Manchester Theatre Awards

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

Cosmic Scallies

Jackie Hagan
Graeae Theatre Company and The Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
27 September 2017 to 14 October 2017

For author Jackie Hagan, Skelmersdale, where her new play Cosmic Scallies is set, is a state of mind rather than a physical location. It is an excuse for failing to make progress and an unchanging limbo where school friends remain in place and are still known by their childhood nicknames. Hagan speaks up for the dispossessed who live in such a limbo.

Dent (Rachel Denning) could not wait to leave Skelmersdale but then being of short stature, bisexual and suffering from chronic pain she did not really fit in. Returning to the city to nurse her ailing mother, Dent re-connects with Shaun (Reuben Johnson) her friend from primary school who feels comfortable in Skelmersdale as it suits his underachieving nature. An increasingly desperate search to secure Dent the medication needed to relieve her chronic pain forces the former friends to examine their relationship.

Graeae is a theatre company that caters for disabled and non-disabled performers and theatregoers as is apparent from the surtitles that convey the dialogue for the hard of hearing. Director Amit Sharma emphasises how even minor difficulties, that the average person can easily cope with, can become insurmountable obstacles to people with a physical disability. The journey taken by Rachel Denning, inching painfully across the stage is made all the more nightmarish by flickering lights that transform the dilapidated set (Bethany Wells creating some impressively grim concrete benches) into a daunting quest.  

Hagan is too honest to suggest that the characters might make some life-changing decisions and her modest approach limits the drama in Cosmic Scallies. By the end of the play character development is minimal; although Shaun declares his intention to make a change to his lifestyle it is hard to believe that this will occur as throughout he has seemed almost proud of his indolence and lack of education.

Cosmic Scallies is a very funny play and Reuben Johnson makes the most of the sparkling dialogue to turn Shaun into a defensive smartarse whose remarks constantly bring down the house. Rachel Denning carries the burden of a character who tried to change her life and now has to cope with the grim reality of not achieving her goal.

Yet Cosmic Scallies does not tell us anything we did not already know; the corrosive effect of living in poverty is well documented and most people are aware of the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy. The dialogue, while very funny, has the occasional glib sound of stand-up comedy rather than the depth of drama. While the play refrains from making unrealistic changes in the characters this modest approach limits the dramatic impact of Cosmic Scallies.

Reviewer: David Cunningham