‘Tell him that you’re never gonna leave him, tell him that you’re always gonna love him’… And so goes the legendary hit by The Exciters. Hearing it, among others, as I was waiting for The Flannelettes to start, was a premonition.
Written by well-known playwright Richard Cameron – who penned The Glee Club and Great Balls of Fire, both of which had a West End transfer – The Flannelettes is half a comedy, half a heart-wrenching tragedy. Set in a Yorkshire mining village, it tells two stories: one, the everyday running of a women’s domestic abuse refuge; and two, the holiday of the niece of the refuge’s founder, who is a little girl in a 20-year-old’s body. This is all set to all-female Motown-style soul music.
Brenda (Suzan Sylvester) runs the refuge to where Jean (Celia Robertson) has just arrived after running away from her abusive partner. Brenda’s niece, Delie (Emma Hook), arrives for her holidays, with the aim of rehearsing a new show with her group: The Flannelettes, formed by herself, her aunt, and pawnbroker George (Geoff Leesley), who drags when necessary. Simultaneously, community officer Jim (James Hornsby) is called upon yet another abuse situation in which Roma (Holly Campbell) is involved. However, as the plot develops, desperation, secrets and violence creep in with unexpected results.
The play is divided into two acts, and there is a clear difference between them: the first act, regardless of the sombre reality of the refuge, has a strong comedic element to it, with a few laugh-out-loud moments. Hook delivers a fantastic performance as Delie, endearing and potentially annoying to other characters. Hers is a complex character – a grown woman with a mind of a girl – that lives intensely and is never afraid of questions, however inappropriate. And she can sing! The few times she sang live were of the utmost simple beauty, channelling the spirit, naivety and nostalgia of The Marvelettes or The Supremes (and with a Hairspray-inspired costume to match). The rest of the cast were as captivating, delivering heartfelt performances and memorable moments.
The Flannelettes is, above all, an outstanding piece of writing. Cameron’s fast, incisive dialogue equally brought laughs and horrific revelations, with a particular touch for arguments, which felt real and disarmingly believable. The feelings and stories of the women at the refuge were heartbreaking, and the conversation between Delie and Roma about their secrets is my firm candidate for the best moment of the evening. Also, the use of George as a narrator in some scenes added a poetic dimension to words and created powerful moments at the shattering end of the first act. Hull Truck Theatre Company founder Mike Bradwell directs this new piece with delicacy and tact, stressing the contrast between characters. It is also palpable that he cares for the overall comedic timing of the production, while keeping the horrendous reality of abuse present and understood.
However, and even though this production has all the qualities to make a lasting impact, there is one particular aspect that I believe needs polishing or at least rethinking, and that is the transitions between scenes. Scene changes were made clear by blackouts and music but, by repetition, they broke the flow of the performance. They gave the performance a more ‘cinema-like’ air, as if they were scenes shot on different locations and times but, conversely, they burdened the overall rhythm and did not help to build lasting emotions in the audience. Particularly towards the end, when the plot unravels, the natural feeling of anticipation was stopped short every few minutes, becoming almost an anticlimactic force.
As a fantastic text graced on stage by commanding performances, The Flannelettes is definitely worth viewing. Despite some timing issues, it is a new, refreshing take on a subject sadly well known to all, bravely mixing drama, comedy and even music from the Tamla Motown golden age. As brutal as it sometimes is, this production poses important questions: how much do we judge others according to their past instead of their present? Is it worth fighting back and reopening wounds instead of starting anew?
The Flannelettes is playing at King’s Head Theatre until 6 June. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website. Photo by Francis Loney.