Reviewing Harrogate Theatre's show of the year: Why 122 Love Stories is an unmissable crowd pleaser

At the end of an amazing show, writer Rachael Halliwell thanked an incredible cast and  crew for 122 Love Stories and praised the "the power of immersive community work."

By Graham Chalmers
Friday, 29th July 2022, 1:49 pm

And it's true, all 21 community and professional actors deserve enormous credit for the success of the premiere last night, Thursday, of Harrogate Theatre's follow-up to last year's epic Our Gate production.

It's impossible to list them all but, if names have to be named, kudos to Ciara Daly (Shelley), Naail Ishaq (Damina), Matthew Weilding (Barty) and Alice Rowbottom (Daly).

An early scene from the opening night of immersive play 122 Love Stories inside Harrogate Theatre.

As good as the entire cast is, none of them outshone the main character in this hugely entertaining production - Harrogate Theatre itself.

While breezier, funnier, shorter in length and, in some ways, less ambitious than Our Gate, 122 Love Stories still offers substantial challenges for the talented cast and crew.

Instead of taking the production across the town centre as the narrative unfolded, this time round they journey deep into the nooks and crannies of the lovely but labyrinthine grade II listed Harrogate Theatre itself.

Part tribute to its own long history and the art of putting on a show, part satire on the threat the money world can potentially pose for the arts world, the upbeat script by Harrogate-based Rachael Halliwell skilfully wraps all of the above with a light touch in a series of love stories inspired by real-life incidents in a theatre steeped in heritage but wonderfully alive.

It begins with Harrogate Theatre up for sale, as advertised in a cleverly-created estate agents brochure by the fake 'Selling Yorkshire Group' describing the theatre as "prime commercial central Harrogate real estate".

A group of slickly-dressed but heartless modern entrepreneurs are haunting the auditorium amid dry ice and loud music - the lunatics have taken over the asylum as a hint of chaos hits Harrogate Theatre, albeit in a polite and good-mannered fashion.

Their aim is straightforward at first - to show the audience round in an effort to persuade them to invest in a project to turn Harrogate Theatre into apartments or a nightclub or anything, in fact, which will make them a lot of money.

But soon sentiment starts to take over from greed as both cast and audience experience the hidden wonders of a theatre which has stood witness to thousands of acts of creativity, uplifting moments on stage and a myriad minor personal dramas behind the scenes.

In the narrow confines within the bowels of the stunning but Victorian Harrogate Theatre building, to achieve all that in a free-wheeling blend of storytelling, music and animation - and audience interaction - is some feat.

A mix of fun and poignancy, Harrogate Theatre's famous ghost Alice does makes an appearance.

But nothing goes bump in the night - the only shock, if you want to call it that, is the last-minute 'the show must go on' heroism of the theatre's associate artist and programmer Marcus Romer who stepped in to take over from unavoidably detained director Amie Burns Walker who did such a brilliant job with Our Gate and, not to forget, The Great Gatsby.

Enchanting and thought-provoking and surprisingly relaxed for such a logistically complex production - hats off to producer Porl Cooper, stage manager Laura Burgess and set and costume designer Caitlin Mawhinney - no wonder 122 Love Stories' early performances were sold out.

The artists who first tred the boards in this grand old building when it opened in 1900 would surely have approved of this fabulous night out - or in, rather.

122 Love Stories runs at Harrogate Theatre until Saturday, July 30.

For tickets, visit www.harrogate theatre.co.uk

Ticket holders are asked to arrive from 7pm for the evening show and 1.30pm for the Saturday matinee.