There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis

Wed 19th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

Archie Hill

at 09:59 on 23rd Aug 2015

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At a first glance, Ovation’s production of There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis has a lot to commend it: take an original and humorous scenario – the Kilmarnock branch of the Elvis Presley fan club trying to meet their idol during his brief (and only) visit to the UK in March 1960 – add a soundtrack of nostalgic classics, and on paper you’ve got a solid piece of feel-good entertainment.

This would be doing TAGWDTCSSHE (it’s not a very catchy acronym) a disservice: it’s not just a piece of retro quirkiness, or a string of comic encounters. In fact, the King himself plays something of a backseat role. In reality, Jennifer Selway’s thoughtful and intelligent script deals primarily with friendships, split over two decades: Act One dealing with a group of teenage girls bonding over their mutual love of Elvis; Acts Two and Three set twenty years later, revolving around the fallout that arises from their fateful encounter with the great man.

From its humorous beginning, with the four fairly ditsy but identifiable heroines, comes a surprisingly wistful and incisive exploration of social values and sexual politics in the new era of the Permissive Society.

Beyond the stream of potentially bewildering contemporary references – lost on those who don’t known their Buddy Holly from their Dixon of Dock Green – the majority of the play dealt with more accessible issues, contrasting the light-hearted innocence of youth with the darker, more despondent scenes of adulthood. At times it felt as though the balance between the two could have been more finely managed, occasionally veering somewhat abruptly from the humorous to the sombre and more overtly melodramatic.

The soundtrack was mostly a delight, bringing the era properly to life. Highlights included a rendition of ‘The Book of Love’ performed by a vocal harmony trio of philosophical US Army soldiers, and a particularly poignant ‘It’s My Party’ sung by Pamela Wernham whose performance as main character Jeannie was excellent throughout.

One minor quibble: some of the lyrics were drowned out slightly by the band on occasion, though not enough to detract from the fun that the cast were clearly having.

Credit is also due to Hannah Howie, as she endeavoured to extract every last ounce of drunken, dissolute bitchiness from the character of Zoe. Another all too painfully believable piece of bastardry came from the slimy Rob played by Scott McFarlan, with an equally loathsome hairdo.

Altogether, TAGWDTCSSHE, if somewhat sagging in its attempts to fill a 110-minute running time, is well worth a watch, with a script at turns both witty and reflective, helped along by a capable and enthusiastic cast.

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Becky Wilson

at 10:17 on 23rd Aug 2015

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Set in 1960s western Scotland, this ‘play with music’ offers a glimpse into the minds of four Elvis-obsessed teenage girls as they grapple with growing up, and struggle against small-town claustrophobia.

The acting here is generally strong, and the nostalgic soundtrack beautifully performed: this is most definitely the play’s high point. However, a certain clumsiness in the play’s creation means relationships and scenarios are difficult to empathise with. And the play’s abrupt, cheerful conclusion, in which audience members are invited to jive along to Elvis’ hits, is completely incongruous with the tone of bitterness.

It is undeniable that the play is well-executed. We follow the girls from adolescence into adulthood: over the course of the interval, the characters are stripped of their glittering, wide-eyed youth and transformed into disillusioned middle aged women still trapped in the same town that they dreamed long ago of escaping. In particular, Lizzie (Alison Tenant) has, by the start of the second act, completely embodied the weariness of middle age, with cynical smile and self-assured posture to boot. Huge credit must also be given to the costume and makeup team: their thoughtful additions of pearl earrings and red lipstick really heighten the impression that twenty years have passed.

It is clear that the combined efforts of a hard-working cast and innovative behind-the-scenes team make this a highly professional production. Indeed, the play’s staging is also imaginative. It consistently manages to hold the audience’s attention, even in the first act when all of the action takes place in Jeanie’s (Pamela Wernham’s) teenage bedroom.

It is the music, however, which is the strongest part of the production. When the script falls short, it is the singing of well-chosen vintage pop songs which offers insight into the characters’ vulnerability: the most powerful moments are when the girls’ warm voices interweave with each other to a beautiful emotional climax. The transitions from speaking into singing were slick and naturalistic; it calls itself a ‘play with music’ rather than a musical and there are certainly no jazz hands in sight here.

Unfortunately the play’s comedic pretentions fall short. The jokes that are lavishly scattered throughout the script fall flat, evoking a few mere titters from the audience. And the final scene of the play, in which Jeanie, her unfaithful husband Rob (Scot McFarlan) and ex-friend Zoe (Hannah Howie) hurl nasty insults at one another, is far from funny. At this point, the plot remains static, the arguments cyclical and the script depends heavily upon tired clichés.

Because it is difficult to connect emotionally to these characters, it’s easy to find flaws in the plot. I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief at the mystery surrounding Jeanie’s intimacy with Elvis. There’s a clumsy attempt to inject political context into the play when an American guard (Jos Slovick) compares pop music to nuclear war. And I think anyone under the age of fifty would struggle with a lot of the cultural references.

The actors did the best job they could with what is ultimately a rather flawed play. Unfortunately, despite the final attempt to uplift audiences with jiving, I left feeling quite cold inside.

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