Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Boomtown Gals

Joyce Branagh
Joyce Branagh
Various, see for venues
02 September 2016 to 16 September 2016

Joyce Branagh is best known in the Manchester area as a director, but we sometimes forget she is also a scriptwriter and performer - skills she puts to excellent use in this highly entertaining one-woman show.

Boomtown Gals started out as a Lottery-funded project at Oldham Library and Oldham Coliseum, marking the centenary of World War One by looking into the lives of some of the Oldham women caught up in it.

Enlisting the help of a few local societies and schools to find out more about a small group of Oldham women, Branagh turned the research not into a fact-heavy diatribe about how great women are in wartime (we know, we know...), but a wholly delightful, upbeat and eventually rather poignant mix of fact and fiction.

Along the way we meet Dame Sarah Lees, Oldham doctors Catherine Payne and Joan Watts (who, rejected by the British Army, went off to help the Serbians), decorated Oldham nurse Sarah Hallam, and three friends, the adenoidal Mabel Drinkwater, her glum pal Ethel Beaumont, and the story’s narrator, Sarah Rosebury - a genuine music hall entertainer of the period.

The Sarah of 1923 relates in entertaining detail and song - and in little more than an hour as she prepares backstage for a show - how years earlier she undertook a (fictional) quest to seek out her younger brother, Sidney. The boy, fired by patriotic fervour and a recruiting song Sarah had specially written for her act, had enlisted illegally at 15 and found himself on the front lines.

It’s a story of sisterly guilt and sibling love, of friendship and sacrifice as Sarah gets herself into a concert party to be shipped out to entertain the troops, cleverly narrowing her search as she goes.

Engagingly directed by Alyx Tole, Branagh slips easily between the characters and quick costume changes and gives us a nicely rounded story that ends satisfactorily for all concerned except one - that character at least being mentioned (genuinely) on the Oldham war memorial.

The show opened with two afternoon performances at Oldham Library and has free performances at other local libraries and venues this week and next. There are also two performances at the Coliseum studio on Friday September 9th, as well as other paid performances at Hebden Bridge Little Theatre, Leeds University Banham Theatre, and Todmorden Hippodrome. it's strongly recommended.

Check for times and venues.

Reviewer: Paul Genty


Comment by Kevin Bourke

Entertaining, informative - why are these real heroines not better known? - and moving, this is quite the little gem. The only things I might otherwise add to Paul's review would be to commend the original, period-pastiche songs, penned by Kieran Buckereridge , the recent recipient of a Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composers Bursary.