Review: Spring and Port wine at The Octagon Theatre is “warm hearted, with dark comedy and high drama”

The Octagon Theatre is riding on the crest of a wave at the moment.

Following a successful first half of their season, their musical adaptation of The Book Thief was not only loved by critics and audiences in Bolton, it is now headed to Coventry and Leicester.

Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine almost feels like a thank you for local audiences who have supported this reliable theatre through thick and thin and the rollercoaster ride of the last few years.

This warm hearted and perceptive family drama is set in Bolton in the 1960s and change is coming, just don’t tell dad (played with a real sense of order by the brilliant Les Dennis)  – the head of the Compton household.

His wife Daisy (Mina Anwar) spends her days fretting, trying to balance the books and faking it until she tries to make it, loaning a few bob here and borrowing a few bob more there. She also tries to keep all of the drama within the house, as the net curtains in her road always have someone behind them, desperate for a bit of gossip. Her time is filled with trying to protect her three adult children who are not all happy about Dad’s rules, whilst keeping the peace with the stubborn old ox.

Les Dennis captures Dad’s way of the world, this house is his kingdom.

What he says goes and he has a monologue ready to fire back at his kids – complete with rhetorical questions, which leave his clan with nowhere to go until…. he leaves the room, that is. Then they conspire and complain. Florence (Monica Sagar) is loyal and sticks up for him and appreciates that he is doing what’s best for them all but she is met with resistance, particularly from Hilda (Natalie Blair) who has the same personality traits as her dad.

Wilfred (Gabriel Clark) is an agreeable lad but even he is beginning to buckle under the pressure of living up to his father’s high standards, hiding his copy of the News of the World, every time he hears him enter the room. Harold (Charlie Ryan) is the older rebel, who has the humour to wow the younger members of the family and get them to join him in his quest to fight back against his pa.

And Florence’s boyfriend Arthur (Adam Fenton) witnesses all of this and dares to speak out against Rafe’s old fashioned ways, which he rightfully sees as destructive. Meanwhile nosy neighbour Betsy-Jayne (Isabel Ford) is always trying to cadge cash from here, there and everywhere which starts off a chain of events.

Bill Naughton has essentially written a kitchen sink drama which has farcical elements, dark comedy and high drama. It is one of those plays that seeks resolution following one key moment, so that the audience go home happy and some may find the conclusions too neat and pat. But Lottie Wakeham’s production celebrates that feeling of ‘wait until your father comes home’ with genuine hilarity and warmth.

There are many reasons to like this lively and finely tuned production. One of them is the performances. Every member of the cast is in synch with the other and you totally buy that this is a family. Their mannerisms and child-like reactions will remind many in the audience of their own households, as some of the situations that take place are still familiar.

Les Dennis and Mina Anwar have beautiful chemistry, and they give off a sense of a life lived to the best of their abilities. Natalie Blair makes her professional stage debut and you would not know it, she is completely at home and in control as Hilda, the herring dodger.

Gabriel Clark is also great as Wilfred, who has a naïve way about him but a strong sense of loyalty to his siblings and his parents, not wanting to rock the boat. Charlie Ryan does what he did at the recent Oldham Coliseum panto Robin Hood, he conveys excellent comic timing and knows how to land humour, right at his co-stars feet for them to pick up and run with it.

Monica Sagar is also making her stage debut and again, is completely natural as the only one with complete loyalty towards her dad. Adam Fenton’s Arthur conveys change incredibly well, the tide is turning and they embrace that, standing up for themselves and others.

Isabel Ford is Betsy-Jayne – the neighbour from hell, complete with Hilda Ogden style garb and she embraces the farcical elements and works in synchronisation with Mina Anwar and they make a great double act, and the laughs come thick and fast.

Katie Scott’s set and costumes are filled with eye catching and intricate detail and a sense of familiarity to those who have lived this life. I loved the furry tortoise foot stall/pouffe, as my nan had one and it took me right back to her house and the memories that came with it.

Spring and Port Wine has some situations which many in the audience will find outdated as some of the behaviour is controlling and does not sit well with how far we have moved on, in terms of gender roles.

But it is far from a museum piece, it celebrates the fact that whatever our differences may be, we can seek resolutions by listening to each other, instead of simply blocking or shouting. And that is a great message for the here and now.

Spring and Port Wine is at the Octagon until 4th March and tickets can be booked here.


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