Odds are the vast majority of Summerhall visitors have never been to Skelmersdale. I can’t recommend a visit if you’re looking for a city break, to be honest: the new town boasts at best a large ASDA. Nevertheless, Jackie Hagan’s script celebrates its inhabitants, who are as forgotten as the town, in a way that reigns ultimately triumphant despite an Us vs. Them mentality which seeps between the lines of her dialogue.
The set design is inspired: Birch Green is rendered in hideously utilitarian-looking concrete blocks that could’ve been lifted from the estate itself – the only thing that’s missing is the ever optimistic sign declaring Skem “World Class for Business” (there is a shout-out for the town’s roundabout sculptures, much to my delight). Projected across the set are surtitles, a beautifully accessible touch that opens up Graeae’s mission statement to the audience.
The writing, however, seems to avoid a different realm of accessible knowledge. It’s a two-hander that revolves around conversations between high school friends Shaun and Dent. Despite the existence of the internet and a million new phenomena at our fingertips, we’re to believe that Shaun has no knowledge of Shakespeare (perhaps) or hot yoga (come on). Instead, Dent’s time at university marks her position at one extreme of the intellectual scale, with Shaun/those who stay in Skem on the other. It’s hard to buy Shaun’s simultaneous lack of cultural knowledge and his powerful speech, where he contextualises the Shakespearean concept of the ‘fatal flaw’ into the council estate life he’s living in. It all smacks of those indistinguishable, heartwarming films about inner city kids. The writing can’t decide whether to lend the inhabitants of Skelmersdale the same realm of knowledge that’s offered to the audience, meaning it instead hits a no-man’s land of pseudo-intelligence for a large portion of the play.
The performances are more convincing. Rachel Denning’s accent is impeccable: she sounds like my aunty Carole. Reuben Johnson gives a valiant effort, although a forced R or K betrays his Mancunian heritage. Together, the pair take on the two-handler very well: there’s plenty of yelling and emoting, but they’re at their best when the script gives them that room to breathe, the quiet contemplation when after a day’s rigmarole trying to secure a prescription we find Dent and Shaun just sat on the sofa. Splitting a bag of chocolates in the dark, this is when we really see the old high school friends’ chemistry spill out. Their discussion still contains the harsh truths (family loss, bullying, sexuality) but here it’s in confidence, not belted out over the park. It’s a quiet celebration of the people and relationships who keep Skem from being just another of those forgotten towns.
Cosmic Scallies is on at Royal Exchange Manchester until October 14th. Book tickets here.