Review: Bingo Star at Liverpool Royal Court ***
There are ‘in house’ productions – and then there’s the Royal Court where the creative team (and wider workforce) don’t just stage shows but write them too.
Producer Kevin Fearon pens the Roe Street theatre’s Christmas comedies, while Stephen Fletcher and Lindzi Germain, two of the Court’s unofficial rep company, have had big hits with Mam! I’m ‘Ere! and The Royal respectively. And Laura Lees was working in the box office when she wrote Masquerade.
This latest production maintains that tradition, with the theatre’s head of marketing Iain Christie channelling a spell in the Royal Court’s Stage Write Playwright Development along with the best part of 20 years’ experience of selling shows into writing his own.
And Bingo Star certainly has all the elements Royal Court audiences have come to expect. It’s an underdog story about family and community standing up and sticking it to ‘the man’, a fable about hopes and dreams and following your heart. All served up with knowing local references, a booming live setlist - and projected well beyond the fourth wall.
So far beyond in this case that the show doesn’t just invite audience response but actively involves its audience in bingo games with real cash prizes to be won at each performance. Dabbers out!
Bingo Star is the name of the faded Liverpool venue run by Alan Stocks’ ageing dreamer Arthur and populated by a rag-tag of family, friends (Helen Carter’s Joan Jett-a-like singer Debbie) and resident psychedelic eccentric Keyboard Keith (Jonathan Markwood enjoying himself in trailing locks and Springsteen bandana).
Above: Keyboard Keith (Jonathan Markwood) and Bella (Paige Fenlon). Top: Alan Stocks as Arthur in Bingo Star. Photos by Jason Roberts Photography.
Arthur has taken out a massive loan he can’t repay to keep the failing family business afloat and sees a potential lifeline in a new donut development promoted by Paul Duckworth’s local lad turned ‘principal regeneration officer’ Tony who has diablo facial hair and designs on Arthur’s perpetually protesting sweet-natured daughter Lesley (Keddy Sutton).
But is Tony really what he seems? And will development really be Bingo Star’s salvation?
There’s plenty of potential in the story, even if at the moment it’s not fully realised in a production that’s more amiable than acerbic.
Part of that could be resolved by injecting a bit more oomph into proceedings, particularly in the first half, with sharper, snappier action helping jokes land with more impact.
Part though I suspect involves popping up the bonnet of the script itself for a tinker underneath, including another look at the initial structuring of the narrative which is interrupted early on by the first of three games of audience bingo before we’ve really got to engage with the characters and their predicament, and also by creating more dramatic distinction between the soft-hearted occupants of the bingo hall (led by Stocks’ bumbling, sad-eyed underdog) and Duckworth’s putative baddie.
Above: Tony (Paul Duckworth) and Debbie (Helen Carter). Photo by Jason Roberts Photography.
Saying that, I like that Christie has sought to give many of his characters three-dimensional back stories.
Meanwhile back on stage Carter is in roaring form as the feisty Debbie, while she and Royal Court newcomer Paige Fenlon (Arthur’s grand-daughter Bella) deliver some great harmonies in a series of belting 80s classics, and there are two surprise ‘guest’ appearances to look out for.
It all takes place on Olivia Du Monceau’s terrific set which appears to be the ragged offspring of a fling between the Royal Court and the old ABC cinema in Lime Street.
A revolve switches between a fur-coat-no-knickers bingo hall, complete with Heath Robinson-style bingo balls machine (with a Henry the Hoover face), and a grand-but-faded foyer with sweeping Art Deco staircase, all set between a pair of doors that echo those in the real auditorium, further blurring the worlds on and off stage.