The Club from Hellcat Theatre
Whitley Bay Laurels Theatre
Until Saturday 22nd July 2023
An immersive play about feminism reaching the CIU clubs in the 1970s, written and directed by Aimee Shields, delivers an effective punch on Tyneside over the next couple of weeks.
The blurb says: "The year is 1975. Margaret Thatcher is elected leader of the Conservative Party, unemployment hits one million for the first time and Lord Lucan is missing and guilty of murder. In the mining village of Elbottle, County Durham, bright spark Suzie Marshall celebrates being the first ever girl accepted to Cambridge from her grammar school. Though Bill “Big Bollocks” Kennedy is Chairman of the WMC her sister works at, Suzie’s single Mam practically runs the place, even though she’s not allowed full membership.
Family friend and hairdresser Gary feels out of place in the village he grew up in, but right at home in the gay bars of the Toon. In the coming years, Suzie struggles to reconcile her heritage with the Women’s Lib rhetoric she’s absorbing at Uni and prompts calls for change in CIU rules, but will the Committee accept it? This immersive experience recreates the lively atmosphere of Club life and questions whether it would be better, for all our sakes, to keep these gendered spaces. So bring your bingo dabbers, your homemade corned beef sarnies and make yourself at home. Have your say. Join us for an evening at The Club."
A cast of 14 create a series of vignettes from the mid 70s through to the 80s. If you have been to a club, or indeed were around in that era, then you'll recognise much of what happens. In the opening scene the club is preparing for a party as young Suzie (Amy Cameron) is the first person since the vicar to leave the area and go to university. The buffet is made up of sandwiches, sausage rolls and stuff on a cocktail stick. The moment I thought that director Aimee Shields had captured the era is when some of the food is carried in by a man with a tab in his mouth clearly not concerned that the ash is probably falling on the food. The cigarettes are fake but the sentiment is there.
The dynamic is quickly set up between the chairman/committee who make the rules/take the credit and the largely female staff who actually do the work. Steven Lowes delivers his character Bill as the chairman who swaggers in full of self importance. Likewise Mel Armstrong Purdy has nailed the character of Shirley as a swan (appears to majestically have everything under control but beneath the surface is working much harder than others acknowledge). The pivot in these matters is Uncle Ted (John McMahon) who has done his research in to the actual origins of the CIU club movement. The sage like character has done his homework unlike the others around him.
In the next scene Suzie is back on her vacation working behind the bar. She is full of ideas, largely down to joining the Women's Lib Society. A strong desire to break up the status quo and put the females in the club on an equal footing. The origins of feminism are at odds with those who seek not to rock the boat, as well as those who feel that they have a valid stake in preserving the patriarchy.
The play exposes the common held beliefs of the time. The club is divided into genders - the bar is for men to get drunk, let off steam and swear if they want to. The lounge is for the accompanied women to sip on their fruit based refreshment (Babycham, anyone?) The men are full members who are allowed on the snooker table, the women are lady members who can play pool if they wish.
I guess at this point I need to state that I have been a member of clubs since the 80s, as has my wife and my university based son works in one during the vacations. I know...just like the characters here. My wife's Dad may have been the snooker team captain at the first club we belonged to but she could not play on the snooker table as she might "put a cue through the baize". Has anyone ever actually done that? As you can imagine, we passed knowing glances as we watch the play as we have also had the same arguments back in the day. (In case you're wondering - that club was demolished in the 00s and never gave women full rights.)
So as the play develops the audience get more involved. We have a game of bingo and finally we have a vote on whether women should get full membership and be allowed on the committee. The audience have, of course, got a 2023 mindset.
(As I type this, I have a copy of this month's CIU newsletter in front of me and the entire editorial team are white males aged over 50 - perhaps there is still a need for change so the movement reflects its community)
By using a large cast in one half of the bar area of Laurels means that the show looks and feels right. There are plenty of people in the party scenes - you get a proper conga on New Year's Eve for example. The bar looks like a bar as it is a bar - even if it serves short measures of what looks like apple juice. This is a well written ensemble piece. The cast are engaging which helps the audience commit to the story.
The Club is an important play that looks at an important part of northern social history. It was well worth the trip to the coast and it deserves to tour (around the clubs perhaps?).
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Robert Carr
Tickets are available through the theatre website: https://www.laurelswhitley.co.uk/theatre.