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Review of Heartbeat at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton

During its eighteen year run on the cosy Sunday evening slot, the ITV series Heartbeat clocked up 372 episodes of low octane action. I myself witnessed a few of the early episodes as it was on in the house back then and most of what I remember was the drama was pleasant and the crime as mostly low key. This show was all about soft gentle character driven entertainment.

Transferring it to the stage, like any television series with such an obviously huge fan base, has its dangers. However writer and one of only two original series actors in the play, David Lonsdale has for the best part successfully recreated the series on the stage. It is clear at times that it feels more written for the television medium than a live theatre performance, however this fits with the material better than trying to resurrect it as something it clearly is not. This is a theatre experience for that television audience of old to enjoy. Changing it would likely alienate them. Lonsdale has also been surprisingly fair with the roles within the play, as a writer/performer, there must be a danger of giving the meat of a show to yourself. However while he has some excellent scenes as David Stockwell with the other original cast member Steven Blakeley playing PC Geoff Younger, much of the material revolves around the other characters in the Aidensfield Arms.

Here are the stars of the show, especially with two recast original characters Gina Bellamy and Bernie Scripps played superbly by Carly Cook and David Horne. Cook's bubbly and confident Gina (barmaid turned landlady in the absence of original landlord Oscar Blaketon) buzzes with enthusiasm and has not only only a confident stage presence, but an endearing personality. Horne as Scripps is hugely entertaining, getting many of the best lines of the play. Most at home either serving decidedly dodgy pints or stalking the church congregation with tape measure in hand (he is among many things an undertaker). They both combined form a sparky pair of characters and drive much of the entertainment from the evening.

The crime of this particular "television episode" revolves around the exploits of Aidan McGuire (Callum O'Neill) and James Sheedy (Jason Griffiths) and could be best described as mild peril. This is after all not The Wire we are reincarnating for the stage here. The two do what they can with the material, however they are much of the time playing very much second fiddle to the exploits of a stuffed dog. However if that sounds like criticism, it certainly isn't. This is one show where you are happy that the biggest cheer of the night comes from something the aforementioned stuffed dog gets up to. This is Heartbeat, the type of show you grew up with on television in the eighties and early nineties which was in general a lot more gentle than modern drama has become. Familiarity was the done thing back then, we wanted our television shows to pretty much deliver the same goods week on week. So the question is, does this cut it in this modern age of sharp and tough drama? The answer is yes for those that remember the time. Lay this in front of a twenty year old and they probably would run a mile, those pushing forty and beyond will be much more accommodating.

However while the script lays everything that you would expect of a television series to the stage with surprising succes, there are a few moments where the set lets the side down. Much of the action takes place in the Aidensfield Arms and this is part of a revolving part of the set, which spins away at ends of scenes leaving the cast frozen in time (as we no doubt on TV would head to a commercial break). It does for the best part work, although I did find it really odd that, with much of the action set on it, it occupies the right of the stage. It didn't help that our seats were aisle seats to the left of the stalls. I recommend that if you go, purchase seats to the right of the stalls to avoid being twisted too much. Also this production uses a projection screen at the back with scenes and images from the original series, but certainly at the Derngate setup, very oddly the bottom half of this is obscured by the pub set itself.

Director Keith Myers does his best to keep the action moving and makes the short televisual scenes merge together surprisingly well considering some are quite short. Both of the original cast members get perfectly judge entrance scenes allowing the audience to give their cheers and applause. Another interesting little touch I was fascinated by (at first) was a deft little idea of the character of Aiden playing darts. However as clever as this at first is, after six darts it does become extremely distracting though and you wish that he would just sit down and have a drink.

So I will be honest here that I held up little hope of Heartbeat being a success in anyway as much I had read previous to seeing it had been extremely critical. However this really did come as a huge surprise. It is a warm and welcoming roasting fire of a play, earnestly performed by the very likable cast. This is not the place to come for gun fighting drama, as the dramatic moments are its weak points. However like the show it re imagines, it leaves you with a tremendously warm glow and that sometimes in our often challenging times, it a truly lovely thing to have.

«««½


Performance reviewed: Monday 9th May, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton.

Heartbeat is on at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 14th May, 2016 before continuing its tour until the July 2016. Details here: http://www.heartbeatontour.com/

For further details about the Royal & Derngate visit their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

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