Date Reviewed: 16th April, 2009
Venue: Studio Salford
To set the mood for the revival of Dave Simpson’s Raving Beauties Studio Salford offers special rates on Babycham! It catches the atmosphere of the play which examines the motives of contestants in a beauty contest set in a Salford pub.
Although it is clear that participants have to be desperate or deluded Simpson does not condemn his characters but rather gives them the chance to set out their reasons for taking part in something which many people would regard as demeaning. He is even-handed and outlines the positive effects of the beauty industry in promoting diet and exercise which can improve health and build self-esteem.
Veterans of past contests Denise (Amanda Leigh Owen) and Jill (Jennifer Jordan-Leigh) are joined by newcomers Karen (Katie McArdle) and Chris (Ryan Greaves) as well as fading contestant Diane (Jo Haydock) who has been competing so long she is joined by her teenaged daughter Sue (Eleanor Sampson). Denise hopes that the paltry prize will ease her hard life a little. Sue suffers from such low self-esteem that she defines herself entirely from the point of view of her boyfriend and has entered to please him.
Meanwhile Diane tries to retain some degree of dignity in the face of great odds. Their conversations take place in the shadow of a previous competitor who committed suicide and the unwanted advances of MC Jack (Ian Curley) who helps set the seedy atmosphere of the competition with an insincere act perfectly capturing the working men’s clubs from which the character was born. Curley sings ballads in an American accent before reverting to a voice that is almost a cartoon to tell blue jokes drawn from the period in which the play is set. Thankfully these offensive jokes are off-set by remarks of real wit from the contestants to give us a well-rounded entertainment.
The play is set in 1985 and director Paul Walker makes sure that the atmosphere is authentic. As well as the off-colour remarks that pepper the script he crams scenes with convincing period details like chunky jewellery and big hair to remind us of the decade we’d rather forget.
There is an excellent cast who deliver good individual performances but, as importantly, work convincingly as people drawn together to resist a common foe. Chris has entered the competition in a disguise that requires not just really good make-up from Lucy Nickson and Laurel Berkeley but also a committed performance from Greaves. As with the convincing period details the performance of the actors subtly enhance the script. From Leigh-Owen’s slightly desperate edge, the dawning sense of loss from Haydock and McArdle’s round-shouldered defensive stance all define their characters brilliantly.
It must have been tempting for Walker and Curley to make Jack a subtle monster in the style of the MC from Cabaret but that would not have been right for this production. Instead he is represented as a petty little tyrant who exploits his limited power but is willing to turn to violence if that fails to intimidate.
This is a fine production of a good play that is full of humour and never fails to entertain.