Not quite Vegas …

Fiona Evans never goes for easy plays, but with the help of Chris Monks, Geordie Sinatra comes off nicely.

Ladies and Gentlemen, live on stage, the one, the only, Frank Sinatra – sort of. “Frank”, is, in fact, not the Frank Sinatra but instead Geordie (Anthony Cable), once a Sinatra tribute act in Whitley Bay, but now – in the advanced stages of Dementia with Lewy Bodies – hallucinating into believing he’s the real thing. Unfortunately, as well as singing to imaginary crowds in Vegas and reliving Frank’s turbulent romance to Ava Gardner, this also includes Frank’s habits of going round without his trousers and assaulting photographers. He often confuses the people around him with the people close to Sinatra. And to complicate matters further, Geordie’s daughter Nancy (Heather Saunders) is obsessed with rescuing her career as a journalist, his partner Joan (Jill Myers) is in fact secretly his estranged wife Vera who walked out when Nancy was three, and Frank’s old friend Sonny (Kraig Thornber) believes he is the true father of Nancy. What can possibly go wrong?

When I’ve tried to explain the idea of a man with dementia who thinks he’s Sinatra, most people have sounded sceptical – in fact, I probably would have been myself. However, Fiona Evans has had one of the most interesting careers as an emerging writer. I first came across her in 2005 when she took a play called We Love You Arthur to Durham, about two teenage girls in the Miners’ Strike with a crush on Mr. Scargill. The play was somewhat let down by a slow-moving plot, which I suspect was a result of trying to put too much research into one play. But what struck me was that, in spite of the author wanting very strongly to tell the story of the striking miners, she also handled the story of the strike-breaking family fairly, something which many other writers would have either ignored or excused.

Since then we’ve had Scarborough (2007), set in a hotel room where a teacher is having a romantic weekend with a 15-year-old pupil. I didn’t catch this but I heard a reading of a excerpt which looked promising and a lot tighter than Arthur. Then Live Theatre commissioned Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale (2009), about the deaths at the Deepcut barracks. The vast amounts of boring legal paperwork that formed the basis of the play didn’t make it an easy task, but she did a good job under the circumstances. Finally, just in case you thought the last play wasn’t gloomy enough, came The Price of Everything (2010), which is a story similar to that of Christopher Foster who burnt his mansion down after shooting his family a few years back. That was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and it is this presumably this link that has prompted a co-production of her latest play.

Although this is officially a Live/SJT co-productions, it has the fingerprints of SJT’s Chris Monks all over it. It has the same musical director he uses for all his plays (Richard Atkinson, doubling as the on-stage pianist), most of the cast and creative team have worked with him before, and the style is very similar to the other musical plays he’s produced at Scarborough. But for this play, he’s the perfect choice for director. The play alternates between Geordie’s Sinatra-fantasy and the less forgiving reality, past and present. And the Sinatra-land is right up Chris Monks’s street with excellent versatile performances from the cast doubling as backing singers, musicians, and friends of Ol’ Blue-Eyes. One good touch was the set: as first glance, Sinatra’s stage at Vegas, but on closer inspection, actually a run-down club in Whitley Bay set up for Sinatra tribute night.

But the star of the show who makes the whole thing work is undoubtedly Anthony Cable. One moment, he is the greatest Sinatra-a-like you’ll see on stage, the next moment he is a  helpless old man with no idea where he is, or, worse – on the days when he’s concious of what’s happening – a man humiliated by the knowledge of what he’s become. This performance would not have been possible without good writing and directing to support it, but Monks and Evans are very lucky to have had him on board.

There is just one annoyance I found with the play. The backstory was great, but the storyline in the present wasn’t always believable. There were a lot of niggling issues, but to pick one example: although Nancy had some lovely self-obsessed moments when she’s trying to compose a book (just coincidentally of a caring daughter and a father with dementia, honest), she’s still clearly an intelligent woman. I therefore had trouble believing that it took her so long to work out her mother wasn’t really dead. That’s a pity, because I know from The Price of Everything that Fiona Evans can write very convincing characters. And much as I appreciate the writer feels strongly about society doing more about dementia, the bit of the play where Fiona Evans expresses here opinions weren’t very subtle. These are minor points, but things like these can add up and spell the difference between an excellent play and just a good one.

But, that aside, it is still a good job done for an idea that few may have believed could work. This is considerably cheerier than her earlier plays, so if I’ve scared you off with warnings of gloomfests, you can safely come. I look forward to seeing if Live and Stephen Joseph can do anything else in a partnership, but definitely keep an eye out for what Fiona Evans does next. This may be your chance to say “I knew her when she was on the way up”.

Geordie Sinatra runs until 12th May at Live Theatre then transfers to the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 16th May to 2nd June.