Early Doors | Theatre review by Steve Bennett at The Lowry, Salford © Nathan Cox
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Early Doors

Theatre review by Steve Bennett at The Lowry, Salford

It’s been 14 years since BBC Two called last orders on Early Doors, the low-key pub-based comedy which may have been critically acclaimed, but which never set the ratings alight. 

So the decision to reopen The Grapes for a stage show never seemed an obvious one… until the tickets started shifting like happy-hour pints, with the play filling Salford’s Lowry Theatre for three weeks before a national tour, including the 20,000-capacity Manchester Arena down the road. ‘Bloody hell!’ as the characters are fond of saying.

The good news is that it’s a great night out – so full of warmth, wit, affectionately portrayed characters and day-to-day drama that it should appeal well beyond its core fan base. Not least because Early Doors’ underplayed charm slowly grows on you in a way that impatient channel-hoppers might flip past, but which pays off handsomely for an audience who are invested in a theatrical show.

For those not in the know, Early Doors is part-Cheers, part-Coronation Street, featuring all the naturalistic wit of the soap in its heyday as a tight band of low-ambition regulars drink through the afternoon in their doggedly traditional Stockport local, grumbling about their everyday concerns.

Co-creators Craig Cash and Phil Mealey perfectly capture how they are established in their rituals and their relationships, knowing each other inside-out and trading banner along lines they have long established between them, such as the affectionate quips about miserable old git Tommy’s penny-pinching ways or advancing years.

Early Doors Tommy

The stage show is pegged on an engaging storyline in which landlord Ken (played as always with dour, sad-sack brilliance by John Henshaw) is finally going to pop the question to Tanya (Susan Cookson). He’s been to H. Samuel and plans to go down on one knee in the kitchenette. But could his lack of romance ‘bollocks it all right up’, to borrow his phrase?

Meanwhile, his shamelessly self-centred mum Jean (Judith Barker replacing Rita May) connives to derail his plans, fearing a wife would elbow her out of her cushy number, living above the pub.

Of the regulars, Eddie and Joan have been retitled Freddie and June – presumably as actors Mark Benton and Lorraine Cheshire were not available – although their personalities are the same, down to the mundane obsession with the temporary traffic lights. 

Meanwhile, the creators reprise their roles as Joe and Duffy, sharing an unstated bromantic affection for each other as they struggle with the opposite sex. Cash is making what’s pretty much his stage debut here, though you’d never know given how expert he is at playing hangdog men of low energy.

Early Doors Craig

Crooked coppers Phil and Nige (James Quinn and Peter Wight), lazy, corrupt and forever popping round the back of the boozer for free slugs of whisky, are strong enough characters to deserve their own spin-off. They pine for old-school policing and bemoan newfangled guidelines about arresting scrotes. ‘Evidence, that’s the "buzzword" now,’ they sigh. And the phonetic callsigns that crackle over their radio, such as Delta Indigo Charlie Kilo Sierra, is just one example of the fine attention to detail in Cash and Mealey’s endearing script.

Early doors coppers

There are in-jokes for the Early Doors faithful, but even if you don’t appreciate the significance of references to circuses or the traffic lights, it will not matter. Some members of this opening night audience were taken with a pantomime spirit as they joined in with catchphrases such as ‘crime won't crack itself’ or toasting: ‘To the regiment! I wish I was there!’ Some even tried to converse with the cast – which is annoying, but an indicator of how much like genuine friends these characters can appear. 

Even if the team concede to the odd double entendre or corny joke, it’s within the spirit of badinage you’d expect from this mob. That said, quips about Tommy’s irritable bowel seem cheap – especially when he emerges from the gents with his filthy kecks around his ankles – but this angle is blessedly short-lived.

Early Doors theatre

Instead, the overwhelming spirit is of a tight community of modest, down-to-earth misfits, banding together despite any minor differences as if they were in a Ken Loach film. But a lot funnier. Not for nothing is the theme tune Roddy Frame’s Small World, by Cash and Mealy are expert in finding the funny in everyday exchanges and relationships. The plot may rest on established sitcom tropes, but the joy is in the characters and the lines.

The BBC commissioners who refused a third series should be kicking themselves, especially given that Early Doors celebrates a dying breed of local boozers – and nostalgia tends to play well in TV comedy in Britain.

Full of geniality and honest humour, the stage incarnation is a real crowd-pleaser, guaranteed – with the aid of an unexpected musical finale – to send the audience home with an inner glow equivalent to a couple of large brandies. Doubles all round! 

Review date: 5 Sep 2018
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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