What Would Helen Mirren Do?
A supermarket attendant lives by the example of the Oscar-winning actress
A supermarket in Oldham. Susan Butterworth, a woman of a certain age, has been on the tills for 30 years, alongside the irascible Big Jean with her orthopaedic complaints, and area manager Steve, a toxic mixture of dandruff and thigh-slapping, lip-licking lechery.
Susan is given hopes for promotion and duly sent off to rainy Wigan for some retail management training, which entails the usual run of painfully embarrassing group-sharing, David Brent-esque ice-breakers (‘let’s all perform dance moves with this stick!’) and utterly vapid motivational career-speak ('Where do you see yourself in five years time? What is your corporate skill set, Susan?')
English actress Anita Parry flits easily between these characters, hamming up the Mr Motivator thrusting of group trainer Austin Towers, getting the bitter harridan Big Jean just right and making manager Steve as hilariously repellent as any trouser-type could be.
Susan, her main persona, is a perfectly likeable, vulnerable yet resourceful middle-aged everywoman, who worries about her teenage daughter, her disabled son, the husband who ran off years ago and her crabby mother.
Well, you may ask, what does Helen Mirren, that most regal of Oscar-toting actresses, have to do with all this? At one of the ghastly management training sessions, Susan is asked to name an idol, someone who she is inspired by, who can gird her to aim higher. And after much stalling, while panicking about catching her bus on time, it comes to her: Helen Mirren.
Helen Mirren, with her cut-glass vowels; Helen Mirren, with her swan-like neck; Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, commanding such authority in her manner (before she took to the bottle in later episodes).
And soon, browsing in the supermarket aisles between the tinned peaches and baked beans, not far from the bread counter where there is a ten per cent discount on wholemeal rolls, Susan Butterworth begins walking with a certain poise, her nose aimed skyward, displaying hauteur just like Helen.
And when life, as it will, kicks in her in the teeth, her stock response becomes: 'Well, what would Helen Mirren do?' Would Helen Mirren, for example, cower before slimy Steve, or would she dress him down with rigour, displaying balls of steel?
Would Helen Mirren direct checkout employees with a slouchy posture or unsure diction, apologising and pussy-footing around like a wounded lamb? And wouldn’t Helen Mirren wear lipstick and rouge and take pride in herself, stalking the aisles of Oldham’s supermarket as though they were red carpets rolled out just for her?
What Would Helen Mirren Do?, here performed in the Black Box as part of the Out To Lunch Festival, is a funny, sharply-written and heartwarming play about one woman’s struggle for confidence and self-determination, acted with real verve by Parry.
It isn’t a profound or particularly challenging piece of theatre, more a sort of Shirley Valentine feel-good monologue. But it comes with enough wisecracks to keep you hooked and characters so realistically drawn you will be sure you've met their sort before.
For more information on forthcoming Out to Lunch Festival events, check out What's On.