If Mickey Johnston had not taken a wrong turn in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers then there’s a fair chance he’d have matured into Dennis Cain, Russell’s anti-hero in his comedy, One For The Road.
Dennis is a maverick who has somehow ended up suffocating in suburbia. He’s depressed about life passing him by, about losing his edge, and about being forced to come to terms with his 40th birthday (ha, wait until your 50th!).
And perhaps his frustrations are shared by the Royal & Derngate’s artistic director Laurie Sansom who, after seven years, gives us Russell’s play as his own swansong before furthering his career with the National Theatre of Scotland.
Lots of us have lived, at some time in our lives, on faceless housing estates that are designed like rabbit warrens. The houses and streets look cloned and, after a fashion, the residents are all pretty much the same – unless you’re fortunate to live in posh “phase two” and look down on those in the earlier “phase one” homes.
Pauline Cain aspires to fit in and her neighbours, Jane and Roger, are already entrenched. But Dennis is a menace. He wants to be 18 again. He turns the music up loud and subversively skulks around the neighbourhood getting up to no good.
His wife despairs.
This anthem for lost youth is typical Willy Russell and no-one does little boy lost better than one of his favourite actors, Con O’Neill (who was such a hit as Johnston).
A lot of middle aged members of the audience can relate to his mid-life crisis. Where do the years go? One minute you’re moshing to the Sex Pistols and, the next, your loved ones are trying to persuade you to love John Denver and comfy slippers.
Dennis rails against Tupperware, country music, and aging. He eventually goes into meltdown but will he have the courage of his convictions?
Michelle Butterly as the social-climbing Pauline, Nicola Stephenson as Jane and Matthew Wait (Roger) are utterly recognisable. We’ve all endured them through residents’ meetings, PTAs and the like. Jane is a bit too much like Mike Leigh’s iconic social climber, Beverly, from Abigail’s Party but ultimately this is Dennis’s story.
The husky-voiced O’Neill is engrossing and, I suspect, gets a certain admiration from men in the audience who sympathise with his plight.
It’s a hysterically funny suburban sit-com that had the press night crowd crying with laughter. The night ended with more tears as Laurie was given a fond farewell. He’ll be missed.