You’ll be hard pressed to find another representation so thoroughly transporting and consuming as Once Upon a Time in Wigan, an homage to the cult of Northern Soul that swept up youth across the north of England in the seventies and early 80s. Rarely is a play so completely immersive, so evocative of the culture it is trying to recreate, so meticulous in its pledge to accurately depict a unique slice of history, and the result is repulsively beautiful.
Director Tom Whiston ensure that the entire play is absolutely bursting with energy, from the characters dancing onstage prior to the beginning of the show to Eugene’s shaking, incoherent, rants on Native American tribes, the power of Northern soul, and anything else running through his mind. A particularly memorable rant is on the disgusting, overwhelming power of sweat inside Wigan Casino, which was oddly poetic and made powerful enough to inspire the heat and intensity of the impassioned dancers, despite the cold and spacious setting of Bedlam theatre. Henry Coldstream, who played Eugene, was particularly remarkable in his utter devotion to his character, as shown by his screwed up face and sudden jutting movements throughout the show.
The commitment of the characters to their chosen religion of music, drugs and dancing at Saturday all-nighters was paralleled by the actors’ dedication to their roles, especially by the passionate-turned-crazed Eugene; Coldstream’s intensity and aggression was incredible to watch in its illustration of how consumed his character is by the movement to which his character dedicated himself. Although the characters initially seem caricatures of Northern soul stereotypes, in their flared jeans and Fred Perry shirts, the skill of all of the actors enabled moments of their characters’ lives during the week, as opposed to their mad Wigan Weekends, give them depth and inspire empathy. The actors were essentially each playing two different characters – the week vs. the Weekend – a difficult requirement that each of Francesca Sellors, Dougal Rea, Lorna Treen and Coldstream handled with an ease that is a testament to their strength as performers. This strength of characterisation makes the audience realise why Northern Soul is so important: It provides an escape from the mind-numbing normality and disillusion in the rest of their lives.
As well as portraying a lasting tribute to the cult of Northern Soul writer Mick Martin, who took inspiration from the original director and Wigan Casino veteran Paul Sadot, seeks to explore the ideals of liberation and escape embodied in Soul music. He does this through the relationships between his four characters: Eugene, our devoted protagonist; Maxine, his ideal girl; Danny, the archetypal master dancer; and Suzanne, the frumpy plain girl who is desperate for love. These characters are so varied that each audience member cannot help but connect to at least one, effectively ensuring that we do not simply admire the Northern Soul movement, but we understand it.
This understanding is compounded by the small and talented cast, who reflect the claustrophobic atmosphere of Wigan Casino through their emotions and relationships, which are volatile and thus entrancing. The smooth transitions between scenes and characters reflect their symbiotic relationships, united by the need for escape and fear that their lives are worthless.
Not only is Once Upon a Time in Wigan a stunning, revolting tribute to the power and intensity of Northern Soul, but it is also a study in humanity, passion, and the difference between living and being alive, which are transcendent ideals that everyone is preoccupied with, even if they don’t admit it to themselves.