Carl Giles, the cartoonist whose drawings appeared in the Daily Express for 40 years, made Ipswich his home. A statue of his most famous creation – “Grandma” – stands in the town centre, and it’s to his extended family of much-loved cartoon creations that Phil Willmott and New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe turn for this jaunty jukebox musical.
It’s 1987, and the lowly but lovely Giles family moves into a council estate in Ipswich, only to find that the neighbours are Thatcherite social climbers, and that the PM herself plans to close down the local hospital. The Giles clan fight back, with OTT derring-do, and with a whole host of 1980s bangers, played live on stage – Madness, Kirsty MacColl, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and more.
It’s a bizarre concept – not a million miles from Rowe’s annual rock ‘n’ roll pantomime – but it works. Sort of. The plot is ridiculous (flying motorbikes and fictional Tory MPs), the politics pretty obvious, and the jokes truly awful, but there’s something infectious about its upbeat zaniness. It’s difficult not to like a show that features a Thatcher impersonator belting out Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
Rowe, as ever, handles a large cast confidently on Cleo Pettitt’s black-and-white, illustration-emblazoned set, but the evening rests on the unflagging performers themselves. Nicky Swift is particularly entertaining as snooty neighbour Eileen Stinkleton, but it’s James Haggie’s simpering Tory MP who steals the show. Especially when he sings about pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.