A brand new version of a life-affirming comedy from Amanda Whittington has made its way to Newcastle’s New Vic Theatre this month, and it’s the perfect play to shake off the winter blues.
Set in 2005, Pearl is set to retire from her job at the fish factory, and as a last hurrah, she, along with colleagues Jan, Shelley and Linda head off to the Royal Ascot as it relocates to York for one year only. With the world weighing heavy on their shoulders, the foursome are due a day off, so the women seize the chance to swap their overalls and fish filleting for fancy fascinators and heels and head off for a day of fizz, flirting and fun.
We’re introduced to the women wearing yellow wellies, white aprons, hair nets and marigolds as trays of fish roll down a conveyor waiting to be picked, weighed and packed. Underneath the white coats, we catch a glimpse of their personalities as they share jokes and stories as colleagues.
When manager Joe – one of the multitude of roles played by New Vic favourite Gareth Cassidy – says the girls can all have the day off to go to the Ascot, the hairnets and jackets are whipped off to reveal glamorous dresses paired with heels with which to walk the yellow brick road to York Racecourse, ditching the stark white walls of the factory for the technicolour tracks of the races.
Immediately, the script is a barrel of laughs, filled with noughties pop culture quips about Peter Kay, Blue and Robbie Williams – the latter of which was well received by the Staffordshire audience. These relatable references continue throughout the show after Amanda updated the play for 2023, the present-day parallels not at all lost on the audience.
The writer said: “It was fascinating to take a fresh look at the play through a present-day lens. In 2005, a divisive Tony Blair was returned as Prime Minister, Charles and Camilla were newly-weds and Prince Harry was misbehaving, so not everything has changed!”
At the races, the four friends find themselves on a winning streak, betting on horses named after Tony Christie’s songs. The singer is a huge part of the production, and has been ‘incredibly supportive’ of the play, almost feeling like an unofficial sixth member of the cast.
But between the race wins and bottles of prosecco, we uncover parts of these women’s lives that reveal it’s not just the horses that they’ve been gambling on.
As the show wears on, the women share their deepest secrets, struggles, flaws and fears, from Pearl’s seven-year love affair and Jan’s husband abandoning her family, to Linda’s abusive mother and Shelley’s crippling credit card debt. On the surface, these women mask their personal worries with some success, but guilt, stress and anxiety sees it all come flooding out.
The female-led production has been so wonderfully cast, with a range of new and familiar faces on the stage. Tanya-Loretta Dee, playing Jan, we saw in Family Album, and she steps fantastically into this role of the concerned friend and doting mum, while we’ve also seen Jo Patmore in As You Like It, which toured at the New Vic in 2022, who plays the shy and hopeful Tony Christie fan, Linda. Their innocence and naivety makes you want to fiercely protect them – but that’s something Pearl swoops in to do at the mother hen of the group.
Played by Kate Wood, Pearl is often seen looking out for others while talking fondly of her fella, Mick. So when it all comes out about her affair, it comes as a huge shock to the audience who have built her up in their minds as a pillar of stability. And finally, there’s Annie Kirkman, who – and I know you shouldn’t have favourites – was mine, playing the fame-hungry Shelley in a pink dress that absolutely needs to find itself in my wardrobe.
Shelley (or should we call her Sahara?) is desperate to get herself headhunted for a media job, but is typically taken advantage of, and has gotten herself into a bit of trouble in more ways than one.
Each of these women captivated me with their diverse personalities and emotional stories, their camaraderie and solidarity was a joy to witness and the character development is brilliantly written.
Gareth Cassidy was the only male actor in the show, doing the legwork of no fewer than six, playing Joe, Fred, Jim, Patrick, Kevin and Barry – managers, bookies, jockeys, punters and lovers. Gareth, who we most recently saw in Marvellous, has gotten a name for himself as a ‘man of many voices’, and gives each of these characters distinct regional accents, really leaning into his different roles.
I loved the subtle details woven into Ladies’ Day which feel like secrets shared silently – the hip flask Gareth’s bookie character drinks from on the stairs while the ladies are under the spotlight, or the wine cork tossed to an unsuspecting audience member by Shelley.
Additionally, the script included a number of tidbits that offered a peek into the world of racing. I’ve placed a bet or two on the Grand National a handful of times, winning a quid here and there, but Ladies’ Day brings with it well-researched and insightful nuggets of knowledge, like the rules behind naming horses, or the Royal relations with the race.
The Ladies’ Day at the races was full of high aspirations and fraying tempers, but you’ll have to watch it for yourself to see if the women win big, or if their luck falls at the final hurdle.
A heartwarming story of female friendship, Ladies’ Day is a play with women right at the heart of it. Their unravelling day out makes you see them – and them each other – in a completely different light following their emotional journey. Ending on a high, the walls of that factory don’t seem so dull anymore, after all, leaving behind a winning glow.
Wonderfully witty and full of staffroom drama, this fantastic and funny show is the perfect February production – and one you absolutely must place your bets on.
Ladies’ Day takes to the stage at the New Vic until Saturday, February 25, 2023. Tickets are on sale now, priced from £20.00. For more information and to book, call the Box Office on 01782 717962 or online at newvictheatre.org.uk.