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Theatre review: Everybody Loves a Winner/Manchester Royal Exchange

Manchester International Festival production scores a full house, says Joan Davies

Published on July 8th 2009.

Theatre review: Everybody Loves a Winner/Manchester Royal Exchange

NEIL Bartlett’s “Everybody Loves a Winner” debuts at the Royal Exchange as part of Manchester International Festival (MIF) with great expectations.

Peep up from your bingo card at some point and there’s something else to watch, something different from everyone. Even the stillness is worth watching.

The Royal Exchange stage becomes the Rex Bingo Hall, not just a stage version but a real bingo hall where we play a real cash-prize game while watching a play: a play about playing bingo.

Manager Linda Chappell is brought to life by the excellent Sally Lindsay with that mixture of worldly-wise efficiency and vulnerability which endeared her to Coronation Street audiences. She gets people on her side from the first words, delivered with her usual impeccable comic timing.

Caller Frank gives weary hints of might-have-beens, and displays awareness that he’s a performer while exhibiting philosophical curiosity about his customers’ motivations. There are hints of Archie Rice here; a captivating performance from Ian Puleston-Davies.

Emily Alexander, Warren Sollars and Amanda Henderson are good, too, as the ‘youngsters’ who complete the staff as cleaners, cooks, waitresses, number checkers and, surprisingly, singers. Amanda Henderson, who heard her degree results while rehearsing this show, gives a stunning debut performance: totally believable with terrific stage presence.

The staff all moan for a bit and then open the doors. You’d moan too if you had to work in that Bingo Hall with that carpet and had to meet Frank’s ‘ladies’, the regular customers, every day.

The ladies are prompt, have their own seats, and each has their own reason for being there. The cast is cleverly put together. You’ll recognise a good few. Among them are Patti Claire, an actress who’s so good she recently convinced the Corrie audience that she was in love with Norris; Judith Barker who’s brought her versatility to northern stages for years; the excellent Joan Kempson, who can enthral and suspend your disbelief in the close confines of a Studio production, and Sally Bankes, who made her theatrical debut 30 years ago at the Royal Exchange with Manchester Youth Theatre and has come back to give a frighteningly good performance as the foul-mouthed and foul-gestured Maureen.

The play looks at the elements of hope, belief, and brief moments of sadness that feature in the lives of the staff and customers. At times it’s reminiscent of the early Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale plays that were a strong feature of the Contact Theatre’s 70s period. So is this just another 70s revival? Well no. What makes the key difference is audience involvement, the real bingo game and the essential practice before-hand. I never thought that I’d be able to say that I’d really enjoyed a game of bingo, still less a practice game, but on this occasion it’s great fun and the audience, well most of them, almost all in fact, joins in with enthusiasm. But it is a theatrical experience - theatre isn’t sacrificed to the game.

MIF’s strong on audience involvement. Johnny Vegas was big on it as he tried selling his house in an innovative

production two years ago, and in this year’s festival production ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’ you’re actually in the story. In a way you are here, though it’s less scary than Kiss, except maybe for Maureen.

One issue is that with such a big cast and with time spent playing bingo, however theatrically, there isn’t a great deal of time to explore individual characters in detail. That’s why the cast has to be so good. The ‘ladies’ - who include two supporting act men – have so few lines each that the actors’ ability to portray the character is vital to prevent their becoming caricatures. In this they succeed. Peep up from your bingo card at some point and there’s something else to watch, something different from everyone. Even the stillness is worth watching. They’re on stage for most of the play, sitting in the same seat, and that’s a tall order for a role in this theatre-in-the-round.

The ensemble work is superb. The play represents and illuminates the hope and belief of the customers through Christian-inspired singing and chanting, composed and directed by Simon Deacon. Movement Director Struan Leslie adds life wherever possible. The set, from designer Miriam Buether, is beautifully seedy, and Chris Davey’s lighting works superbly in drawing our attention from stage action to bingo card and back again. The accents are tremendously good, clearly Mancunian. Neil Bartlett’s dialogue - he wrote and directed - is sharp, and also very Mancunian.

It’s the most interactive theatre I’ve seen and a hugely enjoyable and impressive evening. However for all the interactivity the audience member is very much an observer of the scene. Playing the game gives you an inkling of the hope, the expectation, the disappointment, but it does not make you a player.

There is a clear separation between the audience and the bingo player, which is repeatedly stressed. Does this work in Manchester where, as a quick Google will show, there’s even a bingo hall in Didsbury and where many of the audience members will have joined their mothers or aunties for a quick game at some point. Actually when Maureen got going I was quite glad of the separation but at times I did want a little less ‘us and them’.

*Everybody Loves a Winner - a major new production for the 2009 Manchester International Festival is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 1 August.

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mufc ruleJuly 8th 2009.

Another truimph for Manchester proving, yet again, it has eclipsed Liverpool and is targeting London as the most culturally vital city in the UK.

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