West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 8 June, 1998

Kay Mellor's one-woman show, first staged in February as part of an International Solo Performance Festival in Tokyo, can now be seen in the bailiwick of its director Jude Kelly. the queen of the title is a queen of hearts: Susan Heaven (nee Helliwell), regularly watched by millions as pub landlady Sadie on television soap Castle Grove, who muses in her dressing-room upon her life, career and personal tragedies whilst flipping her TV monitor between the goings-on on set and the mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Mellor's original idea had been to return to stage writing (never mind acting) with a play about an ordinary woman being touched by Diana's death, but the character insisted upon metamorphosing into Susan/Sadie. It was a fortuitous shift of direction: in some ways the Diana segments are among the least satisfying parts of the show they do not obtrude wildly, but what need to refer to a plaster saint when Susan's own joys and sorrows, compulsions and misjudgements are closer to hand? Mellor's character has the heart and the honesty we would like our soap stars to possess off-screen as well as on. This is not to say that she seems artificial; Susan is an ordinary woman thrust into the spotlight who deals with it as best she can, and if she acquires extravagant or flashy tastes, they are her own tastes rather than affectations if she seems diamante, it's still genuine diamante.

Queen is avowedly sentimental without descending into schlock; in this respect it is reminiscent of that other recent one-woman show from Leeds, Jean Fergusson's Hylda Baker tribute She Knows, You Know! As Fergusson traded on our knowledge of Baker, so Mellor makes the most of our familiarity not just with soap conventions (both narrative and production-oriented) in general, but with Coronation Street in particular Sadie is, to all intents and purposes, Bet Lynch with a sprinkling of Elsie Tanner, apart from the daughter-character who several years ago was "sent up to her bedroom and she never came down again." There are plainly parallels with Diana the torment of trying to balance public obligations with personal needs as Susan's own love affair founders but in Susan, as written and played by Mellor, we are presented not with an icon of fallible humanity but with the living, breathing, bloodied but indefatigable incarnation of such notions.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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