It’s a quarter of a century now since Kay Mellor’s hard-hitting, thought-provoking drama Band of Gold burst on to unsuspecting TV screens.
The drama, which regularly pulled in 15 million viewers, was ground-breaking in that it put sex workers, along with their worries and their aspirations, at the heart of the story rather than, as Mellor explains in the programme notes for this stage version, making them a peripheral, shadowy one-dimensional figure in someone else’s.
And it was all a far cry from something like the glossy prostitute rom-com world of Pretty Woman, which is referenced here by Gaynor Faye’s tough cookie Rose in a gallows humour aside.
Distilling the essence of two full series of shows in to one evening at the theatre is never going to be easy, but writer/director Mellor delivers a show with plenty of food for thought as well as action – played out in short, almost televisual scenes on Janet Bird’s rather basic, spare sliding doors set.
It’s circa 1990 (hence references to Bananarama and Pretty Woman, and a (Scouse) soundtrack of Black, T’Pau and Marc Almond) and here we are on the ‘lane’ – based on Bradford’s Lumb Lane red light district – where the women work to support themselves and their children, or in Rose’s case a drugs habit, and a rough sort of semi-camaradarie exists where as well as looking out for themselves they also look out for each other.
Kieron Richardson (Steve) and Gaynor Faye (Rose)
Top: Emma Osman (Carol), Laurie Brett (Anita) and Faye
Sex is a business transaction, and these are essentially businesswomen who are battling to control their own lives and destinies.
Along with brash queen of the lane Rose there’s warm-hearted but self-deluded Anita (Laurie Brett) the mistress of bluff cleaning magnate George Ferguson, and young mother Carol (a terrifically tempered performance from Emma Osman) who is obsessed with cleanliness and with protecting her daughter from the world she moves in.
Into that world comes a second young mother, Sacha Parkinson’s Gina, desperate to escape an abusive marriage and simultaneously deep in hock to a vicious loan shark.
When brutal tragedy strikes at the heart of the sex worker community (I’m being vague because Mellor appeals for no spoilers), the plot twists in to a whodunnit with the girls turning detective to unmask the perpetrator of a terrible crime – a crime not just against one woman, but essentially womankind.
Shayne Ward (Inspector Newall) and Laurie Brett
Because Band of Gold is after all about women and specifically these complex, contradictory and many layered women’s stories, and for the most part its rather two-dimensional male characters are an uncomfortable cavalcade of bullies, sleazy manipulators, misogynists or sad sacks.
Only Shayne Ward’s Inspector Newall, who materialises fleetingly in the second half (to ‘woo’s and a ripple of excited applause from the audience) comes out of the story with anything like sympathy.
The swiftly changing scenes mean some issues are introduced but not fully developed, while whodunnit fans have a good chance of pinning the perpetrator before the denouement.
But Mellor’s pacy plotting and her genuine warmth for her female characters reminds you why Band of Gold was a deserved TV hit all those years ago.