Gleaned from a collection of short stories by Bill Naughton (of Alfie fame) and adapted into a play by Lawrence Till, The Big Corner is a heartfelt homage to life in Bolton when cotton was king.
The story pivots around Naughton, masterfully played by the affable and charismatic Dan Parr who launches proceedings by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience at Bolton Octagon directly. Naughton set the play in a time gone by, describing a town where industry thrived and a keen sense of community prevailed in every terraced street over the endless clack of cotton looms. The play swiftly moves through reminiscences from his childhood and early adulthood and flows well, if a little disjointedly, in the first half.
Naughton’s friend Alfie is expertly brought to life by Harry Long who adds compelling depth interspersed with perfectly timed music hall humour to the role. It’s also worth adding that he deserves an award for happily munching his way through a cooking apple without wincing once. The banter between Alfie and Naughton provides many of the early highlights but, sadly, some of the dialogue is delivered with such speed that the sense of story is lost in places and inaudible in others.
The scene at the Palais de Dance reminded me that this was my grandparents’ era, and I saw familiar glimpses of their world throughout much of the first act. All the characters were lifelike, full-blooded and solid – except for the women. The clearly talented Jessica Baglow, playing May, and Lauren Samuels as Jenny were woefully underused and, despite their sterling work, almost all the female characters were severely one dimensional in comparison to their male counterparts.
It’s a credit to Baglow and Samuels that they still managed to shine with such flimsy material, both displaying beautiful singing voices and wonderful stage presence. But it says something that they were only able to properly show their substance when they took male roles in the story.
The juicier female roles went to male actor Mitesh Soni who added comedic gold as a mill girl resplendent in pink cap and flowery dress, and a brief turn as one of the nuns imparting a Python-esque edge to the scene. Later, Soni twinkled with comedic grumpiness as an elderly nana, first as a voice from the gods and later descending the stairs in a suitably granny-ish pink dressing gown and plaid slippers to great effect. He equally delighted as Naughton’s first best friend, little Spit Nolan with one lung, and it’s fair to say that Soni’s versatility stole the show in places.
Despite great direction by Elizabeth Newman the play felt dislocated in several areas, like a jigsaw puzzle forced together in the wrong places. And, while there was an easy flow to begin with, it sagged drastically in the second half with the exception of a brilliantly executed Go-Kart race. The final few scenes lacked pace and dragged sombrely towards an oddly sentimental end.
Given the entire cast gave such heartfelt and powerful performances, it’s a great shame that this dip at the last let them down.
The Big Corner is on at Bolton Octagon until May 5, 2018. For more information or to book tickets, click here.