This gritty and nostalgic debut drama from the pen of actor Dermot Canavan spends much of its time reminiscing about life in early Seventies Britain, but it still finds time to tug at the heartstrings as this snapshot of ordinary northern life hurtles towards its final conclusion.
It’s a tale of two estranged sisters, Niamh and Grace, who haven’t spoken since the death of their mother, but now suffering from cancer herself, Niamh reunites with her sibling over a shoebox full of old photographs, kick starting an emotional rollercoaster ride down memory lane.
Flashing past experiences that are both joyous and grotesque, we visit their very cosy and very ‘brown’ early Seventies childhood. It’s an ordinary world of Thursday evening fish and chip suppers spent watching ‘Top Of The Pops’ on the telly, and staying up late afterwards for ‘Colditz’ and ‘Monty Python’ while waiting for mum and dad to come back from the pub. But it’s also a world visited regularly by the flailing fists of their father - he’s “lover boy” to their loving mother but a man all too ready to exercise his own brand of discipline with his children if drunk or dissatisfied.
In flashback, time moves on as Niamh matures, progressing from playing ‘White Horses’ with her sister and reading ‘Bunty’ to taking in the adverts for the Brook Advisory Clinic on the pages of ‘Fab 208’. And it’s as she grows that she begins to escape into the soul clubs of her hometown.
Younger sister Grace is left at home as the primary target for their father’s uncontrolled violence, taking the full force of his rage while Niamh has absconded to the Wigan Casino for her first soul all-nighter. As we imagine the elder sister floating across the beautifully sprung floorboards of the Casino ballroom, her sense of awe and wonder is interspersed with scenes of the brutality at home, a harrowing flashback brilliantly created by the two actresses who manage to make an entire family come to life during the father’s brutal assault.
Northern Soul gives the play its soundtrack and Niamh’s passion for dancing offers her an escape from her reality. The play is punctuated by exhilarating bursts of Casino classics - we hear Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’, Jimmy Radcliffe’s ‘Long After Tonight Is All Over’ and, of course, ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’, the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas b-side that so energises the two girls and their synchronised dance routines.
The play is inspired by the Preston upbringing of its writer and the lives of his own sisters, but it’s the exuberant acting performances that elevate this intimate two-hander to a higher level. Imogen Stubbs is joyously spontaneous as Niamh and Amanda Daniels returns so impressively to the role of Grace, a part she helped to evolve in an earlier and much shorter incarnation of the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
During the flashbacks both women are able to slip seamlessly from the childlike innocence of youth to the cynical world-weariness of today. But in the course of two hours they also inhabit so many other voices and characters that by the end of this rollercoaster journey, it takes a few moments to appreciate that this story has been brought to life by just two women, with only a sofa, a hat stand and a battered old record player for company.
'Third Finger, Left Hand' runs until April 27, 2013, at the Trafalgar Studios, London