"Welcome to Blackpool!" Cockburn beams as her audience files into Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre. It’s a good choice of venue. The dark wood of the desks, the sickly pale turquoise of the walls and the blacked-out pyramid skylight of the ceiling all contribute to a performance space reminiscent of seaside music halls. Furthermore, the steep tiered crescent seating lends itself perfectly to a flexible fourth wall, which Cockburn effortlessly breaks and rebuilds throughout the show. Alongside a soundscape of seagulls’ screams tumbling from the sky and the lulling ebb and flow of breaking waves, it does indeed feel as though a tiny pocket of Blackpool has opened up on the outskirts of the Fringe, into which our charismatic host—complete with kiss-me-quick tee— is beckoning us to come join her.
Romantic, but far from hopeless.
Love Letters From Blackpool is a touchingly personable piece of theatre concerning Cockburn’s musings on love, romance and the small northern holiday town that made her. As an audience member, it is impossible not to be won over by your host’s charms. Eyes glinting, she bounces from anecdote to anecdote, from letter to fact to story. It is a multifaceted hour of songs, poems, recorded Vox-pops, audience interaction and monologue. Of course, there lurks in such a kaleidoscopic form an intrinsic danger of showboating, but Cockburn’s easy and warm style prevents this from ever becoming an issue; this show is less of a whirlwind spin on the waltzers as it is a nostalgic stroll down the pier with a long-lost friend.
At times comedic, at others lyrical, the overriding tone of the piece is nostalgia. A highlight of the show is What You’re Doing Now, a bittersweet ballad about an old flame who has since lost his lustre. Steeped in melancholy, and sung in Cockburn’s uniquely beautiful melting voice, the song encapsulates the transience and folly of a rose-tinted and romanticised past love, a minor note which also resonates in some of the other elements of the show such as Ernie’s lovelorn letters to Margaret, and Jean’s disenfranchisement with her husband, a ’simple creature’ who nevertheless loves her dearly.
In fact, perhaps the most poignant brush of nostalgia of all is the juxtaposition between the romantic ideals of different generations; ‘love at first sight’ versus ‘love at first swipe’, as Cockburn wryly trills in her song, Romance is Dead. This extends to the set pieces, in particular the positioning of an easel supporting large, retro-feeling yellowed cards containing prompts such as ‘What Is Love?’ written in swirling, calligraphic handwriting, below which is tacked a crisp white piece of card containing the hashtag #lovelettersfromblackpool. It is a clash of analogue and digital, old and new. Yet Cockburn never quite loses sight of the problems of old-age romanticism, it’s fast-track tendencies toward marriage and issues of consent. Her sentimentalism never becomes cloying and is often deftly undercut with excellently timed comedic punchlines.
If there is a criticism to be made of Love Letters From Blackpool, it is of the voices to which we are introduced but whose owners are absent from the stage. With the exception of Jean and Garry, it is never clearly established what Cockburn’s relation was to these characters. Are they real? Fictional? Strangers? Friends? Family? The aspects of multimedia and characterisation are skilfully executed and imaginatively staged, but we are at no point told how they came to be there. All we are told of the creative process of show is that it takes its inspiration from a request made by Cockburn’s late aunt that her love letters be burnt should they ever be found. It is a small criticism, but would help the audience navigate the network of kindred romantics, and solidify Cockburn’s position at the centre. After all, one of the show’s greatest strengths is its characterisation. Though we are presented with love songs, love letters and love poems, the greatest love of all is that with which Ruth Cockburn presents her characters. I would thoroughly recommend this show.