The debate about women’s representation in theatre is one which constantly rears its head – most recently on the Guardian Culture Pro website – so with these thoughts burbling in my mind, it felt quite apt to take in this particular show. The Awkward Squad was written by a woman, stars four women and looks exclusively at the trials faced by three generations of modern women in a North East England community.
Lorna has spent the majority of her life serving others. As the wife of a miner, a mother of two, her life revolved around family but during the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, she became the focal point of organised community action and from then on, continued to fight the good fight for her community’s needs. She’s about to be rewarded by having the community centre named after her as she finally decides to retire and her two daughters Pam and Sandy and granddaughter Sarah have come up for the occasion, but her family bring all sorts of baggage with them and so Lorna is left picking up the pieces once again.
Karin Young, best known as a writer for Emmerdale, has crafted the kind of gritty Northern comedy that wouldn’t go amiss in a sitcom, with an underlying note of more serious concern about disillusionment, the erosion of local communities and the demonisation of the working classes. So having dispatched her middle-aged daughters to lives filled with more prospects than she had, ultimately a BAFTA-winning film-maker and a Cheshire-dwelling lady of leisure, Lorna is then crushed by news of redundancy, divorce and financial hardship which thrusts her right back into the role of parent.
The spiky sibling relationship is brought to great comic life by Charlie Hardwick as the woeful WAG and Libby Davison as the seemingly more pragmatic Pam whose antagonistic squabbling raise many a chuckle, especially as more and more wine is sunk. And Barbara Marten is excellent as Lorna, who rallies no matter what disappointments life throws at her and is, eventually, brutally honest about what that has cost her. The shift into (slightly) more serious and certainly more contemporarily relevant, territory that accompanies the finale is admittedly a little heavy-handed, but then it feels that it is an issue that benefits from plain-spoken defiance and the arguments made are extremely persuasive as delivered by Marten.
The only weak point comes with granddaughter Sarah. Lisa McGrillis brings a sparky life to this young woman but the character is too sketchy to convince: initially a 26 year-old airhead concerned with her boob job, then a budding photographer with a social conscience, she’s sadly too much of a dramatic device than a realistic portrayal of a woman, especially considering the strength of the others. But director Fiona MacPherson marshals her resources extremely well for the most part though: Imogen Cloet’s set design allows for the nifty incorporation of texts, emails and photos on various screens – I loved that Lorna was completely tech-savvy without it being a big deal – though as it is a raised set on an already high stage, you might be best advised to avoid the first few rows.
So a solidly good piece of comedy writing, excellently performed and nicely timed as austerity budgets hit hard in the wrong places. I’m not 100% sure that comedy is the right format to reach the profundity that Young occasionally reaches for and the underwriting of the younger character means that a layer of real relevance is missed. But for entertainment value and a rousing call to arms, The Awkward Squad offers a bluff Northern directness that we don’t always see on London stages and one welcomed by this expat.