COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN at the Alma, Bristol

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This is a brave and ambitious production. The play is set in a run-down five-and-dime in a small town in Texas. Hank Williams is on the radio, there are photographs of James Dean all over one wall, and it is oppressively hot. An all-female fan club called ‘The Disciples of James Dean’ gathers to commemorate his death twenty years earlier. Now well past their youth, they were excited teenagers when their hero filmed Giant in nearby Marfa. Mona, who was recruited as an extra in the film, has a very particular reason for cherishing his memory, boasting, ‘I was chosen above all them thousands of others.’ She is not talking merely of her briefly glimpsed role as an extra, but of being the mother of James Dean’s child, Jimmy. Three other members of the fan club arrive: there’s the pneumatic Sissy, proudly proclaiming ‘if you got ‘em, bounce ‘em’; and there’s glittery Stella-May, married to an oilman, and full of contempt for none-too-bright and obviously expectant Edna-Louise, who has spent the intervening years producing babies. Their decidedly barbed and often very funny banter is interwoven with flashbacks to that time in the 1950s, when all was hope and boundless possibility. Then a stranger in a Porsche arrives, and layers of pretence and self-deception are peeled away.

Grace Vance is excellent as Mona, particularly in the final moments when she has to come to terms with the loss of precious, long-held dreams. Equally impressive is Issy Inchbald as Sissy, seemingly brassily confident, but hiding some uncomfortable truths. Sophie Grenfell is both endearing and wonderfully funny as the spectacularly pregnant Edna-Louise, gauche and decidedly deficient in the brains department, but the only member of the club firmly in touch with reality.

This is about as big a play as the Alma can hold. When there are shifts into the past and both the adults and their teenage selves occupy the performance area things are a little crowded, but director Adele James has used the space well. One minor problem is that shifts to their teenage past are signaled by rather overenthusiastic rain effects that tend to drown out some of the dialogue. In Come Back to the Five and Dime Ed Graczyk has undoubtedly created fascinating characters, and the nine talented actors of this production portray them with considerable skill and impressively authentic Texan accents, but perhaps there are a few too many dark secrets and startling revelations for credibility to be sustained. Nevertheless, this tragi-comedy vividly conveys the suffocating narrowness of small town American life, and it has some powerful things to say about how desperately we cling to our dreams and illusions, and how an eventual acceptance of sad reality can be cathartic. Well worth the price of a ticket.     ★★★☆☆     Mike Whitton     1st May 2015