Domestic violence and soaring harmonies in a dilapidated mining town
After delighting audiences with his joyous hit ‘The Glee Club’ in 2002, Richard Cameron is back with something much darker. ‘The Flannelettes’ is also set to an uplifting musical soundtrack – in this case 1960s soul – but this hard-hitting drama is a much more poignant affair.
Brenda runs a battered women’s refuge, trying to do the best she can to stop the tide of misogynistic physical abuse that seems to be overwhelming her crippled mining town. She’s also looking after her niece Delie, a 20-year-old with the mind of a 12-year-old, while trying to help Jean, a middle-class wife who has run away from her violent husband.
Together, Brenda, Delie and Brenda’s friend George also sing as The Flannelettes, a band who cover girl groups like The Ronettes and Supremes (George performs in drag). They’re all best buds and banter with a familial tenderness in Cameron’s well-observed and bittersweet script. But the aggression underpinning many of the songs in their set prickles palpably through this increasingly uncomfortable look at domestic violence. Vonda Shepherd’s melodic order, ‘Tell him that you’re never gonna leave him, tell him that you’re always gonna love him’ – sung with angelic naivety by Emma Hook– never seemed more painfully apt.
Delie is an inquisitive child trying to navigate an adults’ world and soon her wide-eyed explorations lead her into darker corners than anyone would ever want to imagine. Hook handles her confusion and fascination with a light but potent touch in a compelling and moving performance. When she quietly confesses a horrifying secret to newfound friend Roma – the delicately damaged Holly Campbell – it’s heartbreaking.
Director and new writing impresario Mike Bradwell masterfully navigates Cameron’s bleak terrain, pulling wonderful performances from Suzan Sylvester’s threadbare but dogged Brenda and Geoff Leesley’s stalwart George.
This beautifully pitched production shows that there’s hope in the tenacity of The Flannelettes and their refusal to go down without a fight. But there’s tragedy in this taunt piece too; you can’t help but feel that for every step forward these people take, they will be beaten two back.