Review – Bazaar and Rummage – Chester Little Theatre

Jenny Howitt, Jessica Hardern, Sian Collinson, Felicity Parry and Catherine Millar in Bazaar and Rummage

REOPENING for the first time post-lockdown this week, Chester Little Theatre have put together an exciting new season that ranges from classic comedies and dramas to newly created work from the members themselves.

Commencing the season is Sue Townsend’s Bazaar and Rummage – a blend of comedy, farce, political satire (it is set like much of her work in the Thatcher era) and social commentary. The play premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1982, the same year in which Townsend produced her first Adrian Mole novel, and it found its way onto the small screen in a TV adaptation the following year.

Somewhere in East London, former agoraphobia sufferer and devotee of spiritual healing Gwenda arrives with trainee social worker Fliss to set up the church hall for a rummage sale, raising funds for a self-help group for agoraphobics. One by one we are introduced to three members of the group who have all braved the terror of leaving their houses for the first time in years to help out at the sale. Katrina is a self obsessed follower of fashion with good deal to say about her (now) sexless marriage to her husband and who, it appears, simply can’t stand anyone. Bell-Bell has a double-whammy of afflictions, dealing with OCD as well as agoraphobia, and Margaret, whose legs have failed her from the stress of leaving the house, has a colourful vocabulary and a limited amount of patience.

Act I is all about setting the scene and establishing the relationships between the characters, leading us to the point where they are ready to open the doors on the sale. When we return from the interval, the sale is over, to a disappointing financial return, and as the women clean up and pack away the surplus we enter further character development and learn all their back-stories. This is the meat of the piece, in which much of the real human drama plays out, but Townsend still manages to find a good deal of humour among the pathos of damaged lives and broken dreams.

Jessica Hardern, Catherine Millar and Jenny Howitt all deliver rounded and well drawn performances as Katrina, Bell-Bell and Margaret. Felicity Parry perfectly conjures the supportive but quietly disdainful Fliss, who attempts to keep the group in check. Sian Collinson has possibly the hardest job to do in playing Gwenda, which is written more as a caricature than the other roles and has a great deal of the dialogue, but she carries it off with considerable aplomb. She also doubles as the Policewoman who makes a brief appearance in the penultimate scene.

Director Margaret Bennett has kept a careful eye on pacing in this very text-driven piece, ensuring that the action never drags its feet. She also succeeds in achieving excellent comic timing among her cast.

There are some telling contemporary parallels with the stories these women have to tell, having ventured forth in public after a lengthy period of isolation at home, and the play feels almost ripe for a modern day retelling but as a period piece it works well, and for those of us who can recall the early ‘80s it holds resonances both old and new.

This is amateur drama with real polish and professionalism, and a warm and witty choice of work to open the season in the beautifully refurbished Little Theatre.

Review by Nigel Smith