5@50, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As the action gets underway in Brad Fraser's foray into the lives and longings of modern middle-aged womanhood you find yourself thinking – or at least hoping – that being 50 could be a lot of fun. Good friends, plenty of money, nice home: good times beckon. Alas it is not to be. Notching up half a century it seems is not a cause for celebration. It is instead "an endless parade of... sham marriages, failing bodies and abandoned children."

For someone approaching the milestone of Fraser's vision it does not prove an inviting prospect. Equally it is difficult to know quite what those for whom a 50th birthday party is but a distant memory will make of it when looking back the other way through time's telescope. Still there are some good earthy cynical laughs on the way. Fraser, now in his fifties, has suggested that as a gay man he may have a different insight into writing about women compared to heterosexual men. He also said that much of his research took place on Facebook where he was able to quiz female friends on their innermost secret thoughts and desires. Perhaps that is why the characters here feel superficial at times.

Unlike the Canadian's previous plays there is no hardcore nudity or sex on stage. But don't let that put you off because 5@50 is more than just Grumpy Old Women after an all-day session on the vodka coolers. The five in question forged a friendship at the high school prom when none of the boys would dance with them. Since then they have ploughed differing furrows into unhappy later life respectability. Marriage, sex and motherhood have all played their part but it is the subject of booze that galvanises them into collective action again when Olivia stops being a high-functioning alcoholic and becomes an aggressive bore. Perhaps inevitably all the women are revealed to have addictions of their own. For Tricia, a successful newspaper columnist, it is using sex against loneliness. Soccer mom Fern gets her kicks through yoga; Lorene likes to marry while for paediatrician Norma it is a controlling obsession over her lover, Olivia. What this enjoyable play does well is to examine the constraints and joys of longstanding friendships and how difficult they can be to maintain in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way.

To 14 May (0161 833 9833)