REVIEW: Glitterball, Rifco Theatre Company (Riverside Studios)

Rifco Theatre Company’s mission is to diversify British theatre by producing plays and musicals which reflect and celebrate contemporary British Asian culture and society. At the heart of their work is Rifco Associates Programme, a talent development initiative aimed at improving pathways into the industry for underrepresented voices.  The first commission to come out of that programme is Glitterball, a new play by Yasmin Wilde which bills itself as a ‘midlife coming-of-age comedy’ filled with Shirley Bassey tunes. After an inaugural run at Watford Palace Theatre, the production is currently playing at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where we caught it on Friday night.

Wilde plays Sonia, a 50 year old divorcee with two teenage children and a recently-deceased mother who belts Shirley Bassey songs from beyond the grave. Having spent her childhood in the shadow of over-bearing blonde Bassey impersonator, Gloria (Janice Conolly), Sonia’s identity as an adult is now entirely wrapped up in her own role as mum. But all that changes when Sonia’s daughter, Jade (Nikhita Lesler) tries to contact Sonia’s estranged father, who turns out not to be the Pakistan-based airline pilot she believed him to be, but a property developer in Manchester with a wife and three other children. What begins as Jade’s attempt to get closer to her Pakistani roots turns into a journey of self-discovery for Sonia, helping her finally step out of her mother’s shadow and find her own voice, with the help of newly discovered half-brother Naim (Simon Rivers). But there’s a fair bit of turbulence along the way as Sonia starts to question whether mild-mannered Mancunian Naim is all that different to his father after all.

Humorous but hard-hitting and extremely moving in places, Glitterball is a highly enjoyable play which will resonate for many as it explores themes of identity, race, inter-generational relationships and belonging. And although the ending is perhaps a tad protracted, it’s a well constructed and highly accomplished debut play from a performer who has been in the business for over 30 years. It feels a little reminiscent of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice in some of its themes but is distinctly funnier, with a more layered and intriguing plot (even if some of the twists hinge on a slightly shaky understanding of property law and a rather implausible suggestion that it’s possible to entirely forget that you own a house). The five-strong cast (completed by Victoria John as Sonia’s bestie, Debs) are all excellent in their respective roles and and do full justice to Wilde’s witty script. Conolly is especially entertaining as the inimitable Gloria, who keeps popping into Sonia’s head with well-timed Shirley Bassey numbers. Libby Watson’s set doubles up wonderfully as Sonia’s sitting room and the Bishop’s Stortford Working Men’s Club, offering some surreal and unexpected sparkly surprises. And although not actually a musical, Glitterball is the kind of show that is as close to musical theatre as it can be while still very much being a play (making it a great choice for fans of straight plays and musicals alike).

Glitterball is undoubtedly a resounding success for the Rifco Associates Programme and a fantastic first play from Yasmin Wilde. It’s inspiring, relatable and jam-packed with Shirley Bassey classics (with a bit of Bhangra mixed in) so make sure you have no regrets and go spend a little time at Riverside Studios before Glitterball stops spinning.

Glitterball plays at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith from 27 September to 8 October 2022. We received complimentary press tickets to the evening performance on Friday 30 September.