Around the World in 80s Days

A review

(Blackpool Grand Theatre, Friday 9th August 2019)

For seven consecutive years in the 1960s my childhood holidays were spent in Lytham St. Annes just sixteen miles from home.  It may seem a raw deal when schoolmates would traverse the country, or set out on the first of the popular package holidays to that other planet – abroad – but I loved it.  We lodged just thirty yards from the railway station; a delight in itself for a short-trousered train spotter unknowingly witnessing the dry-ice clad death throes of steam locomotion.

Some of the holiday highlights would be seeing seaside shows in the theatre on St Annes pier or, by hopping on a train, we could rattle the five or six miles to Blackpool.  There we would visit one of its piers, or see a show in the Winter Gardens, or at the marvellously atmospheric Victorian Grand Theatre.

Thanks to much endeavour, and considerable restoration, the Grand retains pretty much all of its original charm but, by necessity, its summer shows have evolved. They are much more compact.  Gone are the bumper extravagancies of bulging casts.   Entertainers are expensive and modern audiences have far more alternatives with which to tickle their fancies and tap their pockets.

Blackpool itself, while still popular, no longer witnesses the biblical hordes that used to invade during the annual exodus of mill town wakes weeks. The acres of Lancashire weaving sheds are no more and theatrical producers must cut their cloth accordingly.

All theatre has adapted.  Small troupes, even for large scale casts of characters, are the norm these days and their emergence has been nourished by a range of techniques that were always present in the theatre, but which have found new life in recent decades. This show presents fine examples.

Around the World in 80s Days has been written and directed by Prestonian Ian McFarlane and it’s the first show by Blackpool Grand Productions – created in house by the theatre.  It was commissioned to celebrate the theatre’s 125th anniversary.

ian mcTime to declare an interest.  Ian McFarlane studied at Cardinal Newman College in Preston during my tenure as Curriculum Leader of the Creative Arts subjects.   I knew Ian, but the majority of his tutelage there was delivered by my colleagues and, while we undoubtedly extended his knowledge and skills, in truth he was already well versed in strong performance practice.

He credits Deborah Carter who still runs the weekend Players drama school based in the heart of the city as the chief influence on his emerging talent.  Deborah is, to my mind, probably the single most important person in the city with regard to youth drama over the last quarter of a century.   It was always a joy to recruit from her graduates because there would be no doubt that they would have been excellently trained.

In his late teens Ian was already showing entrepreneurial promise collaborating with his contemporaries on a memorable production of Cabaret staged at Park Hall near Chorley.  That show sticks in my mind for its simple yet impactful staging and that trademark is evident in 80s Days.

I’ve explained elsewhere, the particular challenges to be faced when creating a two-hour musical.[1]  With so much of the time eaten up by the musical numbers, it’s very difficult to fashion sufficiently complex characters and an audience-holding plot whilst also credibly integrating the songs.   This production compounds that problem by having so many musical numbers.  Well over 80% of the content is delivered via the songs.  Ian McFarlane solves these problems superbly.  He has crafted a highly efficient theatrical vehicle and populated it with half a dozen supremely talented performers who act, sing and dance with enchanting flair; and one also arranged the music.  The show is slick, very funny, continuously inventive and – most importantly of all – distinctly theatrical.

This show belongs on the stage.  The story telling and laughter generation emerge organically from the live performance and hence would not be so efficacious in other media.  In other words, you need to see this show live.  Too often these days, that is not an integral component of theatrical events.  If performances work just as well on the screen, there is no incentive to see them on stage.

Perhaps the single greatest achievement of this production is the integration of the songs.  They are at once both warmly familiar and startlingly original.  It is not just the way they have been melded with the plot, but as a consequence of their unique arrangement by cast member Laurie Denman, and their interpretation by the singers.  Brass in Pocket and Walk Like an Egyptian made me draw breath due to the originality of their staging and singing, and there were more examples later in the show, for which I will not spoil the surprise.  Suffice it to say that the show never plays safe, it constantly refreshes and reinvents, and that adds to the delight of seeing and hearing it.

mbp-around-the-world-in-80s-days49Another quality evident in this show (and so frequently lacking on the contemporary screen) are the contrasts of pace, mood and emotional intensity that are so necessary in order to truly satisfy the viewer and listener.  The show trips along swiftly, but is sufficiently varied to allow the audience to reboot their temperaments, and despite the constraints of fitting a very large amount of musical numbers into two hours, MacFarlane and his company skilfully adjust the accelerator.  Here again, high creativity plays its part, using the songs in unexpected ways to set a tempo that isn’t always the one associated with that tune.  Hence the variation in pace becomes part of the manipulation of the emotions, and should you notice that use of theatricality, the effect is enhanced even more.

What this company understand so well, is that the magnet of performance is most strong when the components are embedded in the visual.  The story, the characters, the musical interpretation and especially the spine of the humour, is constantly visually fashioned; and this means the show is a joy to watch.  A tiny example is the creation and dispatch of jellyfish, and there were dozens of instances of a similar performance pedigree.

There are delights for the ears too.  The verbal humour ranges from pantomime to Pirandello.  There are cringeworthy puns and absurdist asides, and pretty much everything in between, but the best comedy is when the verbal and the visual collude, as they frequently do.

I agree with my companion that one of the few flaws in this production is the lack of a truly show-stopping number near the end.  The show has such momentum that it would take a lot to stop it, but it’s a valid point.  The first half is so full of delightful innovation that it proves to be a hard act to follow.  The second act is a little more mellow overall and while, as already pointed out, that’s no bad thing, the chance to rise to a climactic gear nips by unexploited.  It’s important to stress, however, that the service of surprise and wit is never lost, and the production values remain tip-top right up to the final curtain.

When creating on the page or on the stage, very often the most imaginative opportunities arise early in the process when contributors are fresh and less burdened with resolving plots or production problems.  It’s useful to devise strategies to counterbalance the possible creative plateau.  The narrative methods in the final hemisphere of 80s Days resorted a little more to tell rather than show in order to crowbar the conclusion of Jules Verne’s novel into the production timetable, but this first-class theatrical carriage is by no means derailed as it pulls into its terminus.

80s days cast 2This is a show well worth setting out to see.  It is a cornucopia of creativity, comedy and popular culture resonances.  Its ocean-going hold bulges with cheerful choreography, cynical gags and clever stage business, along with colourful costumes that are evocative of illustrations in the best vintage comic books.   There’s even a small amount of audience participation if you like that kind of thing.   I don’t; but the majority of the audience clearly did.

The technical effects also sparkle.  Listen carefully and you’ll hear melodic modifications to reference the setting whilst simultaneously creating the refreshing interpretations explained above. I recommend a dress circle seat to get the most out of the suitably stylish lighting design.

The 1870s is seamlessly wedded to the 1980s and marched down an aisle fabulously bedecked with theatrical blooms reminiscent of those displayed by the more inventive theatre companies of recent times.  It reminded me of  Kneehigh Theatre in their heyday.   It also brought to mind the mirth-rich beginnings of Rejects Revenge in the 1990s.

justina-kehinde-ogunseitanThe musical theatre credentials ring through each of the six performers in exemplary fashion.  It feels invidious to single out any one of this splendid ensemble, but for sheer understated yet blatant emotional subtlety, and impeccable vocal enunciation, the spotlight must fall on Justina Kehinde. This is her first professional production.  It will not be her last.

This is a splendid show, and one that is entirely suitable for a family audience.  Let’s hope it heralds a new era of in-house theatrical innovation in Lancashire.  The seaside spectaculars of the 1960s will never be seen again, but this compact company has proved that a multitudinous cast can be conjured by a handful of creatives, and that the outcome can be just as substantial.


Around the World in 80s Days runs until 31st August 2019.

Tickets from: The Blackpool Grand Theatre


[1] For an explanation of some of the challenges of scripting a musical see my 2018 post Swinging with the Singing Butler


Around the universe with eighteen celebrities:

Strictly Front cover from full size

Strictly Done Dancing

Eighteen former celebrities step out one more time.

A glittering selection of historical personalities are given another chance to dance.  They have one more opportunity to show the world what their lives meant, but first they must meet their allotted partners and work out their routines.

What will Fred make of Marilyn?

What will Eric’s partner think of it so far?

Will Stephen’s routine be out of this world?

Who will dance with Diana?

Will there be a winner?

Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback









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