Glitterball – Riverside Studios review: A fresh, ambitious multi-generational story by Yasmin Wilde

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This sprawling five-hander, written and performed by Yasmin Wilde, shines a glorious glitterball light on the life of a mother rediscovering herself in midlife, after her divorce.

As Sonia (Wilde) turns 50, she loses her mum and discovers a new half-brother in Naim. They share a father who Sonia never knew, and Naim has inexplicably started to fix up the broken parts of her house.

Her acerbic mother Gloria Dukes (Janice Connolly) was a Shirley Bassey impersonator in life, who frequently appears to haunt Sonia by singing Bassey hits and then berating her. “You blossomed overnight like a bloated tampon,” she says.

“The illness made her cruel”, Sonia explains, but Gloria gives the impression she was always cruel.

Mixed in with quips and punchy-one-liners, there’s an interesting tension that develops with the light, unintended racism of her ride-or-die friend, Debs (Victoria John) who’s known her since they were seven.
The best friend dynamic is nuanced, with them giggling in the pub over the disappointment of their other halves and competing over their children’s achievements – it feels genuine, with her pal insisting she knows her inside out and yet is afraid of this new side to Sonia – her Pakistani side, that she’s just discovering. John plays her with a tone-deaf insouciance that makes her throwaway barbs, like how Sonia shouldn’t wear a scar round her head ‘because it looks like a hijab’ faintly chilling.

The fussy set by Libby Watson successfully serves as Sonia’s house, which she shares with her daughter Jade (wonderfully tempestuous Nikhita Lesler) and also the dingy pubs of Saffron Walden where her mother used to perform her tribute act. There’s pink and turquoise wallpaper with birds on it, stairs and a mini revolve that is both a minibar and it turns to reveal a sparkly raffia-curtained stage and a twinkly Albee the keyboardist (Miles Russell – the actual music director).

There’s almost too much packed into the dynamics of this show; it explores intergenerational attitudes to ethnicity, with Sonia telling her moody teenage daughter that she’s “practically white,” while also being upset when her friend says she’d “pass for white” and explores Sonia’s own conflicted feelings about feeling ashamed of her mixed-race heritage as a child. But, like the set, there’s sometimes too much clutter in the script to really appreciate the essential story here. Of course, a play doesn’t have to be about just one thing – but some pruning would help.

The finale features an original song by Wilde and her voice is incredible, but as she sings duets with her mother throughout it would have been good to have heard her more as the lead rather than occasionally harmonising.

I could see this family dynamic working as a TV show and it would be refreshing to see a female midlife, dual-heritage coming-of-age tale on screen.

Running time: 2hrs inc. interval. Until 8 October at Riverside Studios, then Oldham Coliseum (11th – 15th Oct).

Cast:

Sonia – Yasmin Wilde

Gloria – Janice Connolly

Jade – Nikhita Lesler

Naim – Simon Rivers

Debs – Victoria John

Creatives:

Music Director/Albee – Miles Russell

Set & Costume Designer – Libby Watson

Lighting Designer – Mark Dymock

How does theatre in lockdown measure up to theatre IRL?

I’ve been rehearsing a play in lockdown. Or rather, I’ve been organising and sitting in on rehearsals for a play I wrote. I wrote it a while ago and then I didn’t have enough time to put it on. But since I’ve not been filling my evenings with going to review plays, I thought, if not now, when? So #DoingWellPlay, a comedy about the effect of social media on a YouTube star’s mental health, has now enjoyed its first public rehearsed reading.

Except, it wasn’t very public at all, it was all a bit indoorsy; a bit zoom-y. The amazing actors from the Manchester Performing Arts group were totally brilliant, and the joy of hearing and seeing the words I’d written given new depth and meaning by such talent was undimmed by the fact I was watching it all on zoom. It was all easier in many ways – easier to record, easier to fit in rehearsals, easier to get the play’s central theme – that too much screen time is not great for us – across. Now, as we teeter on the brink of a second lockdown, I’ll be looking at ways of leaning into the digital environment, to make it a totally zoom-friendly, COVID-safe production.

But … it’s not really the same, it’s not as thrilling as the floodlights and the collective awe and the connective togetherness of an actual, live ephemeral performance, is it?

If it were, theatre would have died out as soon as television were invented.

Lockdown has brought with it a wonderful outpouring of creativity and connection and access. I loved the chance to have Rosamund Pike and Paapa Essiedu fill my laptop screen with endless close-ups in the political, stirring My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) at The Royal Court and watch the enterprising range of films made as part of HOMEmakers commission. all projects made at home for viewers at home. But the best theatre I’ve watched on screen has not really been plays at all – its the stuff that’s found another way, that’s worked with the restrictions, not against them, and come up with plyful, multimedia art.

This period has been hard, economically, mentally, for everyone involved in live performance, but it has also been a great reminder that creativity can flow from constraint and great work is often made under pressure, because it gives people something to rally against.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Virtual Collaborators Festival, a hybrid digital and live festival created during lockdown but then performed in real life in a churchyard in Leyton. There were over 100 different theatrical projects created. The founder, Danusia Samal, paired up writers with actors, so everyone who wanted to keep creating was able to do so and it attracted the likes of Naomi Ackie, Clare Perkins , Bayo Gbadamosi and Sarah Kosar.

First of all, just being at a live theatre festival, in open-air with people and laughter and strangers felt utterly thrilling. You could have shown me Punch and Judy and I’d be delighted. But, better than that, there was touching beauty in the form of Sway, developed as a radio play but performed here with delicate puppets by Angelina Chudi, telling an environmental and feminist parable about mermaids.

Another, with a feminist motif was Brick, created by Jessica Bickel-Barlow and Olivia Munk from Part of the Main. It explores the stifling confinement of those early lockdown weeks through the lens of a 14th century woman who voluntarily puts herself in solitary confinement to contemplate God. Her good friend is imprisoned next door and they debate her choices. First performed online with two faces talking to each other through an imagined crack in the wall, the staging didn’t change too much in real life – it worked just as well in both formats. Maybe, with our Government’s constantly changing Covid rules, this is something we’ll see more of.

There was something special about the collegiate nature of it all that I haven’t seen since going to drama club aged 16. It was as though the virus had blown away any presumption of status and plonked everyone in the industry in the same egalitarian boat – and everyone realised the only way to survive was to paddle together.

Now that theatres are reopening, I hope that feeling isn’t forgotten; it makes for very exciting work.