THEATRE / Lifeless variety: Feed - Bolton Octagon

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The Independent Culture
This is the Bolton Octagon's Silver Anniversary season and the theatre is secure enough, even in these times, to be planning expansion. Like his predecessors, the challenge new artistic director Lawrence Till faces is being able keep a popular audience by finding the right mix of provocation and reassurance, preferably one that also includes some local association. Recent seasons have seen some shrewd fulfilments of the requirement, notably the premiere of Jim Cartwright's To starring Sue Johnston and John McArdle. With Tom Elliott's Feed the theatre is attempting to repeat the trick by staging a new play and luring Roy Barraclough from behind the bar of Coronation Street's 'Rover's Return'.

His character is Harry Troop, a music hall performer who is now hovering on the edge of senility in a retirement home. The opening scene has a nice disjuncture to it as Harry paddles about in an irritated search for a long-dead cat called Muddlecombe - 'never the same since he was separated from his knackers' - while his nurse Stephanie (Henrietta Whitsun-Jones) makes surreptitious use of the phone to spit demands for maintenance at her errant husband. This scene also sets up the play's main motif, for Harry is 'under an assumed dressing-gown' whose name-tab says 'Burgess'. For a genuinely pathetic moment it seems Harry really does not know who he is. Too soon we realise that this is because the play is about Identity, and via 'the various stages and dressing-rooms of Harry's memory' we are to be taken in search of same.

The tears-of-a-clown theme, especially when mixed with an elegy for the variety stage, must now be exhausted, and there is little in Elliott's script to resuscitate it. The flashbacks to Harry's backstage life all serve to show how his devotion to his small-time talent has distorted the relationships in his life. Most puzzling is Harry's daughter (Lesley Nicol) who appears both as an exasperated visitor to her aged embittered father, and as an admonishing shade in his imagination. What we are meant to draw from this soft-shoe through Harry's life is that his bemused mind is now beset with regrets and guilt. But these flashbacks contain too little narrative or realisation of other characters to sustain a sense of a lived life.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the real purpose of the evening is to celebrate Roy Barraclough as Harry, and this is indeed very nearly enough. He gives full value in mimicking the variety acts, and is especially good in the vignette where Harry tries to come to terms with the radio microphone. But the very best of Harry is in fact the last of him. Ably fed by Henrietta Whitsun-Jones and Lesley Nicol, Barraclough delivers some of Elliott's superb one-liners with all the timing and bottomless misanthropy of the great northern comedians. Here Harry is larger than life and we could happily spend an evening with him. But he is still not big enough to make a drama.

Until 3 October. Tickets 0204 20661.