Band of Gold – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Ellie Victor, December 2019
Many people will remember Band of Gold, the wildly popular TV series by Kay Mellor, aired from 1995 to 1997. Funny, sad and revealing, it broke new ground in dramatising the lives of sex workers in Bradford from their own perspectives. Kay Mellor had got to know some of the women (and is still in touch with three of them): the language and situations she used were theirs. Band of Gold rang with truth and was watched by 18 million viewers. It put Kay Mellor’s name on the map and is clearly still close to her heart.
Now one of Leeds’s most famous daughters, with multiple awards under her belt, Mellor has written and directed a stage version. Ever faithful to Yorkshire, she’s brought the world premiere to Leeds Grand Theatre first, before embarking on a major national tour. It’s greeted by a highly appreciative audience who enjoy hearing the voice of Kay Mellor herself introducing the show and begging us not to give spoilers. I’ll do my best.
But why revive this story now? Mellor writes in the programme notes, ‘…today there are even more women driven to sex work to make ends meet’, citing Universal Credit, austerity and cuts as some of the reasons. Why, then, stick with the early ‘90s context of the TV series and the original characters? Because, says Mellor, drugs and sex work are inextricably linked nowadays. She wants to explore the underlying, universal causes of prostitution as well; mental health issues, debt and most fundamentally, poverty. Her original characters’ back stories shed light on all these. They’re a composite of the many sex workers Mellor met, a spirited, quick-witted group whose humour and resilience were a gift for a writer whose trademark is accessible, poignant comedy rather than high-minded, angst-ridden social drama.
To distil many hours of TV into a single stage show is no easy task. For dramatic focus, Mellor has concentrated on one woman’s story, Gina’s, but she’s structured the play cleverly to reveal the lives of her three other main characters too. A lot is packed into two-and-a-half hours.
It’s a fast-moving, episodic production, brilliantly served by Janet Bird’s design. Tall screens, which project black-and-white images of Bradford buildings, glide from one area to another to reveal the women’s homes, streets and the pub where they meet and agree business. Jason Taylor’s spectacular lighting creates moods with vivid, primary colours which wash the entire stage or pinpoint locations. Always, we’re aware of the street lights above the Lumb Lane setting or, more pointedly, the murky corners they don’t illuminate.
Band of Gold is a play of two distinct halves. In the first, we meet Gina (Sacha Parkinson), who’s stalked by Steve (Kieron Richardson), the violent husband she’s recently thrown out. Gina is fighting to keep the roof over her head and her young daughter, to be free of her husband and from the attentions of Mr. Moore, a manipulative landlord and financial shark (Joe Mallalieu). It’s a desperate situation, not helped by her loving but cloth-eared mother whose partner is another controlling man, nor by her new job as an Avon lady which has yielded a total income of £48 over three weeks.
Selling cosmetics, Gina meets sex workers Anita, Rose and Carol whose lifestyles seem more comfortable than hers. Against their advice, she sees that selling sex at £25 to £30 a time is her only salvation. But these women, whether they realise it or not, are trapped by exploitative men who keep them in prostitution and yet despise them because they’re not ‘decent’. Gina enters their world and, despite their valiant joint efforts to protect her, the consequences reach a disastrous, dramatic climax at the end of the first half.
The second half is a crime investigation. The male characters don’t come out in glowing colours.
Mellor, true to form, has written a play full of compassion and admiration for people who defy the term ‘underdog’: it plumbs the depths of despair and reaches the dizzy heights of comedy. In this production, the comic elements are much more apparent than the tragedy.
It’s a glittering cast list with many familiar faces but while the central characters warm the cockles they don’t wring the heartstrings. I didn’t feel the despair that drives women into sex work and which is certainly in the script.
Gaynor Faye plays Rose who rules ‘The Lane’ forcefully but is fiercely caring and protective of the other women. With her rich strident voice and mane of hair, Faye has great presence and feistiness but is perhaps not as fearsome as she might be. Laurie Brett shows us the gullibility of her character, Anita, but not the demeaning horror of realising that her ‘boyfriend’ has been stringing her along for years and actually regards her with contempt, as a prostitute.
Emma Osman as Carol is very strong as the hard-bitten, money-seeking sex worker who suppresses her vulnerability in her constant mission to give a good life to the daughter she delivered in a mental institution. It’s an inspired directorial touch to show her in casual clothes at home just before she dresses to the nines for work: here is the woman we see at Tesco during the day and who sells sex at night.
Gina’s mum, a practical woman of a generation who stuck by their men for financial stability more than anything else, is given total credibility by Olwen May. For Kieron Richardson, well known from TV, this is his first stage role. He portrays Steve brilliantly, bringing necessary darkness and menace to a production which sometimes lacks it. He is truly scary as a brutal, immature guy who exerts control by physical intimidation.
The cameo role of Curly, a man who owns battery chicken factories, is a gift of a part, played to the hilt by Steve Garti. His scene, which begins with the prospect of terror, is a hilarious highlight of the show: I’ll say no more than that it involves pink rubber gloves, a pair of black stockings and stiletto heels.
At the moment, some of the direction is clunky: the pub is populated by several non-speaking characters whose main purpose is to move around and fill the space. Most of all, the comedy needs to be counter-balanced by allowing the main characters to reveal more of their emotional responses to the dark circumstances and desperate situations that they do their glorious best to overcome.
Nevertheless, Band of Gold the stage show is already well worth seeing – and was received enthusiastically by the audience.