By: Caryl Churchill
Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 8th December 2007
We’d seen this play back in the 80s at Chichester. Neither of us could remember much about it apart from Tom Hollander dressed as a little girl. We weren’t sure how good this afternoon’s performance was going to be, and our low expectations gave us ample scope to enjoy this production, which seemed much funnier and more interesting than we expected.
The play was originally developed during a workshop period, with Caryl Churchill going off and writing the piece after the actors and director had explored a specific topic, in this case sexual politics. For the first half, we see a family out in Africa in Victorian times, supporting Queen and country, and seething with repressed and expressed passions of all kinds. With mixed gender roles – the son is played by a woman, the mother by a man – there’s a lively sense of fun which reminded Steve of farce. The set is simple – a round raked disc (is this a theme? – Thea Sharrock did the same thing with The Emperor Jones) with a square flat platform in the middle, a doorway with a couple of windows, and a bench. Sophie Stanton, who played two characters in this half, had a lot of quick changes to do, but otherwise the characters stayed the same throughout.
In the second half, we see the family group twenty-five years on, but in terms of the outside world, we’re now in 1979, in London. This strange warping of time works remarkably well. Victorian attitudes lingered on for longer than necessary anyway, and this juxtaposition shows up the changes more clearly than a more realistic timescale would have. It’s also good fun, as when the Victorian characters reappear from time to time – more quick changes, but for everyone this time. There’s no real plot, just the characters discovering what works for them and what doesn’t.
For example, Betty the mother is now a prim, uptight sexually repressed woman who worries for England and gradually finds her feet, and her clitoris, by the end of the play. Her daughter Vicky, played rather well by a doll in the first half, now emerges as a woman in her own right, but so far up the collective gender political backside that we sometimes need subtitles to understand her. Her determination to find herself as a woman makes it virtually impossible for her man, Martin, to know where he stands. I found myself wondering if these scenes were funnier now that we’ve moved on a bit from those situations, or if this is just a much funnier production.
The son, Edward, now played by a man instead of a girl, has accepted his homosexuality, and is content to be a wife to some man. Unfortunately, his partner of choice is rampantly unfaithful, so Martin ends up living with Vicky and her lesbian lover, Lin – a more interesting ménage-a-trois than most. The next generation consist of Cathy, Lin’s daughter, whom we see, and Tommy, Martin and Vicky’s son, whom we don’t. Cathy is played by James Fleet, who also played the father in the first half, all rugged colonial with a moustache and a hard-on for another woman. The moustache stayed on for part two, and although it didn’t entirely go with the pink frock, after a while we got used to it. I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t become the fashion, though.
The play ends with Betty of old coming on to be embraced by Betty of now. It wasn’t a bad ending – I just felt we hadn’t concentrated on Betty enough to make it a completely fitting ending. However, this is probably a compliment to the fine ensemble work that kept the whole piece entertaining all the way through.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me