Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

dixie cast

Louise Farmer as Lexie, Kay Munday as Dinah, Kerry Jones as Sheree, Louise Grifferty as Jeri-Neal and, dark cloud hovering above her life, Sam Allen as Vernadette.

The Dixie Swim Club

Grange Players

Grange Playhouse. Walsall


Every so often along comes a script that is a sheer delight, nothing deep or meaningful, no red herrings to confuse or clues to follow, just five, fairly, ordinary women with five fairly ordinary lives . . . well, sort of ordinary, or at least not too extraordinary.

Not that they are dull lives, mind, quite a lot happens along the way, enough to keep a sit com or a soap going for a whole series, but we are not talking Agatha Christie or Tennessee Williams here, this is gentle, closely observed, comedy.

The plot is simple. The five girls who made up the star college all-conquering swimming team are now women, and every year on the same August weekend they rent the same cottage on the Outer Banks on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast.

We join them 22 years after graduation, five 44-year-old college friends. There is Sheree, played with an air of authority by Kerry Jones. She was the swim captain and likes to organise, with lists, planners, timetables and boundless energy. Oh, and she is also into health foods, making organic nutritious hors d’oeuvres, that everyone pretends to like and gets rid of as quickly as possible. She is practical, helpful and reliable and happily married.

Then there is Lexie, played with an air of availability by Louise Farmer who revels in the role of a would-be femme fatale. Lexie is a cougar, which I understand is the modern terminology for an older woman hunting younger men. She collects husbands, sometimes even her own, as well as alimony, with all the enthusiasm a philatelist has for stamps, and, with vain her middle name, is probably responsible for her plastic surgeon driving expensive cars and taking private jets.  She is an event planner for a chain of hotels and one suspects that the main event she hopes to plan is not one of the hotel's advertised services.

Then we have Dinah, the wise cracking, fast talking successful lawyer, partner in the most prestigious and largest law firm in Atlanta, played by Kay Munday. Dinah is unmarried, career coming first, likes to win, and lives on a diet of dry martinis. She has a soft side, apparently, it is just you rarely see it.

So far we have seen women who you might say are at least comfortable with their lot, so welcome Vernadette, played, resignedly, by Sam Allen. Vernadette is a public school teacher married, on and off, off and on to Burl, hardly has two dimes to rub together and drives a pick up any self-respecting hillbilly would shun. She has a son who will wear orange jump suits with DOC on the back for much of his life and a daughter who runs off to join cults – who apparently usually send her home after a short while, tired of her endless moaning.

Vernadette has a nice line in black humour to lift her miserable life, an obsession with the toilet, and a succession of accidents to brighten up everyone else’s life.

Finally, there is Jeri-Neal, played with pious intent by Louise Grifferty, Pious as in Jeri-Neal is a nun . . . or she was until she joined the club – and we don’t mean the Dixie Swimming Club.

There was no star in the east or simmering love affair, just artificial insemination after she decided she wanted to be a mother rather than a nun. Her arrival caused quite a stir among the remaining quartet and the stir became more of a tsunami when Jeri-Neal’s waters broke and five suddenly become six.


Jeri-Neal, Vernadette, in her clown outfit- don't ask - and Lexi

Five years later we are back, Jeri-Neal is looking for a job, Vernadette is on crutches and in a clown costume, Sheree is organising the weekend, Lexie is getting divorced, again, and Dinah is drinking martinis.

Add another five years and we are in the midst of a hurricane with Sheree organising an evacuation, Jeri-Neal just married, Vernadette in a neck brace and, well, Lexie and Dinah are perhaps not all what we thought they were in a touching moment as we glimpse Lexie’s vulnerability and Dinah’s soft side.

We have had rows, we have had disagreements, home truths, things that cannot be unsaid, but above all, we have friendships that have survived for more than 30 years and it will be nigh on a quarter of a century before we see them again.

Now 23 years later, and aged 77, the swim club are back, or at least most of them are . . . This will be a final reunion in the old place which is about to be demolished, but worry not, Sheree has already organised another apartment for next year!

 Time has taken its toll, particularly on Vernadette whose memory has drifted away on the tide. We feel we have grown up with them, been part of their lives, so much so that the final poignant scenes are quite moving. For some in the audience, especially older members, it also brings back their own memories. Friendships might survive . . . it's friends that don't.

There are no longer wise cracks, one liners, jokes with everything, we find we actually care about these characters, feel for them, which is a tribute both to the writing and more so to the fine acting by the quintet who brought the characters to life.

The setting from Rob Onions, Joe Young, Sue Groves and director Rachel Waters gives the production authenticity, and a nod as well to whoever is responsible for wigs and costumes which give a fresh look to each scene.

Everything is well lit by Stan Vigurs to give us that August summer light while the sound design, from Colin Mears and Waters again, gives a soundscape of cars arriving, seashore noises and even hurricane winds which add to the scenes without ever drowning dialogue.

And speaking of dialogue, although I have been to North Carolina and the Outer Banks in my time, I am no expert on American accents, which probably goes for most of the audience, but the cast sounded American, which is all that is important, and, even more important, the accents were consistent.

Dialogue also brought one of my favourite quirky moments late in the first act when the only prompt of the evening was needed and Libby M, the prompt according to the programme, did her job splendidly . . . in an American accent! I just loved that.

The play was written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooton, known in the US as Jones Hope Wooton, a trio who live in North Carolina where the play premiered in 2007. They are prolific American playwrights of light comedy, many with female casts or female leads, Wooton being a former writer and producer of The Golden Girls and the trio, individually and collectively having countless soaps, sitcoms, film and plays to their name.

It is a play I did not know and I am delighted to have made its acquaintance. A lovely play, with gentle humour, classy one-liners, a little drama, and a sad, bittersweet ending with pathos and heart. Highly recommended.

Roger Clarke

To 21-03-20 

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