The golden age of TV sitcoms has long passed so all credit for stage and screen star Nichola McAuliffe for attempting to breath life in the genre with her latest stage comedy, The Silver Gym.
But the jokes and storyline of this piece are as knackered as the clapped out old building at the heart of this weakly constructed comedy which opened last night at Queens Theatre, Hornchurch.
McAuliffe plays former army redcap, Stella Silver, who has sunk her life’s savings into an old hall which, the council says, must remain in community use and viable.
It’s a last chance saloon for Stella, and the regulars who have their own problems, but the gym faces a colossal and unexpected repair bill after thieves steel the roof’s lead flashing. There seems no hope until the members launch a campaign to save the gym and, in the bargain, restore some self-respect.
I’m all for seeing more women taking major roles in theatre but wheeling out racial and sexual stereotypes for cheap laughs isn’t the way forward. Assieh (Susan Aderin) is a Muslim member who turns up in a burqa and nijab.
Some of the lines directed at her ethnicity made me think that Muslim has become the new black. They bordered on the offensive and were decidedly unfunny.
There’s also a retired Jewish pole dancer (Kim Ismay); an overweight and lonely Liverpudlian taxi driver (a wise-cracking Pauline Daniels) and a sassy, redundant, council worker, Vi, played by Suzanna Bygrave.
The odd one out in this working class bunch of misfits is Carol Sloman’s upper class Casey, who claims that she wants to get fit to give her husband a son even though, at 59, she is clearly past it.
The most enjoyable part of McAuliffe’s production is the performance by the leading lady. There are a few snide comments from her gym class about her age but, at 60 (in real life) she is astonishingly flexible and demonstrates by doing the splits and a series of contortions that a woman half her age would struggle with.
Stella is also a superbly written character. She marches into the gym as though it’s a parade ground and delivers a confident, intimidating and thoroughly believable turn as a former soldier. She has the bluff manner of a regimental sergeant major who’d terrify any gym class into shape.
Peter Straker is the sole male in the cast and he gives a heartfelt turn as the flirtatious fruit stall holder, Franklyn, but I couldn’t help feeling that his talents are being wasted in this lightweight role.
The finale is a forgone conclusion but cleverly staged when the ladies go day-glo to give a fitness demonstration in a theatre (yes, the Queen’s, Hornchurch) with Straker in the stalls, singing Dem Bones.
The Silver Gym looks and feels like an over-long episode of a limp 1980’s TV sitcom. It has the odd funny line, and there’s a bit of female empowerment speak from Stella, but it’s contrived, unoriginal, under-rehearsed and formulaic.
The Silver Gym is as knackered as its members but playwright and lead, Nichola McAuliffe delivers a well honed turn as ex-army redcap Stella Silver.