There’s a strange sense of déjà-vu watching the stage adaptation of Victoria Wood’s hit TV series, dinnerladies. There is strangely also a sense of sympathy with the actor who feel constrained into mimicry rather than being able to bring their own interpretations to the role.
The show is so identified with its original actors; Wood herself, Julie Walters, Celia Imre et al, that the stage production relies on actors that can give near perfect impressions of their on screen counterparts. Where other stage adaptations of TV shows have relied on just enough flavour of the original, while allowing an actor to add his own dimension to the role, here every inflection is mirrored. It makes for a somewhat sterile setting and the thought can’t help crossing the mind of what the theatrical setting brings that couldn’t be gained by sitting at home watching one of the many re-runs on TV.
This negativity shouldn’t detract from the skills of the cast, who, despite the limitations imposed on them, deliver some strong performances. Laura Sheppard’s Bren is the lynchpin to the whole piece, a mix of self doubt, inner steel and everyone’s preferred shoulder to cry on. Reprising his role as love interest and canteen manager Tony, Andrew Dunn clearly enjoys the role, coping well with a couple of unplanned moments in this opening night in Ipswich. Also reprising her TV role of dizzy toast addict Jane, Sue Devaney also doubles as Bren’s wayward mother, the walking rubbish heap that is Petula Gordino. It is perhaps this performance that is the comedic highlight of the evening, echoes of Julie Walters but imbibed with a wonderfully eccentricity but still strangely vulnerable performance from Devaney.
Director David Graham has adapted Wood’s original scripts for the stage to cover a month within the canteen of HWD Components. He has chosen some of the most emotive episodes but the choice works well as stand alone stories for anyone not familiar with the original material.
Despite the feeling that the theatrical element adds little to work, what the stage show does provide is the opportunity to marvel at Wood’s extraordinarily powerful writing. In the intimacy of a theatre setting, it showcases her skills to portray the everyday routine, the mix of humour and pain, and her ability to create over the top characters with whom we can all identify. Perhaps that is the dilemma; audiences have become so familiar with the characters that any attempt to offer a different interpretation would seem alien.
dinnerladies is by no means stale and offers plenty of laughs but one can’t help feeling this is the theatrical equivalent of a pre-packed TV dinner.
Photo: Laura Sheppard and Andrew Dunn in dinnerladies.