Touring – Assembly Hall, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
A musical about women at the bingo would seem a natural for a warm-hearted, reassuringly couthy comedy. Instead, Bingo! ends up as a much swearier, somewhat darker affair that provides entertainment but is let down by its structure.
Stellar Quines and Grid Iron’s collaboration is set in the bingo hall where travel agent Daniella is hoping for a big win that will get her out of a ‘bad thing’ she has done. Johnny McKnight and Anita Vettesse’s script, with songs by Alan Penman, also features her mother, her oldest friend and bingo hall employees in a series of events that defy paraphrase – or, indeed, rational explanation. Which is fun, but not necessarily as good as it sounds.
The involvement of Grid Iron might lead some to expect a more ‘site-specific’ performance, but even those many bingo halls that are in gorgeous old picture houses would struggle to match the forbidding Calvinist grandeur of the Assembly Hall. Presumably, real bingo halls would be hard pressed to give up precious opening time for something as comparatively niche and transitory as the legitimate theatre.
Because bingo does remain big business, even if it only appears elsewhere in popular culture as the object of derision. This is surely because it is a largely female, working-class pursuit, so it is to the credit of all concerned that it is represented on stage here.
However, such a representation of women of varying ages, with a token man – and songs – will have many people thinking of a certain long-running play. Comparing a new production to The Steamie may be unfair, but it is unavoidable – and Bingo! frankly does not come off very well.
The fact that McKnight and Vettesse’s script constantly blindsides the audience, lurching from variety-infused comedy, to gritty domestic drama, to farce, to melodrama and back again, is not in itself a drawback. Indeed, it gives the production a certain compulsive energy. The problem is that the structure is unwieldy in many other ways.
The over-the-top, bloodstained comedy that ends the first half lacks the almost mathematical logic that is necessary for farce to work. This is only reinforced when the second half subsides into an introspection that seems utterly at odds with what else is taking place. There are moments towards the end when the heart sinks at the realisation that yet another character is going to sing to us about aspects of their personality that are already crystal clear.
The songs are perfectly fine in themselves, but not especially memorable. They rarely advance either plot or character, so it is easy to imagine the play without them.
The cast cannot be blamed for any shortcomings. They launch themselves into the songs with gallus tunefulness, aided by Darragh O’Leary’s deceptively clever choreography. Jemima Levick’s direction also supplies an energy that is nearly enough to sustain the narrative through its odd sideways moves.
Louise McCarthy gives Daniella a brittle believability that survives the lurch into melodrama well. Wendy Seager gives her hard-faced mother Mary a surprising degree of nuance, while Jo Freer is touching as Daniella’s friend Ruth.
Darren Brownlie has an unforgiving task as Donny, a worryingly stereotypical characterisation of a gay man that comes from a different century. While he does his best, Brownlie is too often reduced to straining after laughs.
The other two performers, good as they are, show the weakness of the production. The redoubtable Barbara Rafferty steals the show in the first half as the betrayed, Henry the Hoover-obsessed Joanne. Her impact only goes to reinforce that the character is dramatically unnecessary, and rarely rises above being a recognisable ‘type’.
Similarly, Jane McCarry’s beautifully executed bingo caller Betty simply points up how underdeveloped the character is. Losing a couple of the characters would be just as good an idea as shaving half an hour off the running time.
The problem is not that there is nothing good here. On the contrary, there are some excellent observations – not least how, in times of austerity, hoping for a windfall can replace any kind of financial planning. There is lovely use of language – notably very fine swearing – and jokes guaranteed to appeal to Scots of a certain age.
Despite this, however, and despite the best efforts of a committed cast, the end result has a baggy, lop-sided feel. There is enough dark energy here to make a success, but retooling is surely needed to make this more than a curio.