Once Upon A Time In Wigan

Date 29th July 2021
Society NK Theatre Arts
Venue Romiley Forum
Type of Production Drama
Director Kerry Day


Author: Stephanie Niland (District 1 Drama Rep)

We have been slowly emerging from the Covid cocoon, visiting loved ones and frequenting restaurants and bars once more but, for me, it would take attending a rehearsal or a trip to a theatre to feel a proper sense of hope that normality or at least some resemblance of creative balance would be restored. 

It may not have been a landmark Shakespearean play or anything of a huge scale production, but Once Upon a Time in Wigan, performed by NK Theatre Arts in Romiley, marked a return for us District 1 NODA reps into the embrace of live amateur theatre once more and boy was it welcome. 

Whenever patronizing The Forum Theatre, home of NK Theatre Arts, I’m always struck by the impressive facilities. It delights me that an amateur company and community theatre should be so equipped and furnished in readiness for producing live theatre created by people with a real love of it.

Once Upon a Time in Wigan is a celebrational play, honoring the era of Northern Soul at a particular nationally renowned venue- The Wigan Casino. Seen through the eyes of, mainly, Eugene, a butcher’s assistant who we see fall under the spell of this movement and become an avid devotee- and 3 other characters: Danny, Northern Soul disciple; Maxine, Eugene’s love interest and representation of “every woman” during this era and the lonely and complex character, Suzanne, who becomes Maxine’s friend and so completes the companion quartet. 

Set in the 70s, preceding club culture and thumping raves, the Northern Soul music movement saw dance halls and discos full to the sweaty brim of flared trouser and Fred Perry wearing youngsters, throwing unique shapes to (mostly) American Soul and Motown music. It was a hedonistic era of drug fueled all-nighters that were all about the music and the dancing. For the characters in this play the promise of the weekend at the Casino was the medicine that got them through the illness of the working week. Desperate to fill voids and lift themselves out of the humdrum, dismal existence of low-wage 70s Britain, they would ingest genital- shrinking amphetamines and endure long hangovers just to experience the highs of the dancefloor. The precise detail of the piece written by Mick Martin is noticeable, it helps the Northern Soul ignorant to understand and live vicariously through the characters but also jolts the memories of those in the audience who were there and who also lived for those weekends!

Eugene was played brilliantly by Liam Bunka. He found the poetry in the monologues and descriptive passages. His energy and enthusiasm for the role shone through. You got the sense of a frustrated philosopher and creative who had never found his niche and was stuck in an existence that he didn’t want to define him. Liam played Eugene so lost that when he was “found” at the Wigan Casino, we could believe his absolute devotion to the church of Northern Soul. Even his obsessive love for Maxine was born out of his dramatic need for a higher reality and a more meaningful life. Well done – a joy to watch. We felt very safe in your hands. 

The talented Maisie Noble played Maxine - a great role to get your teeth into. With this character there is a true sense of unfulfilled potential- rather than a dreamer, Maxine is capable of great things but circumstances and a sense of playing the cards you’re dealt with, held her back and kept her confidence from blossoming. Maisie was able to put across the boredom and discontent with a dry delivery and air of pathos behind the humorous lines. You believed she loved Eugene but longed for more normality. 

Ryan Taylor played Danny with a good deal of naturalism and there were moments of true belief in his emotions. The rapport between the male members was authentic. His performance showed the difference between Eugene and Danny, in that Danny was less of a dreamer, although the rollercoaster Danny travels throughout the play is elating and devasting for him, he seems more resigned to a life of drudgery and more philosophical about the demise of the Casino scene. He was likable and the delivery was chilled and natural.  It is a shame that the wig was a little distracting though.  

Suzanne was performed by Lucy Worthington. An entirely different energy came from Suzanne and it lifted the scenes beautifully. Although the character that was the least engaged with the whole Northern Soul scene, her need was not the drugged heightened escapism but the friendship and sense of belonging. Lucy was able to put across Suzanne’s faceted character very well, we genuinely felt for her towards the play’s end, when one could react in the opposing fashion had it been played differently. A good performance.

I think the decision to stage the play very lightly was a great one. Allowing the cast, the photos, films and music to take centre stage was the best course of action. It really helped the audience to have the visuals, to understand the nature and hypnotic power of the dance halls. 

It would have been very difficult to try and conjure the feeling of the crowded dance floor with only 4 players, so the fact that it was more pointedly abstract was a good choice made by the experienced director, Kerry Day. Some of the scene changes felt a little longer than necessary which risked the audience losing focus – some of the actors were involved in the scene changes which was a great idea, through necessity or a conscious decision, I don’t know- but perhaps having more of that style of change, and even lit, may have helped the flow a little. (I appreciate it was opening night so these may have tightened up by day 2!)

The 5th member of the cast was definitely the music, it would have been tragic if that were not the case, so bravo for letting it shine. Again, it aided those members of the audience with no real idea what Northern Soul was or sounded like, but it was obvious that it was very nostalgic for some punters – as they were singing along and even on their feet at some points. We attended on the Thursday performance and were told that a live DJ would be used during the rest of the run which would have added an exciting and immersive element, I am sure. 

To sum up, this was a greatly received performance, not only because of the emitting gratitude of the audience due to it symbolizing the end of lockdown and the cultural and creative dry spell, but because it was a well-acted and put together piece. Was it perfect- no, but then art is not meant to be perfect- that’s one of its best features! The effort and energy was radiating from the stage. It took us away from Covid ravaged Britain and we lived through the social, political and cultural turmoil of 70s Britain and it reminded us that we always find the good times even in times of unrest and chaos and Once Upon a Time in Wigan was one of those moments for us during these unprecedented times. A poetic, northern celebration of a snapshot in time! Congratulations and thank you.