I didn’t think much of the last Jonathan Harvey play I saw, Canary. Set-pieces haphazardly stitched together, trowel-loads of heavy handedness and nothing we hadn’t seen before.
With Corrie! we get the same again. The difference here is that it’s exactly what the audience wants: a romp through fifty glorious years of Coronation Street storylines. A chance to see again the most famous scenes unencumbered by the dodgy TV reminiscences of random celebrities and Paul Ross. And all with a knowing script that doesn’t take itself too seriously – like the show itself.
Like the show the play is dominated by strong female characters, from Elsie Tanner to Becky Macdonald and all tram stops in between. It focuses on the ones most commonly in man-trouble: Deirdre Hunt-Langton-Barlow-Rachid-Barlow and Gail Potter-Tilsley-Tilsley-Platt-Hillman-McIntyre. We see the major plot points in their lives, their downs and their further-downs – those characters not greatly blessed with extended periods of happiness – with stories for other characters slotted in alongside.
Almost all the characters you’d expect to see are here, ably impersonated by an impressively tiny and versatile cast. For me, the highlight is Ken Barlow: the actor captures Essence of Roache perfectly, almost uncannily at times. And while we can all trill Hilda Ogden’s Sound of Music when sufficiently lubricated, and might be able to drop a couple of octaves for a few angsty Deirdre classics, I doubt we could do as good a job as the actor playing the actor playing Gail.
The internet leads me to believe that the six main performers in the play portray a total of 54 authentic Corrie characters. That’s some feat. Happily they do so with humour and warmth rather than snark, and those of the actual soap’s actual cast who saw the play during its initial run in Manchester reportedly enjoyed it.
There’s a seventh performer on stage: a narrator, played by a gen-yoo-ine former cast member. It’s a guest role, with different cobble-wanderers lined up for stints as the show tours. For us it was Gaynor Faye, who played Judy Mallet for four years in the nineties. No, I don’t remember her either. Future guests include Ken Morley (Reg Holdsworth) and Roy Barraclough (Alec Gilroy).
There are some odd omissions from the line-up of characters. No Alf; no Norris; no Mavis; no Betty; no Battersbys; no Dev. But I guess the play’s only two hours long; it’s tricky squeezing 7500 episodes into one evening’s entertainment, even if most of the 1960s storylines were about Ena Sharples’ hairnet.
They manage to pack a great deal into the running time. Think of a famous clip, funny or sad, and chances are it’s here or at least referred to. Don’t think they’d be able to pull that one off? Think again!
Some of the set pieces, though, don’t work that well. I understand why Jonathan Harvey would want to break up the ‘straight acting’ with a ballet about Tony Gordon (seriously!) but it’s not, in all honesty, a story I cared for. For me, a funnier alternative would have been an opera about Fred Elliott and Ashley. And I can’t believe I just wrote that.
It’s easy to criticise soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders for their relentless implausibility, their dilation of time and space, their murder rates and their inability to hold a wedding without a simultaneous catastrophe. But, for now at least, they are a core part of British culture – one of few remaining shared experiences, whether you watch or not.
The characters are like members of our (very) extended family. We know their foibles. We roll our eyes at Gail’s doomed attempts at romance, at Ken and Deirdre’s rows. We tut at the latest round of wife-swapping and twitch our televisual curtains at every bout of handbags on the cobbles. We cheer when someone gives birth to a three-month-old baby and mourn when much-loved characters pass on to the next world (Heartbeat).
The play works because we know and love the characters already. We don’t have to spend the first act trying to remember who’s who before deciding whether to empathise with them or not. Even if, like me, you’re not currently a habitual viewer of the soap, it’s impossible to grow up in this country without being at least peripherally aware of the characters in Corrie growing up with you.
I guess this makes Corrie! the play a massively elaborate cultural in-joke. Flamin’ ’eck!
Avaragado’s rating: no eclairs