Written by David Hare; directed by Peter Hall
3 November 2006
(A version of this review was published in The Independent on 5 December 2006)
This production is slated to move to the West End but will need sharpening and fine-tuning if it is to impress audiences. The show I saw was dull.
Despite the fast and furious dialogue ricocheting among the cast, the play did not shake off a feeling of longeur. Felicity Kendal inhabits the role of Esme, the aging stage actress, with grace and the right amount of comedic bitchiness. She keeps the character unsympathetic, as intended. Jenna Russell, as her loving daughter Amy, tries hard and does a creditable job, without creating any sparks.
The play charts the relationship between mother and daughter over sixteen years, from 1979 to 1995, while commenting on popular culture and the fantasy of ‘real England.’
The problem lies not so much in the acting as in the fact that the play seemed overworked and overly verbose. The narrative depends on the animosity between Esme and her daughter’s boyfriend, Dominic, but this never seemed convincing. It is a rather loose thread on which to hang some fascinating arguments about the diminishing appeal of theatre, the stranglehold of film and television on the younger generation and the value, if any, of art criticism.
There were too many repetitive scenes and sentences, especially in Act 3. My reaction perhaps perfectly illustrates one of the themes of the play: that of theatre-goers having less patience in the technological age. Yet, usually, I prefer the theatre to film and have the ability to suspend disbelief while focusing on the stage. I have no need of special effects. It’s the words and how they are spoken which count. In this particular production, there was over explanation in some parts of the narrative, such as the Lloyds’ debacle, and under explanation of the theme propping up the play: the true reason for the animosity between Esme and Dominic.
The tedious length of Act 3 could be shortened, with the point about the major losses suffered by uninformed investors made in a few sentences. What is important is Esme’s reaction to her state of penury; this is a defining moment for the audience as we now appreciate her strength of character. This is well brought out in Act 4, which has the makings of a powerful final scene, but unfortunately remained static on the night I saw the play.
Minor anomalies were distracting too. In Act 2, set in 1985, reference is made to Dominic holding phones to both ears all day. Amy tells a story about Dominic’s mobile phone ringing while they were at the opera. This jarred. I know the play was written in 1997, when mobile phones were ubiquitous, but to have a mobile phone ring at the opera in 1985 would have been an extremely rare occurrence.
Although watching the play induced somnolence, the underlying themes stimulated debate and discussion.
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