Once a Year on Blackpool Sands Review

Bread and Roses Theatre – 17 June touring UK until 21 July

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


Blackpool, 1953, and young miners Tommy and Eddie are ready to enjoy their yearly holiday together. With every other guesthouse full, they book into Withering Heights on Sea, run by snobbish and nosy Gladys, helped reluctantly by her daughter Maureen. The only other residents are Gladys’ mother Red Ethel, former communist showgirl and Mr Elbridge, a heterosexual transvestite gathering the courage to walk from the north to the south pier dressed as his female alter ego. Eddie tries to convince Tommy to leave with him, instead of returning to Yorkshire, but Eddie is hiding his true reasons for this sudden need to start afresh.

Based on a true story, told to writer/director Karlton Parris by Tommy and Eddy in the 1980s, the story of the two lovers is inspiring and uplifting as they escape from their restricted lives in the Yorkshire mining village, but the characters surrounding the men are so big and loud that this central story is in danger of getting swamped. At times the play feels like a tender love story trapped inside a Carry On film.

The shabby set, with tatty furniture crammed with bric-a-brac, evokes the feel of a less salubrious boarding house, with simple projections used to signal in which room each scene is set. Gladys (Wendy Laurence James) is a complete caricature, slipping double entendres into every conversation and bullying her tender-hearted daughter Maureen (Mollie Jones). Macaulay Cooper and Kyle Brookes are convincing as the two lovers, but the scenes where Maureen gives Tommy advice are where Cooper lets Tommy’s innocence shine through. Linda Clark as Red Ethel steals every scene she’s in with a wonderfully OTT performance full of foul-mouthed reminiscing about her time in Russia while Dominic McCavish is outstanding as Mr Elbridge, with not much to do in the first act, but some quietly brilliant scenes in the second.

Parris obviously loves these characters, but there’s just too much going on, with lots of needless postcard humour taking the focus away from the courage and beating heart at the centre – the stories of Tommy, Eddie and Mr Elbridge. This is a story that should be shared, but a lot of work is needed to fashion a coherent and wholly satisfying play.