Review: Band of Gold, Cambridge Arts Theatre

It’s the early 90’s and the monochrome cityscape gradient of the sliding backdrop suggests an industrial revolution setting. Suspicions are confirmed as the halogen lights blink on and a sallow woman who is nonetheless full of energy storms onto stage in a flurry of leopard print and dubious moral standards. 

Band of Gold, originally a TV show written by Kay Mellor, was a crime drama following a young woman immersed in the red-light district of Bradford only to be brutally murdered. As gritty and realistic as the set-up might appear to be, this play actually takes much more of a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery approach. 

As a TV show (which I admittedly haven’t seen), I’m sure that Band of Gold is incredibly binge-worthy – it’s got everything you want from a soap opera-esque melodrama – bizarrely coincidental plot overlaps, gasp worthy reveals and a healthy dose of the taboo. As a play, however, it mostly comes across as far-fetched and over-dramatised. 

The first half is incredibly promising. We’re immediately introduced to refreshingly complex female characters who are trapped by the whims of the men in their lives. Gina (Sacha Parkinson), the newly single mother who’s kicked out her abusive husband is deep in debt and fending off seedy loan sharks and pressure from her own mother who insists she must have done something wrong to be hit by her ex. 

Parkinson brings a hard-edged innocence to a strong-willed woman forced by circumstance to fend for herself. She is delightfully counterbalanced by the tough-talking, sexually dubious, morally sound, all-round badass Carol (Emma Osman). Having worked as a prostitute for many years, she exudes confidence and power in her performative role, but Osman is careful to express her concealed vulnerability, adding new depth to what could be a very stereotypical character. 

Laurie Brett and Gaynor Faye add a comedic element as Anita, the underappreciated mistress and Rose, the seasoned madam of ‘The Lane’ where the women ply their trade. Although, it does feel that the quality of their acting is somewhat let down by the underdevelopment of their characters who come across as shallow and uninteresting compared to the complexity I imagined would be coming from Osman and Parkinson in the second half. 

I am, however, sadly misguided. The in-depth explorations of women on the street and the empowerment or depravity one might find in lives so often misunderstood are abandoned in favour of irrelevant storylines, cheap gags and, above all, a frustrating reliance on male characters. Important details and sensitive subjects are shoe-horned in amongst the humorous stories of male fetishes and the main plot suddenly feels like a side note.

Initially, I’m convinced that this will be a play about women breaking free from or succumbing to patriarchal influence, but the three-dimensional women that Mellor has created seem to concede to two-dimensional men. 

Either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, most of the men feel like they’ve been lifted directly from an Emmerdale spin off, an infuriating contrast to the women in rarely seen (and even more rarely understood) professions. A play like this, which is ripe with potential explorations, could have been an incredible exposé on the underground lives these women lead and the dangers they face. 

But it isn’t. If I’d expected trashy melodrama from the outset, trust me, I would happily be curled up on my sofa with some popcorn and a glass of wine, and I am certainly tempted to dig out the original TV show for my next night-in. As a piece of theatre, however, Band of Gold falls far too short from the emotion it could have delivered on.

Band of Gold is playing the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, please visit the Cambridge Arts Theatre website.