Wednesday, May 22

The Gap – Hope Mill Theatre

The small (but perfectly formed) Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats has firmly established itself over the last decade as the place to see innovative and exciting musical theatre productions, their ability to produce consistently excellent shows during this time has seen this Mancunian gem showered with deserved praise and awards galore. That success looks set to continue into 2024 for owners William Whelton and Joe Houston, as in something of a theatrical coup they have secured the premiere of a new Jim Cartwright play ‘The Gap’, featuring bravura performances from two very familiar faces from stage and screen.

Matthew Kelly and Denise Welch may be known to a large percentage of the population for their presenting roles on television shows such as ‘Loose Women’ and ‘Stars In Their Eyes’, but to lovers of theatre they are far more revered for the consistently excellent bodies of work they have accumulated over the last five decades treading the boards. They bring all that experience to bear this evening to tell the tale of Corral and Walter, two former ‘beautiful things’ now looking back from old age on their heyday in the London of the ‘swinging sixties’ and their subsequent lives, with a mixture of nostalgia and regret.

Director Anthony Banks has the classic ‘two hander’ to deal with, and ensures all the tropes of that structure are successfully employed, so we see Welch and Kelly initially breaking the ‘fourth wall’ to give the audience a flavour of their later lives before we delve into their backstory utilising a variety of accents, wigs and costumes to bring myriad characters to life. We meet Corral as a young northern girl, desperate to escape the drudgery and boredom of life in a 60’s northern town and to sample the bright lights and glamour of London. She escapes with Walter, her tacitly gay accomplice and together  they begin an odyssey that takes them from Soho bedsit to Mayfair penthouse on a wave of tacky and sticky glamour, all paid for by ‘presents from admirers’ of Corral.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Jim Cartwright has always displayed a real genius for dialogue and the early exchanges between Corral and Walter crackle with a real northern acidity, however as the first act progressed we moved into a more poetic frame with a series of lengthy, alliterative duologues listing the cliched versions of 1960’s Northern England and the permissive society of London during the same period. Whilst this gave both Welch and Kelly the opportunity to treat us to their repertoire of impersonations (featuring everyone from Laurence Olivier to Barbara Windsor), this quickly became overly nostalgic and felt stereotypical, rather than adding to our understanding of the characters story arc.

However, the second half more than redeemed this flaw and was much more emotionally engaging, as it posited the question of what happens to ‘bright young things’ when the spotlight moves on and they become middle aged and then elderly? We see Kelly’s descent as he moves from prostitutes ‘maid’ through a series of dead end jobs before returning home to care for his dying mother. Corral initially fares better, marrying a Maltese gangster and living the life of a pampered moll, before it all goes pear-shaped and she is reduced to working in low quality pornography sex chat lines to eke out a living. Their stories are related with great humour in both performance and writing with Welch utilising a rubber glove and a mop in a particularly memorable sex line chat! Their reconciliation after bitter recrimination forced a break in their friendship is beautifully crafted and ‘The Gap’ which gives the play its title is hilariously revealed at the conclusion.

Although this new play has a firmly nostalgic feel to it, it fits firmly into the impressive canon of Cartwright previous work, elements of ‘Two’, ‘Road’ and ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’ surface in both dialogue and especially the music which engenders a Proustian quality to summon memory for the audience and characters alike. In a similar vein, the set of Andrzej Goulding echoes both the grey drabness of the north they escape and is juxtaposed against the gaudy neon of Soho, fitting perfectly against the backdrop of the theatres mill setting.

Overall, a wistful and engaging memory play which is saved from being pure nostalgia by excellent dialogue and two strong central performances.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 14th February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.