Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Madonna and Me at the Union Theatre

This engaging new play by three time playwright Tommy Kearney is refreshingly frank and, judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience, a bona fide hit.

Suzanne Roche (Mandy), Annmarie Hodson (Paula), Ja
Suzanne Roche (Mandy), Annmarie Hodson (Paula), James Templeton (Adam). Photo courtesy of Stagephoto

It touches on just about everything: identity, humour, heartache, fear, lust, uncertainty, life changing decisions, pivotal moments, and realizations and above all, lots of love.

Adam (James Templeton) introduces the themes of the play at the outset: friendship, loyalty and, truth, and, as the story is told in hindsight, he acts as narrator between some scenes, posing questions, providing background information and sometimes clueing us in on what is to come. His friendly contact with the audience feels natural and by the time his story has drawn to a conclusion, the ends the actors have been working towards are not always so neatly tied, but the results seem all the more satisfyingly heart-felt for it.

The story begins in the suburban town of Whiston in Liverpool with adolescent chums Adam and Paula mucking about after school, complaining about their parents and who they may or may not have crushes on. As other friends drift in, more of the picture emerges: Leanne likes Joe, who doesn't know she's alive and Dingo has been spied making out with Mandy. The school disco is coming up and they're sure to have a great time together. After all, friendship is about loyalty, isn't it?

As the play progresses, we move through time with these characters and witness their changes of heart and mind about life and one another as they grow up. Theirs is a fascinating, recognizable journey. One of the hugely entertaining, and, inadvertently enlightening things about their lives is that many of their moments of revelation seem to occur on a dance floor, where, come to think of it, they've similarly evolved for many of us.

Everyone in the cast turns in a first rate performance. But in the midst of this talented group Annemarie Hudson as Paula manages to shine like a shooting star, spewing forth her often ironic lines as if they were coming right off the top of her own head. The versatile Ms. Hudson handles her heart-wrenching scenes with equal effectiveness. Madeline Harland is also very credible as Leanne. And it's great fun watching her morph from boy shy girl to man crazy woman. Suzanne Roche's homebody, saving herself for marriage Mandy makes a great contrast to her two more worldly girlfriends. It actually comes as a bit of a shock when we realize that she may not suffer fools gladly. James Templeton is very likeable as Adam, an all round nice guy who struggles to find the strength to let go of his fear and allow himself to be who he really is. As in friendship itself, much depends on how easily we are able to warm up to him. Thankfully, as the story progresses, the audience's appreciation of the finer points of Adam's character credibly builds, so by the end of it, we are left with the feeling that a friend has been confiding in us. Russell Morton as Leanne's heartthrob Joe and Oliver Rice as Mandy's sometime fiancée Dingo both provide many enjoyable moments as they gradually reveal their character's true natures. The scenes in which they are the first boys to arrive at the school disco, wearing just the right clothes are great fun to watch, with both preening, and admiring one another, then teasing their friend Adam, whose clothes just aren't as 'sound' as theirs. Saul Maroon's Mark is a gentle, understanding fellow who seems to come along at just the right moment in the story. Madison Cole and Anders Iversen are both very dynamic, and hilarious as Vogueing nightclub dancers. And Ofer Yatziv seems to have his feet on the dance-floor of the eras relevant to the play with his eighties progressing into nineties choreography.

Sets consisting of bits of graffiti strewn brick wall and two small sets of sets of steps offer a surprisingly strong sense of neighbourhood and provide characters spaces in which to play, mull things over, and sometimes, say goodbye, while an open section in the centre evolves from school disco to nightclub dance floor. Along with apt stage management from Angie Gammon, Andre Polakova's costumes help to complete the scene, from Paula's lace pocketed jeans to the 'Who's That Girl' t-shirts in the funny Madonna concert-going scene. Steve Miller sheds just the right light for the varied settings of this thoroughly enjoyable production. Music, appropriately begins with Madonna's 'Holiday' at the school disco and moves through Wham, Bronski Beat, George Michael's solo career and back into the title icon's repertoire eventually for the fabulous vogueing nightclub sequence.

It's a real tribute to Kearney's bitingly honest dialogue, and sharp observations and Pearl Marsland's sensitive, variegated directing that the play's characters and conversations ring so true. Subsequently, both playwright and director mark themselves out as artists for theatergoers to look out for in future.

This production has everything going for it: a vibrant script, uncompromising acting, knowing directing and a realistic feel good factor that not only allows its audience to go along with its characters changing moods, but also, enables them to get to know them better over time, as Adam himself has. For in Madonna and Me, Kearney speaks to us from a bittersweet time and space that he himself knows very well, and obviously, loves.

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