Over the course of the Covid pandemic, the Lawrence Batley Theatre has become known for its innovative digital productions, among them What a Carve Up! and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Their latest offering, a co-production with Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes and The Watermill Theatre, is Going The Distance, a charming and poignant comedy about a small local theatre group struggling to survive when their doors are forced to close.
Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan and directed by Felicity Montagu in a style reminiscent of TV comedies like W1A, Going The Distance features a wry voiceover from narrator Stephen Fry, narrating on what can best be described as a bunch of misfits who have to find a way to work together to save the thing they all love – their theatre. Led by director Frank (Matthew Kelly), self-appointed Head of Marketing (and various other things) Rae (Sarah Hadland) and treasurer Maggie (Penny Ryder), the group decide to put on a production of Wizard – a new story written by Frank’s ex-wife Vic (Shobna Gulati) and inspired by, but for rights purposes definitely not, The Wizard of Oz.
So begins a bumpy road towards opening night, where everything seems set against them – complicated romantic entanglements, a depressing dearth of local talent, and budget constraints that are largely the result of local diva Billie (Nicole Evans) wildly overspending on a Glinda dress. And yet somehow they keep going, and one by one it becomes clear how much the theatre means to them – for newcomer Gail (Emma McDonald) it’s a chance to make something of herself; for Vic it’s an outlet for her grief and insecurity following the breakdown of her marriage; and for Maggie, it’s been part of her life for decades and is now pretty much all she has. Even Rae and Billie, on the surface the two most obnoxious characters, allow their masks to slip briefly so the audience can understand that for all their bluster, they care just as deeply as the others.
There’s no hidden meaning in Going The Distance, it’s not trying to be controversial or provoke debate – bar one brief mention at the start, there’s barely even any criticism of the confused government policy that closed the theatres in the first place. The play is quite simply a love letter to theatre, and a tribute to those of all shapes and sizes that haven’t been able to reopen their doors since Covid struck. The members of the Matchborough Community Theatre are certainly larger than life and played for laughs, but the fun being poked at them is always affectionate and sympathetic to their plight; ultimately what they’re fighting for becomes far more important than any annoying traits or petty squabbles.
Watching the play is also a reminder of the early days of the pandemic, a time that already seems distant and strange, and while it’s certainly poignant to think that some won’t be returning, it’s also uplifting to know that Covid hasn’t been able to kill off theatre completely. It’s an institution that means so much to so many, and this play is a heartwarming piece which perfectly highlights that universal love and respect.
Going The Distance is available to watch online until 17th October.