LOADED in Harrogate does not mean loaded with money, loaded with shopping, loading up the 4 X 4, loaded with flowers, or even loaded with posh drugs, the spa town's subculture.
David Bown, Harrogate Theatre's chief executive, has been known to tease Harrogate's grass-is-green-on-every-side image in his six pantomimes co-written with director Phil Lowe, but Loaded is a comedy drama of an altogether darker hue, seeking to uncover the underbelly beneath the floral frontage.
Bown's play is not new, and two of his cast have played their roles previously too, but when Harrogate was named last year as the happiest place to live in Britain, it was the tipping point for Bown to re-load Loaded in Harrogate.
"Ever since I moved to Harrogate, I've been fascinated by the perceived image of the town from outside and the experience of living here," he writes in his programme note. "For a lot of people those two just don't add up. The town in fact has many disenfranchised people and areas."
He noted too the "high level of violent crime for what is perceived to be a quaint English Victorian Spa town", and putting the two together he made Loaded in Harrogate, an acerbic play that will rub against the grain of a town where the presumption is that Harrogate Theatre is as middle class in its tastes as the the prevailing community. The theatre is not averse to challenging that perception.
Bown's pantomimes have more than a hint of anarchy about them, and here he decides to go further to ruffle more than a few feathers, much in the way that Andrew Manley once did in his agent-provocateur 1980s at Harrogate Theatre. To do so, however, Bown has had to shoehorn into Harrogate the Loaded characters who feel much more like they belong in West Yorkshire. Or maybe, that is the point: wake up, Charles, you may think you know Harrogate after 54 years of living near there, but do you really?
Andy Murton as Pete, firing blanks in Loaded in Harrogate. Picture: Anthony Robling
Pete (Andy Murton) runs a Harrogate garage where mechanics Hud (Lee Bainbridge) and Mick (Reform Theatre's Keith Hukin) do up cars when they're not reading the paper, having cups of tea, bragging about bedroom conquests, and discussing everything they know about engines. Prompted by a spate of jewellery heists in Harrogate, they suddenly plot to follow suit in Parliament Street, although Pete is reluctant to join in. Their motives don't quite ring true; their need to rob doesn't feel desperate enough.
Meanwhile, Pete is wont to rip off arrogant Porsches owners, but that is where his control ends, especially in his destructive relationship with heavy-drinking Carol (Sue Mitchell), who sleeps around to compensate for his impotence, for which he compensates by owning guns. Cue a metaphor for firing blanks, as Bown strays into Tennessee Williams psychological territory, although his comedic inclinations are closer to John Godber or a northern equivalent of Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
Against Alexander Swarbrick's set design of banks of garage cabinets and Adam Chandler's video footage of Harrogate and Yorkshire's roads, Bown engenders an air of comic menace, which separates him from Godber, but his play is at its best in its moments of comedic delirium, when the mechanics debate the best route for their getaway or bungle their burglary with a fishnet stocking for a face mask.
Those moments would work in any setting, but while the Harrogate references, the voiceovers of Stray FM's Alex Cann and the music of Harrogate bands Black Ocean and The Birdman Rallies raise a smile of recognition, Loaded in Harrogate still feels like an ill-fitting skin graft.
Loaded in Harrogate, Harrogate Theatre/Reform Theatre, at Harrogate Theatre, until March 12. Box office: 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk