Last updated at 11:19 PM on 3rd March 2011
Heaven is only ever a heartbeat away from the cobbles of Coronation Street, as many of the soap’s characters have discovered.
So here we are at the pearly gates and Blanche Hunt – Deirdre Barlow’s mother and the long-suffering Ken’s nemesis – is negotiating with St Peter to be allowed in.
The problem is, he explains, there’s been rather of a glut of battleaxes coming in from Weatherfield over the past 50 years, and one more might be a shrill harpy too many.
Spitting image: Lucy Thackeray (left) channels Pat Phoenix as Elsie Tanner in the play which manages to succeed in being funny, tender and downright daft
Welcome to Corrie!, the ambitious new play that attempts the impossible: five decades of the world’s longest-running TV show in the world squeezed into just two hours.
The fact that it succeeds in being funny, tender and downright daft by turn is down to the ingenuity of writer Jonathan Harvey and a small cast of astonishing versatility.
I caught it at the Cambridge Arts Theatre and was open-mouthed at the final curtain when just six actors filed on stage to take their bows. I’d lost count of the number of characters who’d been paraded before us when I reached 50.
But there was no doubting the connection with the audience.
‘I’ve never heard laughter like it in a theatre before,’ says Jonathan. ‘You wouldn’t think that Ken finding out about Deirdre’s affair or her being banged up in prison would be funny. But somehow, when it’s other actors recreating those familiar scenes, there’s something inherently amusing about it.
‘And I defy anyone not to laugh out loud when Gail announces that she’s found a new bloke and this time she truly believes he’s The One.
‘We all know, of course, that he’s going to be the ultimately unfaithful Martin, Richard who turns into a serial killer or finally Joe who tries to fake his own death.’
As narrator Gaynor Faye – Judy Mallett in the soap until she was felled with a pulmonary embolism at the end of the Nineties – observes, Corrie! celebrates a ‘world run by women’.
So here we have Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix in the original) plying her trade beneath a lamppost and picking a fight with Ena Sharples, the biggest battleaxe of all in Violet Carson’s indelible TV performance.
Then there’s Bet Lynch, played by a man in drag, a spot-on Hilda Ogden and a laugh-out-loud recreation of Stephanie Beacham’s Martha, sailing on to the stage in her canal boat.
The idea for the project came to Kieran Roberts, executive producer of Coronation Street, last year. He then asked the show’s writers if anyone wanted to condense 50 years into a sort of Reduced Shakespeare version of the soap.
A scriptwriter since 2004, 42-year-old Jonathan didn’t have to be asked twice. ‘I love Coronation Street,’ he says. ‘It’s the one TV programme I watch religiously.
Battleaxe: Jo Mousley (left) manages to capture the iconic Ena Sharples, played in the soap by the fearsome Violet Carson
‘I was born and raised in Liverpool and I write Corrie in the vernacular. Any writer’s childhood is their bank balance. It’s ingrained in you. I think Corrie has real integrity and the writing has always been of the highest order.’
Even so, tackling a single episode is one thing, cramming five decades into two hours quite another. ‘It was a gargantuan task’, he sighs.
Three Corrie stalwarts will take it in turns to act as narrator, Gaynor, Ken Morley – Reg Holdsworth – and Roy Barraclough, 74, forever identified as Alec Gilroy.
Gaynor thinks the show has an appeal for everyone, not just fans of the soap.
‘Everybody’s aware of Corrie’s iconic characters. If you haven’t heard of Hilda Ogden I wonder where you’ve been for the last 50 years. She’s a national institution.’
And Roy says: ‘I’m thrilled to be back on the cobbles. I made my first appearance in Coronation Street in 1964 and my last in 1998. It coincides with my 50th year in showbusiness, so it’s a nice way to celebrate.’ Jonathan is cautiously optimistic about sell-out performances for the show’s six-month UK tour.
‘People started turning up dressed as their favourite Corrie characters when we tried out the play in Salford last year,’ he says.
‘I’ve got a feeling that’s a trend which is going to catch on. But then, this is more than a mere soap. It’s a part of the very fabric of the British way of life and one that’s held in huge affection. I mean, can you imagine a play condensing 25 years of EastEnders into two hours?’
He laughs. ‘It would be a bloodbath punctuated only by a lot of shouting.’
n For more about Corrie!, visit corrietheplay.com.