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Birds of a Feather: From Screen to Stage - And Back Again?

02/07/2013 13:45 BST | Updated 29/08/2013 10:12 BST
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Last week, I was asked by "The Public Reviews" - which aims to provide an informed critique in a wide range of theatrical productions as well as reviewing new album releases - to write a review of the "Birds of a Feather" touring production as it arrived at The Grand Opera House in York. This week, the rumour is that the story of the Essex girls and their posh neighbour may be due to make a TV comeback, with the BBC considering a new script for the three main characters, Sharon, Tracey and Dorien. Those of a certain age and a certain sense of humour will have happy memories of the original TV series - but would the format transfer to the stage successfully enough to justify a new lease of life in a prime-time entertainment slot?

The current fashion for theatrical adaptations of legendary TV sitcoms has spawned a number of notable successes, the steep challenge for the actors generally being: get as close as possible to the characters as created by much-loved original performers on the telly. Happily, no such issue arises here; the original Birds of a Feather, Linda Robson, Pauline Quirke and Lesley Joseph, still flock together - and the chemistry so evident in the TV show of the eighties and nineties manages to rekindle itself, and how, on stage 15 years or more later. With contemporary references liberally sprinkled throughout the script, getting the laughs as well as firmly establishing the situation in the 21st century here and now, the overall effect is one of an old favourite given a smart new coat of paint and an air of the fresh and new on a familiar and fondly-remembered theme.

Things have moved on in the lives of the archetypal Essex girl sisters Sharon & Tracey, and their wantonly nympho neighbour Dorien. Neither of the girls are with their former jailbird partners, for differing reasons, and Dorien has been adventuring elsewhere until her own misfortunes prompt a reunion with her old friends. The three are back in the old routine almost immediately with a round-robin of insults and bitchiness, some well-intended, others of a more crudely visceral nature. The technique of the "false corpse" is put to good use as well; one of the ladies may appear to crack a smile not called-for in the script - the actors' dreaded "corpsing". But it's sometimes intended, as here, and it then has the desired effect of drawing the audience in and making them feel involved with what's going on up there on stage. This of course they love, and they laugh and applaud accordingly, feeling part of a shared experience - which is a big beacon of success for any theatrical comedy.

The stage, of course, presents challenges rather different to those presented by acting in front of a camera, but the three main characters make an effortless transition. There are some sparkling moments, of high comedy and low ribaldry alike, and the rapport between the three - such a memorable feature of the original TV incarnation - is still very much in evidence, especially when they are relaxing into banter between themselves. This central triumvirate is the Alpha and Omega of a show that doesn't do more than pay lip service to offering anything else. The supporting actors are up against it in having to create new characters against the tried-and-tested expertise of Quirke, Joseph and Robson. That they largely fail to make any real impression is somehow inevitable and does not detract from the overall effect - which is quite delightful.

The problem with the sub-plot is that it is rather thin. The problem with the main plot is that it is even thinner. But no amount of murder, betrayal, deceit or family issues can detract from the main point of the evening's entertainment. The fact is that both plots are incidental to this point, namely the provision of a theatrical vehicle for the revival of one of the most memorable and witty comedy trios of recent times. In this, the show succeeds brilliantly, and the inadequacies of the two-thread storyline are forgotten and forgiven as the ladies go about their work.

The result is a technically brilliant exposition of a comedic triangular relationship between the two sisters and their erstwhile neighbour. The point of attack switches constantly; one minute we have Pauline Quirke's Sharon on the back foot as the other two round on her, the next it may be Linda Robson's Tracey or Lesley Joseph's shimmeringly-brilliant Dorien who is under fire. The banter is sometimes light-hearted and sometimes plumbs the depths of vicious invective, but no-one can doubt the bond between these three. It is sharp, pacy, serve-and-volley humour and it has the audience screeching with delighted laughter, the acid test of any outstanding situation comedy passed with flying colours.

On the down side, the idea of video excerpts to bridge the gap between scenes is a bad one; a lot of plot and humour is lost due to the sheer inadequacy of the projection. Again, this is a drawback that is quite glaring in itself, but which doesn't diminish the production as a whole - due to the stars' utterly dominant performances.

For those in the audience who could remember the TV series - they wouldn't have been disappointed with what they saw. And anyone who came to the show as a newcomer to Birds of a Feather may well have had their appetites whetted for more. If it really is true that a new small-screen series is in the pipeline, then that is something to be eagerly anticipated. On the evidence of this theatrical offering, there's plenty of life left in the old Birds yet.