Everybody Loves A Winner, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Life – as luck would have it
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The Independent Culture

Does everybody really love a winner? Three lucky audience members at Neil Bartlett's new show will find out in the game of bingo, complete with cash prizes, that features in each performance of Everybody Loves a Winner, part of the Manchester International Festival. Having mastered the bingo lingo by the end of the "early session", anyone over 18 years old is invited to turn punter, a fifty-pence ticket buying first-hand and, for many, first-time experience of the thrill of the numbers game.

The Rex bingo hall – the outer area of the transformed Royal Exchange Theatre, occupied by garish slot machines, the stage dressed down with patterned carpet, dingy chairs and neon lighting – is scarcely the Las Vegas-style super-casino once bid for and won, then lost, by Manchester. Here in the soulless surroundings of the Rex, the mainly female, mainly middle-aged clientele wonder "if hope has a number" and, if so, will it have their name on it today? The social interaction between these lonely, feisty and often poignant characters is observed, in the course of one day as stupefyingly dull as any other, by a bourgeois, affluent theatre audience.

Eavesdropping quite shamelessly on the lives of others in the course of his bingo-bingeing research, Bartlett – both writer and director – and his team have created a colourful and richly varied line-up of bingo players. There's a satisfyingly improvised feel to the repartee between the hall management, as well as in the often fractious encounters among the customers. Each of the gamblers has her (or his) own reason for being in that drab hall, where the prospect of a life-changing win is sufficient, or perhaps the sole, reason for living. Besides revealing tantalising nuggets of personal details, they break into chant, Greek-chorus style, affirming their belief in the "maybe ... one day... " promise of fantastic luck. Yet, though there's envy and weary resentment, pent-up anger and contempt, there's remarkably little self-pity.

There is, however, a lack of narrative substance and emotional texture. Fortunately, that doesn't stand in the way of some concentrated acting. As the manager, Sally Lindsay puts on a valiant face as she chivvies her young employees, encourages her community of regulars and welcomes us, her "guests" to the gaming table. But the tone of her moral tirade, crudely stuck on at the end, is unconvincing. Ian Puleston-Davies does a cracking vaudeville turn as the caller, sinking into mental disarray, crunched up by numbers perhaps. The all-singing, all-dancing trio of staff provides fine support and adds to the novelty value of a show which, though not quite the winner it promised to be, was worth the gamble.

To 1 August (0161 833 9833; www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk)

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