REVIEW: Early Doors, The Lowry, Salford
For many, it was a love affair which was all too brief.
Just 12 episodes of near-perfect situation comedy graced our screens 15 years ago – and then Early Doors was gone, in a puff of smoke akin to that from old Tommy’s fag end.
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey’s affectionate creation, which celebrated the marvellous mundanity of life among a group of low-ambition pub dwellers in a Stockport boozer, wasn’t granted a third series by the BBC.
That decision consigned Early Doors to cult status and in hindsight was perhaps for the best, ensuring its reputation was firmly intact, like Fawlty Towers.
And then, like a lost love, it was announced Cash (of Royal Family fame) and Mealey were to bring The Grapes back to life with a two-hour live stage show.
Had too much water passed under the bridge?
Could they write a script that would live up to the warmth, humour and unrivalled one-liners of its TV show predecessor?
It was a challenge and a half – but one they have truly conquered with aplomb.
It was wonderful, a self-deprecating, feel-good continuation of the life and times of a ragtag bunch of characters, who were each cheered on to the stage like old friends as they arrived through The Grapes’ doors.
Like the show, it revolves around hangdog pub landlord Ken and his battles with the women in his life – barmaid Tanya and battle-axe mum Jean.
From the first scene, actor John Henshaw is simply masterful, aided by a script which stayed true to his sarcastic brilliance and swift put downs, all delivered with his Mancunian twang.
The majority of the cast are the same - bent coppers Phil and Nige pitch perfect with their latest tales of ineptitude and laments at modern policing (“Once, if we had a crime we’d match it with a criminal - now they want evidence, Ken”).
Joe (Cash) and Duffy (Mealey) maintained their dumb and dumber double act, with vaping and internet dating now replacing filled ashtrays and mucky texts as their favoured pastimes.
Cleaner Winnie (Joan Kempson) and pork scratching-loving drinker Debbie (Lisa Millett) are superb with Kempson in particular excelling as Jean’s chief tormentor with her incessant, inhaler-inducing ripostes.
Of the newcomers, Jean (now played by Judith Barker) is a triumph, who provides a seamless transition from the two-faced chocoholic from the small screen.
It’s not perfect - old Tommy doesn’t quite cut it and June and Freddie (copycat characters of absent Joan and Eddie) feel like outsiders.
But it’s the sum of all their parts that make this stage adaptation a worthy bookend for a show more popular than the BBC gave it credit for, judging by the extended, near sell-out tour.
Cash is effectively making his stage debut here and he tripped up occasionally through stifled laughter, but the brief ad-libbing only added to the hilarity and sense of Northern warmth which filled the 1,730-seat Lyric theatre.
The unexpected musical finale is life-affirmingly joyful, a loosely-choreographed celebration of each character’s contribution to a comedy masterpiece.
We’re living in nostalgic times - and many in the audience will have harked back to their own happy memories of smoke-filled boozers where relationships were made and lost.
Where jukeboxes ruled the roost before Spotify and the only food on offer was a bag of Cheese and Onion crisps instead of tiresome ‘triple-cooked chips’ so omnipresent in chain pubs.
It comes to Blackpool Opera House for one night only. Do yourself a favour and get a ticket - or you will forever say ‘I wish I was there!’
Early Doors, Blackpool Opera House, Wednesday October 3. Tickets via www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk