Everybody Loves a Winner @ Royal Exchange, Manchester

written and directed by
Neil Bartlett
“That’s right. We’ll be playing bingo!”

“Bingo? Shut up,” I scoffed to my brother. “What a rubbish idea that is. How’s that going to work?”

And yet, half an hour later, there I was with a clipboard and pen, playing bingo with all the enthusiasm of a child beginning to understand the rudiments of Battleships.

I had completely forgotten that I was sat in the Manchester Royal Exchange’s amphitheatre-style auditorium with around 500 other people.
In all honesty, I was so riveted and intent on winning the 200 cash prize, I forgot I was a critic supposedly there to do a job (well, a job of sorts). Everybody Loves A Winner? Well, everybody loves to win, that’s for sure, myself included.

While this curious and, it has to be said, highly entertaining juncture further illustrated Manchester International Festival’s emphasis on the interactive, it left the rest of Neil Bartlett’s fairly hefty play feeling just that little bit peripheral. But then the bingo was really bloody enjoyable.

Everybody Loves A Winner is a fairly straightforward concept, even if it appears to be quite an adventurous one. Set inside the confides of a bingo hall located in (judging by the accents) a typically working-class Mancunian suburb, the play observes an average day of entertainment although it transpires that there are few average days in this place.

The set, which is a faithful recreation of a down-at-heel working man’s club-come-bingo hall, conveys the same tacky-but-still-charming atmosphere that Phoenix Nights fashions so well. It’s all dingy and worn the chairs, tables, even the tasteless carpets. The play’s main protagonists the bingo hall employees enter the stage. It’s morning shift. The place is dead, dark and utterly depressing.

That is, until the place is filled with the defiant sort of humour Manchester is famous for. The presence of Sally Lyndsay who plays the bingo hall’s stressed and thoroughly overworked manageress makes the whole thing feel more like the Rovers Return Inn than “The Rex” the bingo hall’s fictional (or should that be real?) name.

A trio of minimum wage, teenage assistants characterised excellently by Warren Sollars, Amanda Henderson and Emily Alexander – buzz around the set, causing general mischief. By the time the rest of the cast arrives and take to their seats as the bingo hall’s customers, the audience feels at ease, both with the slightly bizarre setting and its fellow players.

Fellow players? Well, yes, we’re all playing too. One game to introduce the rules and convince people to gamble and the second (in my case, anyway) a deadly serious eyes-down battle to the death. OK, so it was for 200. Still, might as well play like you mean it! And ultimately, that is what most of this audience will take home as a defining memory. Unfortunately for Bartlett, that probably wasn’t the sole intention.

As well as being an incredibly effective piece of interactive theatre perhaps the first of its kind to involve a cash prize the show came with a much darker message. Symbolic of the show’s fairly grim undercurrent is the show’s real star bingo caller ‘Frank’eh,’ played by Ian Puleston-Davies. Borrowing heavily from David Morrissey’s characterisation of Ripley Holden in Blackpool, Puleston-Davies is tremendous as the cocksure, charming but ultimately flawed Frank’eh.

As his egotistical facade slowly crumbles so does the superficial sense of hope and happiness that exists within the bingo hall and the people that frequent it. Although the show doesn’t make light of the lives of the real people that it portrays, it does ram the idea that there isn’t much hope for people (in general) in a fairly ceaseless fashion. In essence, Bartlett suggests that, like the bingo players that hope for a chance to win the star prize, we all rather helplessly cling to ideals that few of us achieve. Given the show’s length, I don’t think I was the only audience member clinging on to the uplifting games of bingo as a means of respite.

As a conceptual piece of interactive theatre, Everybody Loves A Winner comes close to a full house; but due to its near three hour length and its fairly incessant sermon, it finishes just a few numbers short. More importantly, however, I don’t think I’ll be the only one here to try my hand at bingo again.

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