Although it is adapted from twenty-year-old television scripts, it is cinema that immediately springs to mind as we take our seats for Up in Town. The bijou Hope Theatre stage is bedecked in classic film posters and our ears are treated to a few well-known soundtrack snippets. Why soon becomes clear. The touchingly melancholic life story of our middle-aged divorcee protagonist is packed full of film references and memories. I particularly enjoyed talk of Sly Stallone’s Rocky, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Tom Selleck’s tickly moustache; but, genuinely, all tastes are catered for.
Up in Town was initially broadcast in 2022 in the form of six ten-minute monologues from writer Hugo Blick. Shown on BBC 2 as a vehicle for Joanna Lumley, they form a darkly comic character study exploring marital disappointment and solo living as one gets older. The show was clearly not conceived for the stage though. As a result, perhaps, the text remains resolutely episodic. There are many short scenes and blackouts. This means that, often as the drama builds, actress Priti Colbeck is frustratingly whisked off the stage only to return at a different point in her story. Without the magic of TV editing, this just feels odd.
On the plus side, this structure allows our protagonist to change costume more than the plot demands. No costume designer is credited, but there is a lot here to enjoy for the style-conscious including a knockout sequinned little black dress: what else should a first wife wear to her ex-husband’s funeral, after all? The set design, again uncredited, is also rewarding, with a simple dressing table set adorned with some neat and character-full details. Although the artist’s easel and live sketching (of whom? The ex-husband?) that is seen briefly but then forgotten left your reviewer somewhat bemused.
Besides the impromptu artwork, Ms Colbeck copes valiantly flying solo throughout. She does, however, give a performance that feels introspective and in a minor key. Vocally quiet at times too, she makes the audience lean into her portrayal of Blick’s heroine rather than come at us fighting. There is a lot of character detail, whimsy and gentle humour going on in the writing which is all very subtle to begin with. Her discussions of Spanx and handsome financial advisers, vets, cats and ratcatchers, and estranged sons and cheating husbands perhaps need more bang for their buck to really land. Laughs feel sporadic and polite when there’s surely scope for more.
Director David Fairs gets an additional ‘script adapter’ credit but it is not clear what this means. The text as performed feels far from a full-bloodied adaptation, as you might see for a novel or film. There’s no overarching plot, no major twists and turns and no dramatically satisfying conclusion to speak of. Yet the six ten-minute TV scripts have not, it seems, simply been staged in their original form. Sadly, we may have ended up with a slightly messy compromise between those two ideas.
I certainly applaud adapting Blick’s work. A longtime collaborator with Steve Coogan, he is one of British TV’s major talents, both as a writer and producer. Actress Priti Colbeck metaphorically goes toe-to-toe with Joanna Lumley coming out of the comparison well, and there is fun to be had with those nostalgic film references too. It all adds up to a fine night of fringe theatre even if the concept doesn’t quite feel fully formed for the stage.
Written by: Hugo Blick
Directed and Script Adaption by: David Fairs
Produced by: Priti Colbeck & Peter Colbeck
Up In Town plays The Hope Theatre for three more performances up to 18 April. Check here for further details on the show and dates.