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Alfie, Bolton Octagon, Reviewed

Joan Davies reviews

Published on January 23rd 2012.


Alfie, Bolton Octagon, Reviewed

FOR its first production of 2012 Bolton Octagon has chosen Bolton-bred playwright Bill Naughton’s Alfie, a work now fifty years old, but still fresh in people’s minds.  

David Ricardo-Pearce is certainly handsome and attractive enough to make a believable serial seducer.  

Alfie is a feckless charmer, a successful lothario whose easy conquests lead him to think he’s worked out what it’s all about until he’s presented with the consequences of his choices. 

Alfie treats his women rather as he would treat his cars, commenting on an older model, ”She’s in beautiful condition”. He likes to run his ladies two at the same time if resources allow, and changes models when he tires of them or they don’t perform exactly as he would like. 

The difference is that men talk about their cars with more respect than Alfie talks about his women.  ‘Birds’, ‘bints’ and even ‘it’ are the terms Alfie uses. Women are a different species: divided into married and unmarried, but all available. 

Alfie’s apparently in charge throughout: making his own choices, in charge of his life, and in charge of the progress of his relationships, managing his women to ensure they don’t get too close and convincing himself that they all understand what their role is. On the stage Alfie’s self-justification is delivered direct to the audience. 

Of course he isn’t completely in control;  a couple of unplanned pregnancies force him to question how much true happiness his choices bring him, but the audience is left with a feeling that nothing much will change for Alfie.  His freedom’s illusory and he’s trapped within his own image of himself.  

The Octagon’s space has been configured in the round, with the audience surrounding a tiny bare stage.  Alfie appears, disappears, and then reappears to take charge, setting the scenery and props for the opening ‘sex in the car’ scene with Siddie. 

It’s impossible for most of the audience not to make comparisons with 1966 film and Michael Caine’s defining performance, so impossible that the Octagon has faced this head on and includes on its website the American cinema trailer strangely advertising the film as a comedy.  

David Ricardo-Pearce is certainly handsome and attractive enough to make a believable serial seducer.  He handles the demands of the massive role well, appearing word perfect and moving between dialogue with other characters and confidences to audience with confident ease.  

Alfie2

Bolton Octagon director David Thacker has assembled a strong cast, with some stand out performances.  Eamonn Riley, though appearing rather old for the part, is a superbly endearing Humphrey, picking up the pieces to raise another man’s child by marrying Barbara Hockaday’s downtrodden Gilda. 

Vicky Binns, recently Coronation Street’s Molly Dobbs, is effective as a faithful northern lass, loyal until her cooking is rejected. John Branwell returning to the Octagon in three roles, including the illegal abortionist, brings as ever conviction and superb timing to the performance. 

Often described as a picture of the swinging sixties, Alfie is really about a slightly earlier age. First performed as Alfie Elkins and his Little Life on radio in 1961, before the sixties had really thought about swinging, and before the pill was prescribed widely enough to give women more choices n life, it can be seen as a picture of how small one man can be.   

The Octagon production almost gives us that, but not quite.   The empty stage at the start and finish suggest the emptiness of Alfie’s life.  The use of all the actors to move the set furnishings on and off stage in a carefully choreographed manner not only keeps the performance flowing, but suggests that all connive in producing the ‘little life’ that Alfie describes.  But the first act is long, and feels long.  The second, with more varied drama, is much stronger.  

The fiftieth anniversary of such a high impact play by a local writer is good enough reason to revive Alfie in Bolton.  There is still a modern relevance in many of the issues it covers, but I’m not sure how successfully they can be examined through a fifty year old lens.  If you’re going you might want to try to put Michael Caine out of your mind for the evening. 

Alfie run at Octagon Theatre Bolton until Saturday 18 February.  It then tours to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Scarborough and finally Oldham where it will appear at Oldham Coliseum Theatre, temporarily based at the Grange Arts Centre,  from 11–28 April.

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