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Blake Morrison’s transition to writing for the stage owes much to Barrie Rutter. The founder of Northern Broadsides, who has taken Shakespeare to such unlikely locations as Skipton Cattle Market, is clearly getting the best out of Morrison. In this, their fifth collaboration and the first of five world premieres to celebrate Bolton Octagon’s 40th anniversary season, they rework Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ anti-war play, into a modern feminist tale of war, racism and greed, set in the northern town of Blackhurst in 2007.
Here the wives of factory workers reluctantly agree to follow Lisa (played magnificently by Becky Hindley) in her plan to go on a sex strike to put a stop to fighting caused by racial tensions. When they occupy Prutt’s factory and discover its involvement in the arms trade, their cause takes on even greater significance.
As you would expect from a Northern Broadsides production, Morrison’s version is reliant on the power generated by the lyricism of regional dialects and is written in near-perfect rhyming couplets. Many of the best lines go to Rutter, whose cantankerous figure of Old Man Mars personifies the misogyny and violence that the women wish to change.
In one brilliant and breathless diatribe he recalls every horror of war he has seen, none of which, he declares, is as shocking as women taking over a man’s place of work.
But for every serious note there are three parts slapstick, as weighty issues are generally tackled in pantomime fashion. When this succeeds – as it does, for example, in a scene featuring a barbershop harmony of sexually frustrated phalluses – the audience is delighted.
Unfortunately, when this light touch gives way to a more didactic tone it appears laboured. Points about Islamic religious dress and the Iraq war, for example, appear clunky and obvious.
Seesawing from farcical comedy to morality play was always going to be tricky, and it is only the guest director Conrad Nelson’s original music score that allows the possibility of this working.
Gospel-charged soul, shuddering hip-hop, blues ballads and haunting Greek folk music create a fantastical theatre experience. Only when the play’s colourful edginess gives way to predictable sermonising does some of this magic fade.