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Early Doors


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Craig Cash and Phil Mealey’s stage adaptation of the BBC2 sitcom is a warm, feel-good celebration of the characters that stays true to the original show, writes Mike Norton

The Early Doors stage production is one of the strangest experiments in live theatre.

Take a little-known BBC2 sitcom from 15 years ago and turn it into a stage show. The idea sounds vaguely mad.

But that’s exactly what its writers Craig Cash (of Royle Family fame) and Phil Mealey have done.

They have recreated the pub where the TV show was based, filled it with many of the original characters and written a modernised, two-hour live version.

Actually, from a staging perspective, the plan is not as ridiculous as it first sounds. The action of the 12 televised episodes, where the lives of characterful regulars of The Grapes revolved around landlord Ken and his live-in mother and daughter, never left the bar.

No, the biggest challenge of recreating Early Doors was its reputation. Much-loved by its fans, the programme had an accuracy, a humour and a depth of characterisation which were a considerable cut above your average sitcom.

So much so, that tickets for the show sold out in hours. Extra dates were added. They, too, sold out quickly. The show will soon move from the 466-seat Quays theatre (where we saw it last night) into the 1,730-seat Lyric theatre next door. Now an arena tour has been announced.

So the pressure was on Cash, Mealey and the cast to produce a performance which lived up to Early Doors’ reputation.

And they most certainly did. It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. A warm, feel-good celebration of the characters which stayed true to the original but never took itself too seriously.

From the moment Ken opened the doors on what was a clever, multi-layer version of the pub – to the Roddy Frame TV theme tune – we knew we were in for a treat.

Like the TV show, the story revolved around Ken, played with mastery by John Henshaw. And, like the TV show, the script sparkled with great one-liners, belly-laughs and a fair sprinkling of old-fashioned crudity.

Alongside Ken, bent coppers Phil and Nige – played by James Quinn and Peter Wight – also stole the show with an escalating series of hilarious indiscretions (“Evidence is the new buzzword Ken”).

But it would be wrong to single out a performance. Lisa Millett was brilliant as internet dater Debbie. Cash and Mealey were spot-on as emotional simpletons Joe and Duffy and the barbed banter between cleaner Winnie (Joan Kempson) and Ken’s mum Jean (now played by Judith Barker) was as sharp as ever.

Meanwhile, new faces Nick Birkinshaw as a believable Tommy, Eddie and Joan sound-alikes Freddie and June (Neil Hurst and Vicky Binns) and daughter Mel (Laura Woodward) all contributed ably to the ensemble. As did Ken’s love-interest Tanya, played with appropriate outrage at Ken’s romantic shortcomings by Susan Cookson.

There was one last contributor – the audience, which gleefully gasped, shouted and cheered along with the action. The love in the room for the characters and the actors was palpable.

The surprising musical finale was nothing short of a joy to be part of and Cash and Mealey left the stage to a standing ovation with the show’s reputation more than intact.

To paraphrase Early Door’s rallying cry – to the regiment! I’m glad I was there!

Mike Norton

Manchester Evening News