Review - Opening night of explosive Loaded in Harrogate goes with a bang

Harrogate isn't the sort of town to look into its darker side in public very often.

Loaded in Harrogate - Lee Bainbridge (Hud), Andy Murton (Pete) and Keith Hukin (Mick) in a scene from the new play. (Picture by Antony Robling)

For that alone, Harrogate Theatre deserves enormous credit for Loaded in Harrogate, a freshly updated version of a hit play originally set in Sheffield.

Despite the wealth of Harrogate references, the highly-effective use of film footage shot round Harrogate and a musical backdrop provided by Harrogate rock bands Black Ocean and The Birdman Rallies, this explosive new production isn't really about Harrogate at all.

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And neither, despite the occasional line bemoaning the gap between the haves and have nots, is this co-production with critically-acclaimed Reform Theatre really about the gap between Porches and Puntos.

Which, ultimately, is actually to the benefit of the play and the audience.

For, thankfully, Loaded in Harrogate stands and falls as theatre rather than social science.

In those terms, this dark comedy about armed robbers is a rip-roaring success - hilarious, powerful and troubling in turns.

The script by Harrogate Theatre's play-writing chief executive David Bown is punchy and bold, the gritty drama balanced by clever wordplay and broad pithy wit.

At times it's as if David Mamet had been born in Barnsley.

In this its aided by magnetic performances by cast members Lee Bainbridge, Keith Hukin, Andy Murton as down-to-earth garage mechanics Mick, Pete and Hud, who decide robbing a Harrogate jewellers might be a good career move.

As befits a play which attempts to grapples with the stuff of life, rather than skirting round it, the cast bring the words to life with a bang.

This is particularly in the case of former Royal Marine Lee Bainbridge who could probably draw laughs from reading the Yellow Pages.

The key moment in the production, the attempted heist in a Harrogate jewellers, is brilliantly handled and brilliantly acted.

Scary and hilarious at the same time, there's just two actors in stocking masks with realistic-looking guns completely cocking it up to loud laughter from the opening night audience.

It's not hard to see why Loaded won rave reviews in its original version in both London and Edinburgh.

There is more to this important new production than Pulp Fiction meets Coronation Street.

Essentially it's about what it means to be powerless, specifically what it means to be a powerless man - and a Yorkshire man at that.

The three frustrated garage mechanics are trapped in their circumstances, trapped by their very character.

They're experts at the details of cars, girls and guns but struggle to cope with the bigger picture.

Ironically, the only female character, the garage boss's unhappy girlfriend Carol, is the only wrong note in the play precisely because she is such a strong-willed person.

As played in a ballsy fashion by Sue Mitchell, she has a crucial role nonetheless - to act as a lighting rod for all this impotence.

She pricks all their bubbles, bringing all that pent-up tension to the surface in a way which ensures their transformation into would-be violent robbers.

Still, like other parts of this otherwise brilliant play, despite all the references to Bettys and West Park and the 'Coach and Divorces', the character of Carol doesn't feel like a Harrogate woman to me.

But, by merely making you think about the gap between fiction and reality, her character, much like the rest of this compelling play, serves to make you think about the nature of Harrogate and the town it really is.

And that doesn't happen very often.

Loaded in Harrogate runs at Harrogate Theatre until March 12 in the main auditorium.