If there was a Most Troubled Family contest alongside the Knobbly Knees competition at Butlins Skegness, the three generations of women in Lee Mattinson’s bleak comedy would walk away with the trophy.
The first production of Madani Younis’s inaugural season as the head of the Bush theatre is ripe with lines that raise a laugh and more obsessed with tits than Bill Oddie, but its tale is ultimately one of seemingly inevitable disappointment.
In Lesley Travers’s broken chalet set – its sides ripped apart, furniture and clothes scattered on a dropped floor like casually discarded dreams, coloured bulbs lighting up the scene like a thoroughly depressing, disappointment-riddled Christmas tree – we meet three generations of Geordie women back at the family’s regular holiday haunt to celebrate Nana Barbara’s 70th birthday. The present she really wants is a visit from long-absent daughter Paula. What she gets is other daughter Loretta, who positively aches with resentment and bullies one of her own children, while praising the marriage-hungry other sibling to the hilt.
Mattinson works like the Ghost of Summers Past, taking the audience back to Paula’s hen night and the day of Barbara’s wedding, all held at the same campsite, gradually revealing the motives, reasons and deep-set emotions that have brought the family together and ripped them apart.
Even knowing the reasons, my blood edged towards boiling point as Monica Dolan’s cruel, selfish Loretta sucked the confidence from Laura Elphinstone’s desperately approval-seeking Abigail, her lithe frame twisting and contorting, folding in on itself with embarrassment and awkwardness.
I would love to have been introduced to Abigail and sister Jolene’s father, to understand more how they were formed and shaped into likeable women with Loretta as their role model. But this is not a show about men. Rather it is concerned with women’s relationship to men; their idolisation of some – there’s something unequivocally enticing about a red coat – and their apparent necessity in proving a woman’s worth. It is depressing to see the baton of dependency passed down from generation to generation.
While Butlins won’t be rushing to use Chalet Lines in any promotional material, it is not all bleak. The younger generation provide hope and the accessible wit that Mattinson dishes up with lines like “You’re like a modern Craig David with tits” and entirely non-ironic Cheryl Cole quoting antics which left me wondering whether to laugh, cry or promise never to take a break at a holiday camp.