Warning: this is not Hi-di-Hi

Lee Mattinson’s Chalet Lines isn’t the gentle drama about Butlins it’s made out to be – but when you take it for what it is, it’s very enjoyable.

Live Theatre has always taken risks with its new writing. As a result, it’s very much a hit-and-miss affair. It’s worth it for the hits, because when it gets it right it produces runaway successes such as And a Nightingale Sang and The Pitman Painters. The first half of this year, however, has been on the the other end of the scale. By almost all accounts, Nativities was a disappointment and Utopia was a disaster. Geordie Sinatra and Close the Coalhouse Door were successes, but they were co-productions where the lion’s share of artistic credit really goes to the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Northern Stage respectively. Fortunately, Live can call upon playwrights with past successes and loyal followings. Steve Gilroy brought The Prize to Live last month, and now it’s the turn of Live veteran Lee Mattinson to bring Chalet Lines, directed by Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush Theatre where this play was co-produced.

I’ll start with the problem: this is a play that doesn’t do what it says on the tin. I got this impression that this was going to be a play about what made families who went to Butlins in the 70s and 80s. In a modern world of package holidays and Easyjet, it would have very interesting subject to see what made people go to the same British resort year after year. Instead, this is play focuses on a disintegrating family, mostly set in the last two decades, and the setting of Butlins is only incidental. I noticed several people (presumably people who were expecting something gentle like Hi-di-Hi!) not return to their seats after the interval. You could argue that the play’s not for those people, and that you’ve already got their money anyway, but Live is pushing their luck. They’ve frequently marketed their plays differently to what’s in them: recently we’ve had Faith and Cold Reading which little to do with faith or cold reading, and I haven’t a clue what Nativities had to do with the Nativity. This is a bad habit and will cost Live future ticket sales if they’re not careful.

But let’s forget about that and look at this play for what this is: it’s a well-written portrayal of a seriously screwed-up family getting progressively more screwed up over the decades. And this is mostly at the hands of the mother, Loretta (Sharon Percy), whose idea of a family holiday is getting rat-arsed every night and practically expects her two daughters to work their way round the Butlins redcoats. Consequently, Jolene (Sammy T Dobson) goes through a string of doomed flings – the latest one being in the final day of a two-day “engagement”, whilst less flightly Abigail (Viktoria Kay) takes refuge in a dead marriage. Grandmother Barbara (Ann Ridley) disapproves of her other daughter Paula (Jill Dellow)’s choices of career, educated friends, and intelligent husband. Scene 1 is Barbara’s 70th birthday with the whole family reunited – except it isn’t. Paula is running late; so late, in fact, the truth comes out that Loretta never invited her. How has it come to this?

Louisa Robinson says:

“Viktoria Kay as Abigail resonated the most with myself, as a girl wanting to venture out on her own, and leave the club pack.”

Read More.

All will be explained in scene 2, 14 years earlier. Chalet Lines is a play that starts with the latest scene and goes backwards in time. Credit where it is due: scenes in reverse order are very difficult to write. Every new scene has the inevitable challenge of the audience trying to work out once again what the hell’s going on and how this fits into the previous/future scenes, but Lee Mattinson pulls it off and it’s not long before you’re up to speed again. Now it’s Paula’s hen night which she hopes will be a civilised affair with her work colleagues. Loretta begins by handing round cock-shaped straws and it all goes downhill from there. This is truly slow-motion car crash theatre at its most excruciating: you can hardly bear to watch as Loretta gets drunker, more obnoxious, but you have to look anyway. It is when Paula tries to stop Loretta’s psychological damage she’d doing to Abigail when all hell breaks loose. In Loretta’s defence, I got the impression she genuinely believed she does her daughters favours by pushing them into lives of lives of booze and casual sex, but I was still wondering by the end of the scene how it was possible that she’s avoided strangulation in the following 1.4 decades. (Lee Mattinson says that Loretta is based on a mother of a friend so awful that his friend was scared off having children. If you think you are the woman in question, I strongly advise you not to admit it.)

After the interval, however, I didn’t find the play quite so strong. Scene 3 is back in another 35 years, on grandmother Barbara’s wedding day, forced into marriage by her mother Edith (Donald McBride – yes, he is a man in real life, but, hey, he does a good enough job cross-dressing as pantomime dames and this works), to avert the scandal of a pregnancy outside marriage. Except that she’s not marrying the baby’s father, but a different man approved by the family. But whilst this made a good stand-alone scene, it was bit out on a limb from the rest of the play. What I really wanted to know was: how did Loretta end up the way she was? Apparently, early versions of the has a much larger number of scenes crossing the five decades, and in the original, Loretta, fathered by the man Barbara loved, was the favourite over Paula, fathered by the husband she didn’t. It was a shame this thread was cut from the story, because it could have explained so much.

The play also runs out of twists in the second half. Scene four fast forwards back grandma’s 70th, and Loretta’s inevitable breakdown when Abigail rebels and says she’s leaving her husband. (I almost felt sorry for Loretta until I remembered how irredeemable she’d been up to now.) The performance at this point was good, apart from Sharon Percy as Loretta who was excellent, but the inevitable ending had been set in stone so long ago, there was little room to keep the audience guessing and the remaining plot got a little too predictable. It’s difficult to juggle this with non-chronological scenes, but I’ve always felt you need to retain unpredicatabilty to some degree throughout the play.

I assume the set designer, Leslie Travers, doesn’t hold shares in Butlins, because the set of a the Butlins cabin was a very unflattering very manky cabin. (And to add insult to injury, at least one person commented that it looks just like a real Butlins cabin – and this was someone who’d been a long time ago when Butlins was supposed to be in its heyday. Ouch.) The walls and floor are falling apart, giving the actors the difficult task of perpetually walking on a sloping floor like it’s flat, but they manage it. The walls have coloured lights all over them, which may seem weird but it actually worked as a way of moving between the scenes.

Lee Mattinson received a lot of praise for writing female characters so convincingly. I personally think the trick to writing opposite sex characters is to just go ahead and write them, but he says his secret is that, as he’s gay, women talk to him with all their personal thoughts as if he’s one of them (which fuels my other theory which is that if you’ve got any sense you should never ever open up to a writer). Anyway, whatever the technique, it worked. The only thing I would be wary about is over-use of the same character types in future plays, because Loretta is very similar to an equally obnoxious character another play he was developing at the same time (M&S, S&M). Having got this far, it would huge pity if he fell into the trap of always writing more of them same. But for now, Live can breathe a sigh of relief, after a shaky first half of the year. New writing theatres such as Live don’t always make a good choice of golden boys and golden girls, but not this time. Live is lucky to have Lee Mattinson, and although I have a few reservations about this play, I wait with interest to see what he comes up with next.