We drift from one end of the pub space to the other and back again in gentle pursuit of the characters as the action switches between the interlocking storylines faithful to the style of the TV script. At the gloriously warm and hilarious heart of the production is a storyline featuring Rovers landlady Annie Walker - a lady diminutive in stature but lofty in self opinion. Here we discover her basking in sheer elation following the delivery by lovable rogue Eddie Yates (Ian Curley) of what she believes to be the epitome of social standing - her very own monogrammed carpet!
As she stands next to the gold emblazoned legend “AW" Christine Barton - Brown perfectly captures Annie's haughty inability to see beyond her superiority complex to the amazed and amused expressions of her pub staff who unknown to her are aware that her pride and joy is nothing more than an 'off cut' from the local bingo hall - the Alhambra Weatherfield and sadly for Annie humiliation looms at her forthcoming sherry morning for the Lady Victuallers. Enjoying every moment as the time draws near are a brilliantly observed Hilda Ogden (Joan Kempson) who as the butt of so many of Annie's barbed comments over the years relishes her embarrassment along with fiery blonde barmaid Bet Lynch (Kimberly Hart-Simpson) dressed to kill in figure hugging Tiger print dress and spitting out sparkling one liners.
Betty Turpin is also gloriously reborn in the form of Denice Hope whose gestures and sympathetic reactions to Annie's sarcastic ways are completely on the mark. Every cast member is a vital component in the way the production works and with a seamless shift we find ourselves eavesdropping on what to the uninitiated seems to be a trivial dispute between Elsie Tanner and Rita Fairclough over a pair of laddered tights but is far more significant than that with Rita's husband Len a very important part of Elsie's past.
There is an electric charge in the air as Rita (Amy Searles) and Elsie (Jeni Howarth - Williams) refuse to give an inch to each other until Len (Jimmy Allen) attempts to bring a little calm to the situation but his actions only serve to leave his wife coming away second best in this exchange giving Elsie a moral but perhaps ultimately superficial victory. Jeni Howarth - Williams, reprising the role that she played in the previous production of the '1968' episodes again captures the glamour and the charismatic essence of Elsie whilst applying subtle layers to the character allowing glimpses of the private fragility lying beneath the confident public persona. Yes, Elsie can still stand toe to toe and face down any challenger to her crown but her spirit is a little wearier now and as she turns away in silent contemplation - her battle won - Jeni's expression of someone overcome with a sense of weary isolation is perfection and as powerful as any words could ever hope to be.
As classic television these stories have gone down in history and deservedly so but we have to be grateful that there are people with the vision to stage them in such a way as this, giving us a chance to rub shoulders (quite literally) with the artists that have brought them back to life in such a faithful and loving way.
Quite simply great theatre. www.thelass.co.uk
Review/photos by Shay Rowan