views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Flannelettes
The King's Head Theatre
19th May 2015


Geoff Leesley, Celia Robertson, Emma Hook, Suzan Sylvester as George, Jean, Delie and Brenda

Photography © Francis Loney

The first time we see Yorkshire group The Flannelettes in action, we're unimpressed. A young overweight girl with a fairly average voice and two middle-aged, even less talented, back-up singers swaying in poorly-fitting swing dresses and obvious wigs - let's face it, they're never going to snapped up by SyCo.

But far from The X Factor, the singers rehearse in a women's refuge and their lead vocalist Delie (Emma Hook) relies on their performances as a form of escapism. It's never made clear whether Delie has been formally diagnosed with learning difficulties, but she's clearly behind her peers, at least in terms of emotional IQ. Both her auntie Brenda (Suzan Sylvester) and pseudo-uncle George (Geoff Leesley) try to plug the gap with their parental affection, but Delie lacks friends from her own age group, and other than litter-picking, The Flannelettes are all she's got. When you realise the talent is utterly unimportant, it's what performing represents for Delie, you could listen to her enthusiastic singing forever and the meaning behind her favourite soul music starts to transcend its vocal quality.

In the first half, both director Mike Bradwell and writer Richard Cameron try too hard to vary the tone with the constant flitting between the straight-talking Northern humour and physical violence against women neither making us chuckle that hard nor really moving us. Stuff happens, we watch it - we just don't connect.

The second half, though, is so much stronger. Perhaps it's because it's then we begin to truly understand that the abuse suffered by Jean (Celia Robertson) and Roma (Holly Campbell) isn't just physical and it's their mental torment which actually shocks us more than their bruises. After all, a black eye is hard to keep behind closed doors, but isolating these women, manipulating their bonds with third parties - it's the sort of abuse which is equally if not more horrific, but always harder to identify. Or maybe it's seeing sweet Delie tainted by this dark, grubby world in which her social worker aunt lives. Delie may be in her early 20s, but her mental age is far younger and seeing her targeted when it's clear she doesn't have the mental capacity to follow what's happening is heartwrenching. Hook's role evolves from a pure comedic prop to a talented actress delivering a devastating performance.

It comes as a surprise when you catch yourself wanting to punch police officer Jim (James Hornsby) in the face for not doing more to protect his community. I mean, you do really want to give him a good slap. Probably not the best reaction to a play about domestic abuse - violence is never the answer - still it's at least an honest one. The Flannelettes is very much a slow burner which, after a less-than-powerful start, makes you unwittingly emotionally tangled with the story. Despite it taking a while for the protagonists to grow on you, by the end of the show you're fiercely protective of the women and their would-be saviours.

Most of the action takes place in the refuge itself and in and around a local miners' club. Designer Mila Sanders gives the stage a generically run down, grimy feel, with plenty of chipboard turning black at the edges and a bricked up window. None of the scenes are set anywhere particularly affluent - this is the England that never really recovered from the pits closing down. Whilst the play is about isolation and abuse rather than politics, when Leesley reappears in a black tee bearing the slogan "STILL HATE THATCHER", you're left in no doubt as to in which part of the world the action has been set. As effective as this is, given the size of the King's Head and the number of scene changes, it's hard to delineate between the inside of a run down building and the open space outside which gets a little confusing.

Despite its fun music and flamboyant costumes, The Flannelettes is a bloody bleak production. Although it doesn't completely leave us without hope, it forces us to examine the worst of human nature. It truly is grim up north - take a friend to see this one, it is definitely worth seeing, but you'll need a hug afterwards.

The Flannelettes opened on 13th May and runs until 6th June 2015 at the King's Head Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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