Chalet Lines takes you by surprise. It takes time to confirm exactly what sort of play it wants to be and, by the time you realise, it’s very nearly too late. At first, it looks like a broad, hearty comedy about working class women in the North of England. We’re at Butlin’s. There’s a 70th birthday in the process of going tits up. There’s plenty of cheap plonk and an undercurrent of familial friction. Characters catch each other with the sort of gruff Geordie sarcasm that lashes lovingly. Tonally, it’s not a million miles from one half of Stags and Hens.
A couple of flashbacks later, however, and Lee Mattinson’s play has turned into a wistful whizz through the generations. Mattinson guides us through four generations of the Walker family. Barbara, the birthday girl of the first scene, has two daughters: Loretta, who’s cocked up the restaurant reservation, and her favourite Paula, who hasn’t even turned up. Loretta’s daughters, Jolene and the awkward Abigail are also along for the cava palava.
From there, it’s back to 1996, where the Spice Girls blare out over preparations for Paula’s hen do. Neither Loretta nor Barbara have been invited; not that that stops them bursting in and putting their own boozy stamp on proceedings. Then, zap, further back. 1961. The night before a 19-year-old Barbara’s shotgun wedding to a man she doesn’t love. She’s pregnant (presumably with Paula, though Sian Breckin is at least a decade too young) with another man’s child.
Chalet Lines isn’t a state of the nation play. The women are too culturally specific for that. Nonetheless, it’s trying to work along similar lines, showing the currents of change over fifty-odd years for a certain section of British society. It’s worth noting that Butlin’s sold off almost all of its post-war camps in 1998, with the remainder bought out by a corporation two years later. The run-down chalet becomes a symbol of something that has struggled to stand the winds of time. The wallpaper is the same throughout: pallid blue and sour cream.
Women and class are definitely up for discussion. What’s less certain is Mattinson’s point. It’s left ambiguous – almost to the point of contradiction – as to what he’s lamenting. Is it the endless and vicious cycle of inherited values? Or is it the moral decay of the past half-century? In other words, with regards the three eras sat side by side, should we be looking at the differences or the similarities?
Nevertheless, Chalet Lines pretty much tells you not to bother looking at all. Mattinson’s characters and events are larger than life. Its gags are slick and its sentiment is unabashed. Characters often voice the themes of the play. All this smacks of a writer siding for flair and entertainment over truthfulness. That’s fine; there are good plays like that. But they can’t make nuanced, near-contradictory sociological points. Mattinson obscures his astute and subtle ideas with surface currents. He promises to come to you, but whispers long words from afar. Chalet Lines is too light to carry its weight.
Mattinson’s writing is concerned with patterns rather than people and he finds really elegant notes of synchronicity between the different periods. But his surfing of history and its gaps is less convincing. It’s never clear how Barbara went from knock-kneed sweetness to knees-up knockabout.
Loveless marriages recur throughout. Abigail’s is just as enforced as Barbara’s. Aged 16, awkward and dysmorphophobic, she’s dolled up by her mother and marched out of an unsuitable date. Loretta’s marriage is equally tragic: by 1996, she’s submitting herself to anal sex just to keep hold of her unfaithful husband. She’s still subservient 15 years on, serving tea every day and suggesting Abigail ‘spend more time on her knees in the bedroom than the bathroom’. The implication is that Jolene, who’s newly engaged – at last – to a redcoat she meet two days ago, will follow suit.
Marriage is something done to please one’s parents. It’s regarded as a girl’s sole aim in life and these women are deemed – and often deem themselves – nothing without a husband. (This is despite a disdainful view of men, all described in childish terms. One strips naked to use the toilet, another wears a Daffy Duck T-shirt.) The message of how to win and keep a husband is passed from mother to daughter, just like the (almost imperceptibly) off-white wedding dress first worn by Barbara.
Yet Mattinson blurs the sense of endless continuity by implying a start to the cycle with Barbara in the sixties. It’s a move that lays blame with the baby-boomers and follows the moral decay from there. The odd sherry becomes bottles of Pomange then cheap supermarket cava. Lavatories become loos then shits. ‘This is what lasses do,’ Loretta screams at Abigail in 1996, ‘They have fun. They talk about lads…Lasses have sex’. Not in 1961, they didn’t. Those that did got frogmarched down the aisle.
Hardwon freedoms have been taken for granted and abused. Barbara sacrifices love to marry for the promise of ‘a world of colour’. By 2012, it’s everywhere, but Loretta, in a punchy floral dress, can’t ever see it: ‘There’s no colour anywhere anymore’.
This is the key to Leslie Travers brilliant cubist set, which has the chalet as if caught mid-blast or mid hurricaine. Walls and ceilings seem to have split apart, splintered under the force. Funfair lightbulbs – red, blue, yellow and green – puncture the walls like a threatening invasion of Triffids. The angular shapes correspond to the ramps of a ride. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the women’s lives: all quick thrills that leave you nauseous.
Because these women, broadly speaking, live not hand-to-mouth but week-to-weekend. Everyone is expected to do likewise: chicken fillets go in, skirts get rolled up and heels ratch up a notch. Only Paula escapes, moving on to a middle-class life. To do so, she has to face down reverse snobbery and peer pressure that form the vortex of inherited values. Ultimately, she has to leave her unreconstructed family behind. Abigail should have done likewise years ago, but fell foul of the trap.
New artistic director Madani Younis has brought out cracking performances from his cast, but both fall foul of the play’s dual personality. The problem is that by gunning for the brash and crass working class tastes, he turns them into a laughing stock. Actually Mattinson’s play has got a more sympathetic heart than that, but it’s too keen to dress up and sell itself out for laughs.