First things first: the original two-series TV version of Early Doors was an utter gem. Overlooked by some at the time as a kind of Royal Family spin-off, it brought together great writing with a top-notch cast and was as capable of breaking your heart in two as it was of getting you roaring laughing. When this stage revival was announced last year, it was a toss-up between feeling overjoyed that the team are back and concerned that they could bugger it up.
They haven’t buggered it up. Now back for a second run at The Lowry, Early Doors: ‘One More Chance’ is beautifully, niftily done and a very worthy successor. Cannily, it brings in everything that made the TV show so cherishable – a clutch of relatable, flawed, lovable characters as well as toasts to The Regiment, a whooping asthma inhaler, mentions of specialist performance act Twin Cheeks, the phrase “Crime Can’t Crack Itself” and the relentless query “Do you like circuses?”. Additionally, it brings in enough that’s new and fresh to make the whole enterprise well worthwhile.
Newcomers could pick it up no trouble, but long-term fans will recognise that it carries on pretty much from where the TV run left off, making for a kind of Series 2½. Suffice it to say that we’re back in the Grapes pub with landlord Ken Dixon and his regulars, where loose ends get picked up and there are resolutions and revelations in store. There are big themes tucked away in here too, of time starting to run out and not being defeated by being unlucky in love
Not all of the original cast are back – after all, the show helped to launch the careers of several busy big-hitters who aren’t necessarily free to do a week-long theatre run, including James McAvoy, Christine Bottomley, Mark Benton, Lee Ingleby and Maxine Peake. But the replacements in the cast here fit in well, notably Nick Birkinshaw as that miserable get Old Tommy.
The marvellous John Henshaw is back to hold the whole thing together as Ken, and work-shy coppers Phil and Nige are present and correct too, played as ever by Peter Wight and James Quinn (complete with daft laugh). It takes place on a simple, effective split-level set which, like so much here, takes pains to echo the TV original.
Creators, writers and stars Craig Cash and Phil Mealey return as hopeless mates Joe and Duffy, and though they’ve confessed that their own theatre experiences didn’t reach beyond appearing in the school nativity, their storytelling instincts prove to be spot-on. OK, so the first half is a bit creaky here and there, but by the second half it’s all flowing perfectly, with a delightfully relaxed air that results in the cast cracking up several times. Yes, the plot could be even neater, the character of Ken’s daughter Mel is underused, and it’s a shame to lose the close-ups and quiet moments that were such a big part of Early Doors on TV.
All things considered, though, ‘One More Chance’ is a treat, simultaneously a satisfying continuation of the original show and a fond love letter to it. There are some truly sparkling routines here and an affecting, rousing finale. At heart it might be closer to panto than Pinter but when it’s this entertaining, who cares? So die-hard fans can rest easy. The Grapes haven’t gone sour and you’ll wish you were there.
Early Doors: ‘One More Chance’, The Lowry, Salford until August 3.