20 June 2024

A moving take on a Forces sweetheart

THEATRE REVIEW by Sam Hawcroft

Gracie Fields was well into her 40s with a long theatre and film career under her belt before she earned lasting fame by entertaining the troops in the Second World War.

The Rochdale-born star, and her versions of songs such as Sally, Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye, The Biggest Aspidistra in the World, and The Thing-Ummy-Bob, are at the centre of a one-woman show, Our Gracie, which has toured various venues in the East Riding and will finish at the Bridlington Spotlight Theatre this weekend, November 25-26.

Hull actress Gina Garton plays Diana Sproats, who, it seems, is auditioning for a new musical – but it’s not until near the end that there is a poignant twist.

Diana warmly chats with the audience, who come to feel like they are her friends (indeed, many of those at the November 18 show at Cottingham’s Darby and Joan Club replied to her as though she was sitting next to them).

She reveals that her grandmother grew up with Gracie, who lived above a chip shop and worked in a cotton mill before the stage came calling at a very young age. Along the way we learn fascinating nuggets about the star’s long life and career, such as her two husbands, the second of whom was Italian film director Monty Banks.

After Gracie had suffered a breakdown and moved to the isle of Capri, she married Monty in 1940 – shortly before Italy entered the Second World War, meaning she would likely have been interned if she had returned to the UK.

The pair went to the USA, and although Gracie spent much of the war entertaining British troops overseas – in far-flung places such as the South Pacific islands – her popularity at home declined. Still, the wartime Gracie is arguably the image of her that pervades to this day.

Diana intersperses her own story with all of Gracie’s songs that audiences know and love – and Gina’s rich and powerful voice more than does them justice.

She is accompanied by the award-winning young organist Lewis Scott – a veritable whiz kid on the keys who also does a good “side-eye” to the audience when Diana gently banters with him, which is fairly often.

The play is written by Tom Steer, but with significant contributions by Gina, a founding member of theatre company Ginger Green Productions. She brings a realism to the piece that draws on her own personality and experiences. She is believable and relatable – equally brilliant at both comedy and pathos.

This could have been just a “sing-along-a- Gracie” – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it ends up being so much more, particularly as the second act comes to its devastating conclusion.

I would urge you to catch this show while you can – Saturday’s show at the Spotlight Theatre is at 7.30pm, with Sunday matinee (2.30pm) tickets close to selling out, as this paper went to press. For more information and to buy tickets, visit spotlighttheatrebrid.co.uk.