Canteen serves up a feast of fun

Dinnerladies - Second Helpings

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

TAKING a successful TV series, happy and contented in its box in the corner, and giving it the free run of the wide world of the theatre has always been fraught with danger.

With  the original cast, or at least most of them, as a sort of  sitcom world tour – Hello Birmingham!! and all that - there is the appeal of seeing the stars in the flesh – that ‘he's not as tall as he is on telly' moment.

Often seeing the characters before your very eyes and comparing their height, girth, legs and other attributes to  how they appear on TV, along with a liberal scattering of catchphrases and familiar scenes  and props is enough to get by.

Once the cast is more ‘Who he?' and “Who she?' though, familiarity, or more accurately, lack of it does tend to breed contempt and the whole thing is in danger of becoming a tribute act.

So all credit to the cast of Dinnerladies for managing to avoid the Stars in Their Eyes karaoke end of the market.

Only the excellent Andrew Dunn as Tony the canteen manager and Sue Devaney, who appeared briefly as her TV character Jane, came from the TV series and Jane soon vanished with Devaney changing to the role of Petula, Bren's hard drinking, hard living, hard exaggerating mother who was played by Julie Walters in the BBC series – a role Devany managed with aplomb – no doubt remembering some tips from dear old Larry in the distant past.

The rest you took at face value and to their credit they managed the mannerisms and accents of the characters they played without making it look like you have wandered into a lost episode of Dead Ringers.

Laura Sheppard as Bren and Andrew Dunn as Tony keeping the kitchen running smoothly

Laura Sheppard, for example, was Bren. Not Laura Sheppard playing Victoria Wood playing Bren – she was Bren so much so you stopped thinking how much like Wood she was and just accepted it was Bren working in the canteen of some Northern factory in the suburbs of Manchester somewhere near Mobberly . . . and its low crime rate.

The same went for  Barrie Palmers as handyman Stan, and the canteen staff Gay Almbert as Dolly, Margaret Preece as Jean, Emily Houghton as Twink, Krupa Pattani as Anita and Rebecca Wingaye as HR's Philippa.

You were watching a play called Dinnerladies and not a bunch of people doing impressions of people who did some sitcom called Dinnerladies on TV.

The series had its own developing storyline and that is condensed into eight scenes of the play, with all eight set in the canteen. We see the growing relationship between Tony and Bren with Tony wanting a new life with a B&B in Scotland, Bren's mum on her last, wobbly legs and, perhaps prophetic, the impending closure of the canteen as a cost saving measure.

The original TV series survived not on belly laughs or elaborate stunts but on a witty script and the sort of trivia we all know so well that binds the lives, at least while getting paid, of people who work together. The endless wittering about what was on TV, who was in what film or coming in halfway through conversations with the wrong end of the stick – how else would you confuse cervixes and motorway  service stations.

There are the insights that only come from real life, like Twink's proof of the power of education in her knowing that you don't get your tongue pierced because it hurts when you say sausages.

Or Stan's view that novelty condoms are not up to the job – and he should know . . . his dad was a desert rat.

There is a matter of factness about the basics as well when Jean reveals that the earth did not move in her sex life with her ex Keith adding that even the headboard didn't move.

The gentle humour and slowly drifting story has translated to the stage well and the cast have turned it into an enjoyable, stand alone evening so much so that even anyone who had never seen an episode or even heard of Dinner Ladies would not come away baffled or disappointed - just contented after a good comedy and an evening at the theatre.

Roger Clarke

And for dessert . . .

***

THEY'RE back, with another healthy diet of humour and pathos from the dinner ladies who proved such a major hit with the armchair viewers during the BBC TV sitcom's successful run.

The latest stage version is delivered as a second helping by a slick cast, some of whom appeared in the previous UK tour, and the story, or stories, are just the quality you would expect from Victoria Wood.

Laura Sheppard, playing Bren, top lady in the fictional components works canteen, looks and sounds like Victoria and even has the same mannerisms, while Andrew Dunn, again brings his special quality to the part of Tony, the man in charge.

Dunn starred in the same role during the TV series, and he is clearly at home coping with the remarkable mixture characters and their problems.

Also from the telly show, Sue Devaney is a hoot as sex mad, flatulence troubled Petula, though it strains the imagination to believe she is Bren's mum.

In the female dominated tale, Barrie Palmer - a face as cheerful as the economy - excels as caretaker Stan, and there are sound performances from Emily Houghton (Twink) and Krupa Pattani (Anita).

Directed by David Graham, Dinner Ladies continues to serve up the laughter until Saturday night 02-03-11.

Paul Marston 

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