Though there has been an increasing amount of online drama content about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on daily life, one aspect which has been relatively neglected is what it has all meant for theatre itself. That is the focus of the latest production from the Lawrence Batley Theatre in this instance co-producing with Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes and The Watermill Theatre and is supported by a further eleven partner theatres nationwide. The LBT and its Artistic Director/writer Henry Filloux-Bennett turned out some of the very best lockdown theatre (What A Carve Up, The Understudy, Toast, The Picture Of Dorian Gray) and so expectations for Going The Distance, written in collaboration with Yasmeen Khan, were inevitably going to be high.
Given the ground breaking innovation which went into earlier productions, this latest is a much simpler affair which concentrates on its main message about how we need theatre to enrich our lives. Structured as a faux documentary, narrated by a silkily toned Stephen Fry, it concerns the tribulations of the Matchborough Community Theatre to mount a show once venues are allowed to reopen post lockdown. They opt for The Wizard Of Oz but not the film version as that would cost too much for the rights. Instead, local writer Vic (Shobna Gulati) devises her own adaptation. It is to be directed by her ex-husband Frank, though she has never forgiven him for what she sees as a betrayal (conflict alert!); he is played by Matthew Kelly as one of those “try to please everyone and end up pleasing nobody” types. The group has plenty of ambition but little money and even that disappears when local “name” the pretentious Billie (Nicole Evans) is hired to boost ticket sales; she then blows the budget on just one costume.
This is a theatre run by a motley but dedicated collection of enthusiasts – of course it is. The show is, after all, an ensemble comedy in that very British up against the odds tradition of Dad’s Army or The Vicar Of Dibley; the humour is also much in the same vein. Sarah Hadland has fun as Rae, a born organiser (as least she thinks she is) who covers her inabilities by spouting jargon and being ultra-controlling. There are some tenderly played moments from Penny Ryder as lifelong community theatre supporter Maggie who forms a friendship with the much younger Gail (Emma McDonald) counterpointing their onstage opposition as the Witch and Dorothy respectively. And indeed, as it progresses the show starts to adopt a melancholic tone, turning into a rather darker form of play as the personal outcomes of the pandemic are made manifest. There’s also a heartfelt monologue delivered by Ryder about the place that local theatre has in the modern world and how, despite setbacks and tribulations it still manages to survive. These are sobering moments which perhaps don’t altogether sit easily with the earlier tone but at least they help to avoid the trap of the characters becoming mere ciphers in a two dimensional comedy. And, if you think you know where the play is going to be heading for its denouement, then probably best to think again.
Going The Distance, as directed by Felicity Montagu, manages to be both surprising and fairly obvious in its trajectory but the script contains some great moments along the way and some neat referencing. All the characters names are connected to the original book or film version of the Wizard Oz so you can have some fun spotting those; even the dog playing Toto is called Terry which was the real name of the terrier in the movie. As somebody involved in community theatre myself I could appreciate and enjoy the situations based around read throughs, rehearsals and some of the backstage dramas but I’m not sure that the world in general will find the piece quite so entertaining. If it lacks the invention of some of the other recent LBT offerings it makes up for this by being warm and engaging and, hopefully, some sort of beacon for beleaguered theatre companies up and down the land.
Production photos by Dennis Madden and James Rees
Going The Distance is available via its own website – click here
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