Matthew Kelly delivers big laughs, but the play is only skin-deep

What a curious show this is; I’ve rarely found myself flip-flopping between such cackling-out-loud enjoyment and inward sighing bafflement. The talent is there: The Gap is a new play by Jim Cartwright (Road; Little Voice), and stars Denise Welch and Matthew Kelly, who deliver big laughs. But Anthony Banks’s direction and design seems to put stumbling blocks in their path, rather than helping clear the way.

“Well frig my Jaffas!” says Corral, when her old pal Walter calls after 50 years. Both be-cardiganed, they retell the story of their lives, starting in the swinging Sixties. Only things aren’t swinging up north – so the cheeky, sexy Corral and the waspishly camp Walter buy one-way tickets to London. Before long, Corral (Welch now gamely sporting a mini dress and white PVC boots) becomes a prostitute, with Walter her genteel pimp, in a classy pied-a-terre lent to them by some soused benefactor. Cue the absolute time of their lives, drinking champagne, partying with the great and the good.

Beyond John Lennon reportedly declaring that it’s “immoral, Corral”, there’s nary a hint that her job might be anything other than a jolly good laugh. I’m not arguing that all sex workers should be depicted as downtrodden or ashamed – far from it – but having no exploration of Corral’s interior life whatsoever leaves the drama feeling cheaply skin-deep.

The rest of a very short first half is basically a litany of every Sixties Soho touchstone you can think of. They hob-nob with The Beatles, Francis Bacon, Christine Keeler… you get the idea. All this might – might – work if delivered in a wild whirl, but it’s taken at a slow trot in Banks’s production, in front of crashingly literal projections of famous faces.

The design generally doesn’t help, with sliding doors and a loud “donk” announcing each scene change – a sound like the one your computer makes when a file fails to open. Surely a more supple and theatrical solution was invited by these rapid-fire scene and costume changes.

Denise Welch and Matthew Kelly in The Gap

Denise Welch and Matthew Kelly in The Gap – Pamela Raith

In the also-short second half, Corral and Walter have parted ways. The rest of their lives are skipped through, via a series of dead-end jobs – summarised with much saucy but bone-dry humour on Welch’s part, as Corral turns her hand to porn, adult phone lines, and posting dirty undies.

Kelly is equally entertaining, be it pouring scorn on a call centre script or bopping along to pop hits as he pops cherries on Bakewell tarts in a cake factory. He gives a particularly detailed performance, hands splaying and stretching as though he’s conjuring memories, the flesh of his face contorting with every caustic quip. If the few more poignant moments sometimes feel melodramatic, Kelly’s performance movingly falters when Walter has a mental breakdown, matching Cartwright’s fracturing writing.

But mostly, Cartwright’s comedy is scratchily black, and defiantly unsentimental. And he still has a knack for distinctive, vivid lines that simply sing off the stage – in sleazy Seventies Soho, it’s as if “everything’s fried in lust”; returning north to care for his mother Walter feels like he’s being “sucked up a cobbled street backwards”. But too often, we just bump along the surface of these two lives, without much sense of who they truly are or why any of it matters.

Until March 16. Tickets: 0161 275 9141;

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