Written by Karlton Parris, and inspired by true story told to Parris thirty years ago in Mykonos, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is set in 1953, just after the Coronation. Eddy and Tommy are Yorkshire miners and secret lovers, who travel to Blackpool for their Wakes holidays. I must admit I was really intrigued to see this one, as the play is due to travel to New York for an Off-Broadway run in September, and a film version is also in pre-production. This is pretty big stuff for a Fringe show, so I was excited to see what the play has to offer.

The play begins with Eddy (played by Kyle Brookes) and Tommy (Macaulay Cooper) arriving in the seaside town. Eddy has decided that they won’t be staying at the same hotel as the rest of their party, and has instead booked them into Withering-Heights-on-Sea, a down-at-heel and almost empty guest house where they might be able to get some privacy.

Withering-Heights-on-Sea is run by a rather odd woman named Gladys (Wendy Laurence James), who is at turns snobbish, social climbing, overly solicitous, inappropriate, and impatient. Gladys is assisted (in a way) by her daughter Maureen (Mollie Jones) and her mother, former communist showgirl ‘Red’ Ethel (Linda Clark). The trio of women are loud, brash and inquisitive – suggesting that Tommy and Eddy may not get the privacy they want and need.

The final character is Mr Elbridge, the only guest in the B and B. Mr Elbridge is a transvestite – to use the 1950s terminology generally employed by the play – and is trying to find the courage to walk from the North Pier to the South as a woman (which the play emphasizes as an important rite of passage).

As the characters interact, interrupt and reveal their stories to one another (and to the audience), we come to see Withering-Heights-on-Sea as a refuge from the outside world, an escape from the judgments of a society that not only doesn’t accept trans identities, but criminalizes homosexual behaviour. Within the walls of the guest house, a range of identities are free to express themselves without fear of repercussions.

The central storyline is that of Eddy and Tommy. Brookes and Cooper play their parts excellently. There’s real chemistry between the two, but they also present the complexities and conflicts of the relationship. Eddy is the more forthright of the two, keen to abandon the constraints of their lives and flee to America. Sporting a noticeable shiner throughout the play – the origin of which is only revealed part way through the second act – Eddy is tense, unsettled and angry. But he is also fragile, and Brookes handles the gradual revelation of everything that has brought Eddy to this point with sympathy and credibility. Tommy is the more composed character – reluctant to do anything to rock the boat and keen to return home to their ‘normal’ lives after a brief escape in Blackpool. But there’s more going on under the surface, of course, and Cooper gives an often understated performance that is, again, very sympathetic.

While Eddy and Tommy’s relationship is the central story, the women of Withering-Heights-on-Sea have their own series of tales to tell. Red Ethel is foul-mouthed, disabled by a stroke, and antagonistic towards her daughter, but her brash mix of put-downs and nostalgia (for the days when she was the girl-about-town in Moscow) eventually gives way to a poignant description of her own tragic love life. Ethel’s granddaughter Maureen – constantly described as useless and ‘simple’ by her mother – is a girl desperate to shake off the 1950s and enjoy sex without fear of moral condemnation. But it is Gladys who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the women. A bag of complete contradictions, Gladys doesn’t seem to know what she wants to be. On the one hand, she is making a rather pathetic attempt at social climbing – serving ‘scooones’ and boasting about her connection to the Deputy Mayor – on the other, she is a former chorus girl who understands and respects the secrets her visitors harbour.

The play presents these intertwined stories through a series of scenes in the various bedrooms of the guest house. At times, these scenes risk feeling a little static – characters sit together in rooms and tell their stories, often in rather lengthy speeches, and the only movement comes from brief interactions with props and costume. However, on the whole, this works, as the play really is about the stories (or secrets) people hold inside themselves, and so it seems fitting that these are revealed through dialogue rather than action. I will be interested to see how this is handled in the film adaptation, however, as I suspect more of these stories will be ‘seen’ rather than ‘told’.

Parris’s script moves us from heartbreak to fear to bawdy seaside humour. On the whole, the men get the hard-hitting anger and pain, while the humour falls to the women (with the notable and unexpected exception of Ethel’s poignant speech about a lover in Russia). The humour is very well done. Although there is plenty of dirty jokes and innuendo (as is probably expected of the Blackpool setting), there is also some very witty commentary on sexuality and identity – Maureen’s black pudding/pasty analogy was a highlight for me. Nevertheless, as I say, the women do have pains of their own. Clark and Laurence James do a great job of suggesting the internal conflicts that lurk under the comic façade.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is certainly the longest play I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. If I have a criticism, it’s that the play occasionally felt a bit too long. In places, there was tendency to over-explanation – things that had already been conveyed through the performances were stated explicitly in the dialogue, and it may have been better to trust in the subtext more. That said, there’s a lot of story here, and a clear desire to do that story justice.

The play’s climax is moving and well-staged. The use of a projector – used elsewhere in the play to cast backdrops and scenery – to cast images highlighting the significance of the finale was poignant and moving. And yes – this is another GM Fringe production that made me cry.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is a big show – bigger than I was expecting, to be honest. There’s a lot of story, powerful performances, and emotive writing. I definitely enjoyed the stage version, and will be looking forward to seeing the film version when it’s released.

Posted by Hannah Kate, originally published here:

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