Gratitude. That’s the main thing that’s noticeable at the Royal Court, back in what is the closest to normality since early 2020. An audience that looks comfortably double-jabbed, given a wide berth from other theatre-goers and foregoing England’s semi-final clash were rewarded with a night of food, booze and theatre – small pleasures that few will ever take for granted again. None were disappointed by Ellen & Rigby, a new play about life, love and lockdown at the self-styled People’s Theatre.
First up, a bit of context. It’s 18 months since the boards were last tread here – with only a remote turn by Les Dennis as Jigsy in the meantime. The arts sector is on a knife-edge, with zero income and the prospect of socially-distance shows stretching into 2022. Writers, actors, production staff and the people who keep the wheels on at our precious theatres have seen work (and cash) dry up. And audiences have been starved of art, leisure, laughs – not to mention the unbeatable food-plus-a-turn offering that the Royal Court offers. As the curtain-lifter after an unprecedented hiatus, this production has a lot on its shoulders.
So. Ellen & Rigby. He’s a clapped-out misanthropic musician; she’s a volunteer Astra Zeneca pricker. When Rigby (the eternally rumpled and bemused Drew Schofield) needs his Covid vaccination he encounters Lindzi Germain’s brassy-but-lonely Ellen. Sensing the potential for romance – and her patient’s hypochondria following his dose – she takes him back to his flat and never leaves, regardless of his initial protestations.
It’s an age-old story. Woman meets man at vaccination centre; woman moves in with man during global pandemic…
It’s an age-old story. Woman meets man at vaccination centre; woman moves in with man during global pandemic. The framing device of the 12 weeks either side of a Coronavirus jab is as novel as Covid-19, but it smartly allows writer Gerry Linford to explore the gestation period of a whirlwind romance – and more besides.
Covid has been a disaster for many, but for some it has been a boon. For loners like Rigby, apparently happy with his life of comicbooks, houseplants and memories, the pandemic is a chance to slow down, reset and consider what’s important. Initially mistaking this crumpled bachelor for a cosmic scally, wielding a Magna Carta and railing against Bill Gates, Ellen lets rip with a full-throttle blast at conspiracy-theory nutters. The demographics of the Royal Court took it in good humour.
Inevitably, Rigby begins to warm to the force-of-nature that has made herself home in his flat – he’s a ducker for a hard-luck story, but Ellen is carrying a secret that could blow their blossoming…. love? into oblivion. If there’s a problem here it’s that Rigby’s obvious dislike of Ellen at the outset is hard to turn around with the running time.
When he makes a joke about Misery it doesn’t feel wide of the mark – and while Linford may have been aiming more for The Odd Couple, there’s something not entirely comforting about Ellen’s annexation of Rigby’s flat. But perhaps if Carla Lane had adapted Stephen King’s book for the stage, this is what would have resulted.
Ah, look at all the lonely people. Ellen & Rigby is about Big Things. Kindness, humanity, freshly-laundered underpants – and not giving up hope. There’s a big dose of gratitude too, from both of the cast. In each other they find a happiness and a hope they had forsaken. As the first of what is hopefully an uninterrupted line of productions at the Royal Court – and a rollicking shot in the arm at that – the audience can surely relate.
Ellen & Rigby
Royal Court Liverpool
Until 31 July
• All images by Jason Roberts