‘Write what you know’ remains the best advice to any author and the story of how Michael Kirk picked up the plot of Hatched ‘n Dispatched from his 9-year-old observations of sexual shenanigans round the back of the Railway Institute in Derby is priceless. But years of exposure to sitcoms and pantomime mean his script, particularly in the larkier first half, can sound derived: the moment when Wendi Peters as grotesque matriarch Dorothy sends her daughters into the kitchen to cut sandwiches for a funeral with “you slice, I’ll butter” is lifted directly from an early Victoria Wood standup routine.
It’s 1959, the piano tinklings of Russ Conway and the strains of Mantovani will soon give way to a sexier era headlined by Cliff and Elvis and in a lightweight hour, the Needham family bickers and banters its way through both the funeral and a christening on the same day. Peters’ ordering about of the family members is a more genteel version of Peggy Mount‘s in the wedding-day farce Sailor, Beware but convincingly rooted in an Alan Plater/Sillitoe/Bennett working class milieu. Neat that it’s set in the Midlands – Tim Lott in the Guardian recently bemoaned the fact that kitchen sink realism was an almost exclusively northern convention and the working class south of Manchester might as well not exist in literary terms.
True, some of the comic moments are so obvious it’s like waiting for a second shoe to drop: the set-up for the substitition of a glass of sherry with a urine sample is painfully drawn out. Family tensions and secrets are hinted at, but if you can’t guess there’s an unwanted pregnancy, an illicit lover and some domestic violence you haven’t been paying attention to EastEnders these last thirty years.
The second half, though, could come from a different, darker and better play: the characters are mostly drunk and uninhibited enough for some fiery recriminations, a fight and strong language which seem both more authentic and more amusing. Peters finds her mark with deadly aim as the manipulative mother whose maternal milk has soured, and Wendy Morgan as the bereaved sister is beyond excellent in her self-pitying brooding stillness, a Derbyshire Blanche DuBois.
The cast are uniformly fine, particularly James Wrighton as the mother’s boy who likes to hit back at women, and Matthew Fraser Holland outstanding as his sheepish and simpler cousin, with a welcome cameo from Diana Vickers playing Morgan’s dippy and unselfconscious daughter.
I’d like to see it revised with the first half darkened and detailed to match the second, and perhaps that precocious 9-year-old should put in an actual appearance. But not everything has to be Pinter, and with this terrific ensemble it isn’t short on entertainment value.
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