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Review: The Demolition Man

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

    Emotional highs and lows for TV’s favourite steeplejack, Fred Dibnah (Colin Connor) and his wife (Michelle Collins)
    Emotional highs and lows for TV’s favourite steeplejack, Fred Dibnah (Colin Connor) and his wife (Michelle Collins)

    To the people of Bolton he is a local hero. Fred Dibnah toppled chimneys for a living, built a mineshaft in his back yard, and achieved cult TV status. The Demolition Man is the true life story of his third marriage - to a glamorous magician's assistant - his enduring passion for steam engines and the ravages of prostate cancer which ultimately claimed his life.

    Bolton already has a bronze statue to one of its most famous sons, depicting him in his steeplejacking heyday. Aelish Michael's warts-and-all world premiere drama is a tribute of a different kind. Yes, it is affectionate, but it pulls no punches, and though it shows Fred as a man of twin passions - up his chimneys and in the bedroom - and of unquestionable charm, it also shows us selfishness, anger and self-pity. The play evolved with the co-operation of Mrs Dibnah the third, as he never tired of calling her, who nursed him through his illness and was cut from the will in his dying days. She provides a wealth of beautifully observed first-hand detail, but with it comes the echo an axe being ground.

    It is very much a play of two halves, overly cheerful at first, overly miserable by the end. Fred (Colin Connor) can barely believe his good fortune when Sheila Grundy -"a dotty young dolly bird", played by ex-EastEnder Michelle Collins - falls for his down-to-earth charms. Or is it his money? Either way they are married and, for a while, happy.

    And then something snaps. All of a sudden she is accused of being a gold digger, Fred's mineshaft aspirations are sunk, the cancer verdict is delivered and the patient takes solace in his hip flask.

    The second, over-long half, charts Fred's decline as he stares at death through a haze of chemotherapy and becomes gripped by paranoia.

    What the play lacks is the mid-tones between the romping of part one, and the grimness of part two. And there is a peculiar chemistry to the relationship, which is either full-on or full-off.

    But there is much that is good too. Colin Connor plays a brilliant Fred, though a southern audience would probably need subtitles. Michelle Collins, less used to the bluntness of a Bolton accent, could pass for a proper northerner.

    The set, a jumble sale of mechanical bits and bobs is marvellous, and director David Thacker's theatrical devices of three big screens showing specially-filmed documentary footage of Fred, works well. As does the guardian angel Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 19th-century engineering genius, summoning Fred to climb his final ladder to the great workshop in the sky.

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