The Usherettes The Space at Surgeons Hall

For those movie fans of a more tender age, the term “usherette” will probably prove to be a bit alien, unfamiliar, and result in a few blank stares from most teenagers.

However, for those fans of the silver screen that could be best described as more of the vintage variety, the name conjures up fond memories of probing torchlights in the dark, ice creams during the intermission, as well as sharp cries of “get your feet off the back of that seat” and “you two in the back row – stop that right now!”

Yet the cast of this mammoth movie production consists of – not thousands – but just two, in the chummy and personable form of Karen Levick & Helen Wood as the usherettes “Jean & Pearl”. Jean (as played by Ms Levick) first comes across as a bit of a “bossy boots”, explaining to her rather gormless new assistant Pearl (Ms Wood) the sacred secrets of being a good usherette. But one is quickly made aware that beneath her officious exterior lurks a warm and gentle soul, immersed in the magic of the movies, as well as her small but important part in keeping its spirit alive.

The plot, as it were, is set within the grandly named “Regal Cinema” a once palatial picture palace, now under potential threat from dreaded restructured modernisation.
Jean bemoans the predicament that the cinema is now facing, while Pearl slowly gets to grips with the intricacies of how to successfully function as an usherette. This is where we find our two heroines (complete with the recognisable sound of the old Pearl & Dean ads) as with a careful, swift move of props, costume changes and altered accents, we are quickly presented with alternative unique renditions of memorable scenes from a few much cherished movie classics of yesteryear. Amongst the main features that star our two usherettes, we witness the likes of “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie”, “Rebecca (Ms Wood, in particular, relishing her comedic turn as the cackling and dastardly Mrs Danvers) “The Third Man”, “Brassed Off” and last but not least “Brief Encounter”.

In between the movie recreations, Ms Levick’s Jean harbours unrequited passion for (the unseen) Bernard, the cinema manager. Only for her desire to fall on stony ground, when he announces that he seeks his passions elsewhere, and he’s off to start a new life in San Francisco without her! However, her personal sadness is offset by the good news (like so many happy endings from the great movies of the past) that The Regal is being spared from the dreaded perils of modernisation and finally protected for all time due to its historical value.

The Usherettes is for the most part, a likable, if lightweight production that eventually turns out to be a warm-hearted, witty and affectionate tribute to a bygone era. A time when a night at the cinema meant much more than what is usually offered today, within the cavernous and soulless halls of the multiplex. And so I came away with the thought that what was really beneath the play’s surface was a deep regret for a form of mass community entertainment that is now sadly lost.

Today’s movie going may have gained everything technically and commercially, but in the process, it has lost something much more emotionally. But putting that aside, if you are looking for a show that is devoid of cynicism and bitterness, but revels in the sheer joy of “a night at the pictures”, you could do worse than spend an hour in the genial and good natured company of “The Usherettes”. It is worth the price of admission – and a choc-ice as well.

Lawrence Lettice