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Print Version

A new play by Jonathan Harvey
Directed by Fiona Buffini

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 9 Apr 2013 to 13 Apr 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 10 Apr 2013

Although the first episode of Coronation Street was broadcast in the UK in December 1960, six months after televisions first flickered in NZ homes, Manchurian Tony Warren's culturally specific and unexpectedly popular Granada TV series didn't migrate to these climes until 1964.

For about a decade it was broadcast in black and white on our only television channel, so it was part of our cultural fabric and neighbourly conversations; it permeated the national psyche even if, like, me, you were not that inspired by it.  

Given I was only aware of its first four years before moving to Australia, where it was off my radar because it was screened as a daytime serial, and I've only had half an eye on it over the past two decades (well ok, my partner records it and sometimes I watch), I am astonished at the strength of my recall of its characters and storylines.  

Apparently this show was only supposed to play the UK as a 50th birthday celebration and touring it to the antipodes was at the instigation of an Australian-based son of English immigrants to New Zealand.

Writer Jonathan Harvey has done an astonishing job of compressing selected plotlines from 50 years into a two hour show (plus interval), and capturing the essence of each character's voice in cleverly crafted sketches.

Director Fiona Buffini keeps the action flowing at a well-wrought pace on Liz Ascroft's composite set of brick walls, chimneys staircases and doors that accommodate indoor and outdoor action, with a lighting design by Ian Scott and a sound design by Gareth Owen which together provide some brilliant effects. 

Most importantly, six actors evoke 54 characters in a wonderful array of wigs (Barbara Taylor) and costumes (Selina Nightingale), with varying results. Each hits the mark remarkably with certain characters; all bring focus, energy, humour and good timing to the sketches.

What a shame, then, that all the star-status hoopla has focused on William Roach, who trots out the laziest performance I have ever seen on a professional stage. It may not have been his idea to narrate from a large red folder but surely he could have learned his lines as the St Peter-like character who – in a cute book-ending device – welcomes Blanche to the ‘pearly gates' (characterised as the gates to Weatherfield's Newton & Ridley Brewery). His lacklustre reading from the script sucks the energy from any scene he joins and is an offence to the others; especially Mark Sangster's Blanche. She'd have had a thing or two to say about that, would Blanche.

Dare I say James Lailey plays Ken Barlow better than Roache ever has? His Richard Hillman is excellent too, and Jack Duckworth rings true but his Minnie Caldwell is way off the mark. It's a good visual gag to have Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst (Daniel Crowder) in drag and taller than Ena Sharlpes (Jo Mousley) when the opposite was true of the originals, but – given all the actors use radio mics – the masculine voices with no attempt to capture the timidity of Ena's acolytes robs that recurring trio of its essence.  

While her Ena Sharples is not as stolid as I recall, Mousley's Hilda Ogden and Deirdre are triumphs of impersonation. And Crowder is especially good as Mike Baldwin.

Claire Wyatt is an instantly recognisable Elsie Tanner, her Vera Duckworth pairs well with Lailey's Jack, but the audience's hearts almost audibly go out to her Hayley and Sangster's Roy Cropper.

The most consistently good impersonator is Lucy Thackery who, without necessarily having the physical attributes, follows her splendidly voiced Gail Potter with highly creditable evocations of Rita, Raquel, Tracy Barlow and Becky.

COROnation Street On Stage concentrates on the tawdry soap-opera relationships and sends them up beautifully. I recall attending a TV symposium somewhere where Coro's first woman producer spoke of the responsibility such serials had to address social issues; a principle they have sustained. Obviously, for a birthday celebration show, it would have trivialised such themes to attempt to include them.

I also note that only the Anglo-Saxon characters have been recreated and although one or two of the ‘immigrant culture' characters are mention briefly, if you listen very carefully, none are represented in any of the photos in the otherwise comprehensive programme.  

Overall there are many memorable moments offering nostalgia for aficionados and entertainment for those who like ingenious staging – e.g. the simple use of a tea-trolley, the way a tram is brought on to despatch a character, and the way a car is seen to plunge into the canal and go underwater. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Adey Ramsel
 Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);