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The Demolition Man, review

Joan Davies wants more focus from the stage biopic of Fred Dibnah

Published on April 18th 2011.

The Demolition Man, review

The Demolition Man, currently premiering at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, charts the last years of one of the town’s famous and much-loved sons, steeplejack Fred Dibnah.

There’s irony in the fact that his love for the great feats of Victorian engineering saw him earning that living knocking down some of the very structures he admired so much.

Dibnah achieved fame through a BAFTA award-winning BBC documentary about his work. Viewers were fascinated, charmed as much by his home-spun philosophy delivered in broad Bolton accent as by his apparent nonchalance atop a 250 foot mill chimney. A TV series soon followed.

This play concentrates on the last few years of Fred’s life, during which time he met and married his third wife, diversified into presenting TV programmes on Britain’s industrial heritage, was awarded the MBE and lost his life to cancer at the age of 66.

Colin Connor, an Octagon regular, plays Dibnah. Accurately capturing the cadences and rhythms of Fred’s speech he delivers an immediately recognisable portrait of the man, a genial and optimistic figure in his element when holding centre stage and sounding forth on his passion for our industrial and engineering heritage.

Connor’s voice lacks some of the resonance, the timbre, that helped to make Dibnah’s speech so popular but his portrayal does open the door to a different picture and personality; a sometimes lonely and frightened individual who conquers chimneys with more ease than he scales the more difficult issues surrounding personal relationships.

Michelle Collins, the sole woman in the cast, plays wife number three, Sheila Dibnah, an organising as well as a loving force in Fred’s life. This is a solid performance, convincing in her genuine affection for her husband and her growing frustration as he tries to bypass the realities of life.

Dibnah’s long-term friends, assistants in his many projects, are represented by three figures, probably archetypes rather than individuals.

Well realised by John McCardle, as the jealous and suspicious figure, Richard Heap as the loyal amateur whose lack of finesse is more than compensated for by enthusiasm, and Mike Burnside with a particularly solid performance as Bert, the solid non-judgemental friend who gets things done and is always there even when the going is at its toughest.

These three provide a commentary on the real-life changes faced by British working men in the late twentieth century, the context of Dibnah’s life.

In contrast two characters provide an escape; ‘Mr TV’ represents the path to fame, providing its own comfort as well as the cash for Dibnah to fund his dreams of engine renovation, mine-shaft modelling and reputation building.

Dibnah also has conversations with an imagined vision of one of his heroes, the great British nineteenth century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. These conversations allow Dibnah to say what he really thinks. Both roles are played by the always authentic Huw Higginson, another recent Octagon regular.

An imaginative set design by James Cotterill places us in Dibnah’s office and workshop, littered with machine parts, which he understands perfectly, and papers, which he does not. Moving images, some from real life and some from the characters on stage, are multi-projected above, an accurate an effective representation of the way Fred’s story reached a wider audience. The Octagon’s height allows a chimney, quite a realistically scary one. Any actor in this role needs a head for heights.

Writer Aelish Michael has crafted some excellent scenes. While some of the best lines are from Dibnah himself composed on camera, the early friendship and courtships scenes and conversations with Brunel allows the audience a different view of the man. Unfortunately the play is over long and loses direction, exploring issues that are obviously important to the family, but don’t fully engage the audience.

In the 1970s, the Greater Manchester landscape resembled a Lowry painting filled with clusters mill chimneys. No longer.

The chimneys were already on their way out as Fred learnt his trade as a steeplejack. Those skills allowed him to earn a living. There’s irony in the fact that his love for the great feats of Victorian engineering saw him earning that living knocking down some of the very structures he admired so much. That irony is a rich vein for drama but remains largely unexplored in this play.

Similarly the public are fascinated by the drive that fuels the desire to face the risks Fred took on a daily basis. This is another area left largely unexplored. Dibnah died in 2004, just over six years ago. The desire to celebrate his life in Bolton while his world is still a strong memory for many is understandable, but perhaps a play needs a little more distance from its subject to give us the bigger picture.

The Demolition Man is at the Bolton Octagon Theatre from Thursday 7 April until Sat 7 May 2011

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