Saturday, 5 November 2016

A prisoner of good fortune

Guilty pleasures. We all have them. Maybe a cheeky drink at the end of a long day, frugging around the living room to the sound of some 1980s disco or settling down to a TV treat that never fails to entertain. For me, the late 1980s through to 1997 were enlivened, television-wise, by the bottomless pit of pleasure known as Prisoner: Cell Block H. Shunted away in an 11 pm slot on ITV, PCBH became a must-see in my viewing week. Yes, I've heard all the nonsense about wobbly sets and outlandish plots but let's face it, EastEnders and Coronation Street are no strangers to the latter.

Of course, PCBH has recently had a revival and was relaunched on to an unsuspecting world in 2013 as gritty, edgy Wentworth. I love it but my fondness for the original PCBH has never waned. The show provided opportunities for many actresses who may have been consigned to 'mum', 'gran' or 'office worker' roles for years to come. Instead they were handed glorious roles - tough women with back stories and a tale to tell. Sheila Florance excelled as the wily poisoner Lizzie Birdsworth. Val Lehman ruled the roost for four hundred episodes as Top Dog and queen of the laundry press, Bea Smith and Janet Andrewartha crackled with menace as calculating Reb Keane.

A few British actresses also made the journey to the Wentworth Detention Centre including Annette Andre (of Randall & Hopkirk Deceased fame) as journalist Camilla Wells and the glorious Olivia Hamnett as psychotic doctor Kate Petersen. One actress who kicked the series off with a bang was Londoner Amanda Muggleton. She played tart-with-no-heart whatsoever, Chrissie Latham. The scorned Chrissie murdered one of the main characters early doors and wasn't seen again for several hundred episodes - but back she came. Chrissie managed to be hard-faced yet vulnerable and often lashed out when things weren't going her way. Initially an enemy of Bea Smith, Chrissie eventually learns the error of her ways, partly down to a sever bashing from corrupt officer Joan "The Freak" Ferguson.

Actress Amanda Muggleton left the series in episode 338 and Chrissie never returned. For Amanda, further success lay ahead on stage and screen. She took lead roles in Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, winning countless awards along the way. Almost forty years after that first appearance in Prisoner, Amanda found herself at the wonderful Kings Head Theatre in Islington, as star of the one-woman play The Book Club. Written by Roger Hall, the play tells the tale of Deb Martin, a woman whose husband is knee-deep in a midlife crisis. With her kids off her hands and time to kill, Deb joins a book club peopled by a bunch of eclectic women. Whether it's haughty Meredith or homely Millie, all have an opinion. Muggleton gives voice to all of them impressively and despite her being the only woman on stage, you soon find yourself engaged with a plethora of characters. She also manages to fill the entire stage, stalking each corner and addressing members of the audience like long-lost friends. It's all rather impressive. There is much joy to be had in the play, laughs a-plenty, tempered by Deb's realisation that ultimately, no good can come from the decision she's made. Acting on a lifelong ambition is sometimes not such a good idea.

Initially I wondered about the decision to stage the play in such a tiny venue as the King's Head. Some years ago I ventured to the Jermyn Street Theatre and almost projectile vomited having been placed on the front row in the firing range of scary tribute act Simply Barbra. Any lingering worries I had last night disappeared within seconds. Amanda Muggleton made this a very inclusive experience. We were part of her book club as it darted between hosts. Deb couldn't have made us feel more welcome - but I think Chrissie would have knocked her teeth out.

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