Review: The Club - A CIU  Story at Laurels Whitley Bay

Review: The Club – A CIU Story at Laurels Whitley Bay

The Club – A CIU Story by Aimee Shields

Hellcat Theatre at Laurels Whitley Bay

16th July 2023

I have been to Laurels once before and I was enchanted then. This time round they have been even more inventive in how they can accommodate theatre in their space which covers three storeys. Prior to becoming Laurels, the venue was a social club of some 120 years and it is very fitting that it should play host to The Club – A CIU Story.

At the start of this highly creative production, we are whisked back to the year 1975 and as the story develops, we are taken on a linear journey through to the early 1980s. All of the action is set in Elbottle Working Men’s Club and at the start we are welcomed to a sending off party for Suzie Marshall (Amy Cameron) who is heading off to Cambridge University. We meet a whole variety of people who frequent the ‘clurb’ in a variety of roles. We meet proud mother, Shirley Marshall (Mel Armstrong Purdy) who is busying herself organising everyone for her daughter’s send off, Suzie’s sister Mary-Ann Edwards née Marshall who works behind the bar. We learn that Mary-Ann is not he so patiently waiting for her boyfriend Danny (Michael Hunter) to make an honest woman of her which happens in due course. 

This play takes anyone who was around working men’s clubs at the time or even more recently on a voyage of nostalgia where the audience is transported into the smoky, spit and sawdust dives that they were and we also instantly recognise some of the characters. This is to the credit of writer Aimee Shields whose keen observation is very evident. Aimee also directs the piece along with Stephanie Corbett and both perform as everywomen.

The performance is presented in the lounge bar of Laurels and is intentionally and beautifully interactive. The characters weave in and out of the room as they would in any club up and down the country. They interact and get people to join in when the narrative suggests it and this all adds to the atmosphere. But there is a much deeper message to be taken from the narrative around equal rights and pay, domestic violence, latent and overt homophobia, and suicide.

I do not want to talk too much about the actual storyline because there are elements that will ring true to others that I may have missed and things that caught me that may not resonate with others. Suffice it to say that everyone will take something from this exquisitely crafted and immersive piece of theatre and it deserves a long run going forward. 

There are some superb performances including Gary-John Phillips (Ryan Lee Chatton) whose acting and costumes take you through his own journey of discovery, Danny Edwards whose difficult relationship with his father is briefly touched upon and Uncle ‘Switzerland’ Ted (John McMahon) is outstanding as the man who takes no side but makes his opinions known when all hell breaks loose among the membership of Elbottle WMC.  The cast is made up of Steven Lowes, Richard Makepeace, Lesley Saint-John, Sharon Facinelli, Chris Gotts, and Mike Yeaman who all add colour to the multi-faceted membership of this rather dysfunctional club. 

This production is very well thought out. The interactive elements are inventive and in keeping with the narrative. The musical interludes are appropriate to the period in which the play is set and the way it is presented will take you back to times gone by or transport you there if you were not around in those days. Some significant thought has gone into how the club looks and there are some witty visuals to keep you entertained even before the action starts. 

I am led to believe that there is more than one possible ending to the show and while I was suitably satisfied dramatically if not through any sense of justice in the conclusion this evening – again I will not elaborate for those who have seen it and may wish to again – or for those yet to go. 

This is a socially conscious piece of writing and huge congratulations to all the cast, crew, and creatives – and indeed everyone involved in bringing these important messages in such an entertaining and provoking manner. 

There are two more performances (for which you can buy tickets) of The Club – A CIU Story at Laurels on 18th and 20thJuly and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I really hope that Hellcat Theatre are able to take it on the road because everyone is sure to have a wonderful evening – with entertainment in ‘The Club.’

Stephen Stokoe

Photos taken by Robert Carr// RGR Films. 

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