One For The Road – Sir John Mills Theatre

It may seem the very height of respectability, row upon row of identical bungalows all with their neatly manicured, if very small, gardens. Tupperware parties, tennis clubs, neighbourhood watch – all one big happy community. Behind the blinds, however, it’s another story.

Willy Russell’s One For The Road may be one of his lesser known works but it turns out to be a neglected gem full of his trademark black comedy and cutting look at real life.

Dennis is on the eve of his 50th birthday and is coerced into holding a dinner party by his social climbing wife, Pauline. As neighbours and stalwarts of the local resident committee, Jane and Roger are guests of honour, everything has to be just right. Not the night, then, for Dennis to have thoughts of escaping the monotony of his daily routine and hit the road as a hitch-hiker.

Tensions are already high in the community after a series of decapitations of resident’s garden gnomes but, with the arrival of Jane and Roger comes the news that the vandal has now progressed to spray painting obscenities on vegetables.

As the burgundy flows, Pauline’s hopes of a refined dinner go out of the window and the neighbours learn perhaps more than they wanted about each other.

Much like Mike Leigh’s seminal Abigail’s Party, this dinner party setting provides a deceptively calm backdrop for the shock revelations that are about to unfold. Russell carefully layers his script so that, yes, a couple of twists are obvious from the outset but others come as a welcome surprise. Characters are given real depth and it is easy to play the ‘oh they remind me of’ game.

Local company Upfront Productions make good use of Russell’s sparkling script and Dave Borthwick’s effective set of a Liverpudlian bungalow.

Nigel Andrews, Laura Locke, Jayne Lindill and Phil Cory work well together. They give the neighbours well rounded portrayals that shows that despite being ‘friends’ on the surface the sense of mistrust and one up manship is never far below the surface. As perhaps the biggest outsider in the group Nigel Andrews’ Dennis is the lynchpin of the evening, a subtle performance that conveys Dennis’ frustrations and sense of mischief wonderfully.

Sadly the Scouse accents do tend to wander at times and, at other times, turn into a parody of the Harry Enfield ‘Calm Down’ sketch and at times the comedy performance just need to be dialled back a couple of notches. The script is strong enough for the material to do most of the work. Overall, though, these are minor gripes in a well-conceived production.

One For The Road proves to be a wonderfully observed comedy and, if your perceptions of Liverpool estate living is the doom and gloom of Brookside, you may be in for an hilarious surprise.

A word of warning, though: you may never be able to see cottage pie in the same light ever again.

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