A Lincolnshire girl myself, I was mightily excited at the prospect of The Bush Theatre’s Chalet Lines, a new play by Lee Mattinson set at Butlins, Skegness. In case you’ve not had the pleasure, Costa del Skeg is a heady mix of slot machines, deep-fried donuts and ninja seagulls that’ll pinch your chips straight out of the cone. As for Butlins, with its endless water pools, cutprice cocktails at the Friday night cabaret and nuclear bunker chalets, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Chalet Lines focuses on a family of five women from the North East as they visit the infamous holiday camp over the course of their lives. Led by unlikely matriarch Loretta, there’s the desperate but loveable diva Jolene, the keyboard tinkling Abigail, the mysterious black sheep Paula and the tipsy, anxious Nana Barbara. There are some lovely performances from this superbly strong all-female cast as we meet the women necking pink cava, pushing their boobs up and getting ready to shake their thing with a Red Coat or two for Nana Barbara’s seventieth birthday. Characters are established punchily here, and it’s not long before there are hints of something dark going on under the surface as they wait – and wait – for prodigal daughter Paula to arrive so the party can really get started.
Little could we have known quite how deeply or how quickly things would descend into darkness. Rewinding 10 years or so, we’re back in the ’90s for Paula’s hen night. Loretta’s rowdy, bawdy, overbearing bossiness accelerates at a breakneck pace to a disturbing grotesque of an abusive mother. Monica Dolan gives an energetic performance as this painfully sadistic character and earns herself a gasp or two from a shocked audience. We enter a spiral of domestic violence, but there are elements of a panto villain here as Loretta is so relentlessly cruel. Her vileness is demonstrated but not questioned or explored, leaving the audience asking why she is so heartless. Mattinson alludes to the idea of this behaviour being handed down through the generations, showing us glimpses of Barbara’s rigid, unfeeling mother. Allusions to the past are often made, and the second act even features a foray back in time to the day of Nana Barbara’s wedding – at Butlins, of course. An intriguing choice by director Madani Younis to have Gillian Hanna play Barbara at both 70 and early 20s, but Hanna captures a youthful fear and self-awareness well. Nonetheless, there is a disjointed feel in the emotional journey here. And whose story is it?
An interesting look at the dynamics amongst a group of women knitted together not by love anymore, but something else. Unfortunately, that “something” – that binding force – was rather hard to discern. Chalet Lines seems to be the story of an underdog, of Abigail’s struggle against her mother, but this at times felt forgotten amongst the search for cheap laughs in crude drinking straws, sex education so brief you’ll miss it if you blink and Macarena-dancing. Sadly this is not enough to truly evoke the play’s setting, so rich in colour and interest. Tim Mascall’s witty lighting design does recreate Skegvegas with multicoloured bare bulbs adorning Leslie Travers’ wonky, waltzer-esque set but from a textual angle, the setting feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
The problem is perhaps the lack of love in the play, which is a shame as contrast would have highlighted Loretta’s hideous behaviour all the more and offset this bleak vision of family life. However, there are notable performances from Robyn Addison and Sian Breckin as Jolene and Paula respectively: both capture with a light touch the emotional core of their characters. These are the two women who feel the most real here; they are sensitive yet strong, beautiful yet flawed, confident yet terrified. Most importantly, they are likeable. Chalet Lines moves back and forth in time too often and too randomly, but there are five solid performances, some brutally cruel moments that will certainly draw a gasp and a real chance for empathy – even if it might not be exactly where it feels it should be.
Chalet Lines was at the Bush Theatre. To find out what’s coming next at the Bush, visit the website here.
Image credit: Bush Theatre