Chosing a gritty, hard-hitting drama like Richard Cameron’sThe Flannelettes to mark 45 years in the business says a lot about Islington’s King’s Head Theatre.
Since its inception, under the late Dan Crawford, the venue has nurtured emerging talent and seen some of the country’s top actors forsake the West End to appear in productions on the bijou stage, in front of 100 people, at the back of the pub.
There have been changes, with in-house production companies coming and going, but the remit remains the same.
Former comprehensive school teacher Cameron is a prime example. Now a full-time playwright, his latest, The Flannelettes is a visceral, hard-hitting story about domestic abuse and the dark side of poverty.
Not for you? Think again. This is a story of empowerment, resignation and resilience. Of women battered by their partners, those that fight back, and a damaged young women who gets through life by singing Motown.
And then there’s George, the local pawnbroker, who every now and then, puts on a Crimplene frock and bad beehive to be part of a tribute act.
The Flannelettes is set in a former pit village. Times are tough. The place is dead on its feet with a once bustling community surviving on thieving and handouts. Its shops are boarded up. Even the local sex shop is having a closing down sale.
The only thriving business is Ashmount, a woman’s refuge run by Brenda (Suzan Sylvester), where we meet life’s most vulnerable.
Delie, 22 going on 12, is a bit special. Brenda’s niece spends her holidays at the refuge to give her mum a break. She picks up litter and makes friends with the residents while harbouring a horrific secret of her own.
George is a regular visitor. There seems no reason for his honourary woman status, as men aren’t usually allowed anywhere near a refuge, until Brenda lets slip that his father used to batter his mum.
Former teacher Jean and teen Roma are both beaten and left for dead by their partners but the response to their injuries is poles apart.
There are moments that are truly shocking, particularly when we learn how Roma came to be at the refuge and the awful experiences revealed by Delie.
The women are supported by Brenda and, superficially, by hobby bobby (sorry, police domestic abuse liaison officer) Jim (James Hornsby), a character treated with a certain amount of contempt by his creator.
Throughout we hear snippets of The Flannelettes – Brenda, George and Delie – rehearsing their act and they’re inspirational.
Jean struggles to rebuild her life, Roma determined to return to her thug of a boyfriend, and Delie lives for her music.
Their appalling stories will disgust, revile and enrage, but the engrossing performances teased from the cast by director Mike Bradwell makes this a superb, compelling drama.
Emma Hook’s Delie is an absolute treasure. She gives a powerful turn as the emotionally and mentally damaged lass who lives to perform her collection of Motown classics.
Hook’s powerful vocals are a delight (I’ve probably said this before, when I last saw her at the King’s Head, but she’s a natural for Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad).
And she capture’s Delie’s combination of innocence, naivety and vulnerability with a heartfelt performance.
Stage and screen actor Geoff Leesley plays George as a typical bluff Yorkshireman who offers emotional support to the women while working through his own demons.
Celia Robertson’s quiet, intelligent Jean gives us a victim many of us could identify with while Holly Campbell’s Roma is perhaps the one we would expect to know.
The Flannelettes is thought-provoking and provocative with its dark themes lifted by typical northern steeliness and resolve. The music is pretty impressive too.
Running at The King’s Head until June 6.
Tough and uncompromising. The King’s Head Theatre marks 45 years in the business with Richard Cameron’s bittersweet drama, The Flannelettes.