poster on wall

Going the distance

On-line, 4-17 October


It is a sign of our troubled times that no one bats an eyelid these days at a play appearing on-line; theatres, the ones that have survived, have largely reopened but the days of being dark, a time when downloads and digital tickets were our only link with the magic of live theatre, are not yet a distant memory.

The whole country was in lockdown, the theatrical world was hurting, money flowing out with nothing coming in, and that is when we enter the world of one such struggling theatre occupying a modest berth in the theatrical pecking order, The Matchborough Community Theatre.

This being Britain of course, the story is told not with angst and artistic torment, but with humour and laughs through an affectionate look at the world of volunteer run theatres and amateur companies.

The theatre, we find, had a healthy £30,000 in the bank account as the pandemic took centre stage, but with fixed costs of £10,000 a month, not difficult with the likes of rates, utilities, insurance and maintenance to pay, it has three months before it reaches its own final curtain.

An on-line committee meeting introduces us to Frank, the chair individual, a position, or at least a title, taking PC into new territory. The ever reliable Matthew Kelly gives us a Frank where you are never sure if he is unable to actually take control, or just doesn’t want to upset anyone or disagree with them. He is effectively ineffective.


Sarah Hadland as Rae, all flip charts and future planning and Penny Ryder as the old school Maggie, seeing the safe world she knew fading away around her

There are no such doubts about Rae, played by Sarah Hadland who is always a delight in comedy – I remember her well as Elizabeth in the hilarious What’s in a name? at Birmingham Rep.

Rae is the head of marketing and indeed head of anything she fancies, turning stage manager into general manager, which, by her own job description puts her in charge of pretty much everything . . . apart from mistakes, of course.

Then there is the treasurer Maggie, a lovely performance by Penny Ryder. Maggie is a little forgetful, not always sure what is going on, sometimes struggling to keep up and, sadly, there are signs that dementia is joining her on her journey through life.

Like Kelly, an RSC actor, her speech late on about the magic of theatre and what it means to her, of her first experience as an unruly 15-year-old when she walked into the community theatre for the first time and found it “beautiful, exciting  - full of possibilities” was heartfelt and moving, especially to anyone who loves theatre from either side of the footlights.

She comes up with the brilliant plan of a community production which has the emotional pull of ticket sales to save the theatre and not having to pay any cast – a win win.

Enter the writer of this project, Vic, played by Shobna Gulati, who has come a long way since Dinner Ladies and was last seen eating a crisp butty in Everyone’s Talking About Jamie – a delicacy, incidentally, from our shared home town of Oldham.

She is brought in by Rae and from the off Vic  and Frank don’t exactly see eye to eye, bit of history there methinks, sothing no doubt to be  squeezed out later.

frank and vic

Matthew Kelly as director Frank and Shobna Gulati as writer Vic, acting out their own personal drama

She has written Wizard, which, for rights’ purposes, is only inspired by and definitely not adapted from The Wizard of Oz. Although to the casual observer the inspiration seems to be a pretty detailed one.

With Rae’s wealth of contacts – at least that is what she claims – she gets a spot with Vic to be interviewed by Em, played by Sara Crowe, one of the stars on the 16th most popular radio station in the area.

Em manages  one of those cringeworthy, embarrassing interviews Alan Partridge would be proud of. But at least we find the reason for the discord in the camp as a whole bundle of secrets is revealed!

So, as community theatre needs cast, up steps Billie, played by Nicole Evans. Billie is a professional actress, the only one in the show, although when she last worked is not clear, past productions are a bit of a mystery and her showreel seems to consist of, as she describes them, art house films. As we don’t see them, we cannot say if art house is, should we say, a euphemism, so let us content ourselves by saying that they were not mainstream.

Billie is a Diva with a capital D, whatever part she has, she makes bigger with her own rewrites, she has to be the centre of attention in every scene and her acting . . . well, ham would be a considerable improvement. It is a delightfully good, bad performance if you see what I mean.

And then there is Gail, played by Emma McDonald, who is, well . . . normal. With no hang-ups, happy with her lot as a shop assistant in a corner shop, even if it is not on a corner, but she is persuaded by her boss, and friend, Kem, played by Merch Husey, who has taken over the shop from his father. She finds herself as Dorothy and, bitten by the bug, and perhaps not as you expect, she gives us a fine version of Over the Rainbow.

gail and kem

Emma McDonald as Gail and Merch Husey as Kem, lost in a love story of their own

Theirs is a love story, although they don’t know it, touching and quite charming in its own way, a light shining through the struggles of the community theatre battling survive with hardly any cash and little going for it but hope.  Do they manage it? You will have to watch to find out.

The whole thing is narrated, with a droll tongue in cheek by Stephen Fry and is wonderfully written by Henry Filloux-Bennett, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and Yasmeen Khan, who writes for EastEnders and is a well-known radio broadcaster and performer. It is directed by Felicity Montagu.

Going the distance has its human stories, the conflicts, rows, egos on and off stage, as well as a simple love story, but it shows in a small, community theatre the problems faced by every theatre big and small, professional and amateur.

It is beautifully acted and carries you along with its heartwarming tale of ordinary people fighting, and bickering, for the survival of something they love, something much more than just the building. It’s funny, at times moving and carried along by hope.

Roger Clarke

Going The Distance, a co-production by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes & The Watermill Theatre is available on-line from 4-17 October 2021. Tickets are £15.

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There are some still people wary of going to theatres, crowded places with mask wearing little in evidence, and this is a chance to see a new play without risk, while for those who are now returning to the theatre, it is a new work with some fine acting set around a time that is still, almost two years on, a big part of our lives. 

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