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Review: Birds of a Feather, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

The birds of a “fevver” have taken to the air once again to entertain theatre audiences around the country... although one of them was grounded on Tuesday’s first night in the North East

Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke in Birds of a Feather
Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke in Birds of a Feather

The birds of a “fevver” have taken to the air once again to entertain theatre audiences around the country... although one of them was grounded on Tuesday’s first night in the North East.

Linda Robson, who was Tracey in the TV series and is Tracey once again on stage, missed her flight from London to Newcastle.

A groan went up in the Theatre Royal as the news was announced - the kind that must strike fear into the heart of an understudy.

On in Linda’s place came Penelope Woodman who won the audience’s warm applause and a significant big hug from fellow ‘birds’ Pauline Quirke (Sharon) and Lesley Joseph (Dorien) at the final curtain call.

Missing a performance – other than for illness or bereavement – is about as bad as it gets for an actor, particularly one whose enormous popularity and TV profile will be some people’s sole reason for buying a ticket.

In the interval I was chatting to the show’s producer, Steve Sheen, who also happens to be married to Pauline Quirke. He said Linda was “devastated” by the turn of events.

Apparently she missed her scheduled Newcastle flight due to a road accident which caused a traffic hold-up en route to the airport. Then the next flight was cancelled.

Instead she took a flight to Edinburgh and got in a taxi – but was still too late for the Newcastle performance.

It gave Ms Woodman the chance to spread her wings in the part of Tracey while her part, as Detective Sergeant Teddern, was in turn taken by her understudy, Judith Rae.

Despite the shenanigans, the audience – largely female but not so much that I felt like an interloper – appeared to have a good time. A woman in the row behind me appeared to be on the verge of having kittens. There was laughter at the jokes and even louder laughter between the jokes.

Birds of a Feather was a hit long before the only way was Essex. Set in Chigwell in that fair county, and featuring three women you would not describe as shy and retiring, it ran for 102 episodes between 1989 and 1998.

The gags, which alarmed the BBC governors until the ratings came in, were written by men, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are credited as the series creators.

Two more men, Gary Lawson and John Phelps, also wrote some of the episodes and make their theatre debut with this stage version.

Fast forwarding several years from the TV scenario, we find Tracey receiving a letter from Dorien who hasn’t darkened their doorstep for quite some time.

She summons them to an address, the Cherish residential home for the well-off elderly. The chalk-and-cheese sisters, Sharon and Tracey, jump to a conclusion – that highly-sexed ‘Dor’ has finally hung up her libido and is planning to bequeath them all her wealth.

Of course, they couldn’t be more wrong. But my job here is not to give the plot away.

I simply have to report that Lesley Joseph still has a figure many women half her age would kill for, and legs that would get wolf whistles in the Bigg Market – although the wig could prove problematic.

Pauline Quirke, who is taking the opportunity while in the North East to visit the stage schools she has established in Newcastle and Durham, has the audience in the palm of her hand.

The show sails along on an undercurrent of petty crime (oh, and a killing) and is as warm as it is rude. The Vagina Monologues with knobs on just about sums it up, and what more could the hen party crowds possibly hope for?

Birds of a Feather, with Linda Robson back in the nest, runs at the Theatre Royal until Saturday.

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