By Sarah Wooley
Directed by Terry Johnson
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Saturday 22nd December 2012
We had some fun and games getting to the theatre today (weather issues), but after seeing this we were very glad we’d made the effort. It’s a very good new play which appears on the surface to be about widowhood, but which actually addresses the theme of the financial generation gap, with well-off parents finding their children still need support long after they’ve left home. In this case there was also a toxic granny (Pearl) to contend with, though we were fortunately spared the full awfulness of the fourth generation.
The set was a simple design which allowed for a wide range of locations. Above the empty stage hung an assortment of ceiling lights covering a range of styles and periods, with an appropriate light being lowered for each indoor scene. The back wall had a huge square screen showing a marble effect pattern at the start and a variety of different pictures during the performance to support each location. The left wall had one doorway with a tall panelled window above, while the right wall echoed this but with two doors and windows. For the scene outside the White Horse pub a sign swung out from the left wall, and there was a lot of sliding furniture as well as stuff being brought on and off by the cast. They slid the sofa from Fiona’s maisonette onto stage during the interval, and I thought the toy panda which was sitting on it looked particularly evil, which may explain the hesitant way the small table laden with tea things crept onto the stage on the other side. Or maybe they just didn’t want the cakes to fall off.
The play started with a brief glimpse of the funeral, with the daughter, Fiona, having to nudge her husband Graham to get him to join in the hymn – an early laugh. The grandmother’s seriously unpleasant personality was given plenty of scope in the next scene, with Joyce (Maureen Lipman) remaining silent throughout. Graham was more interested in the sherry than anything else, while Fiona spent a lot of time fending off her gran’s rabid insistence that she and Graham needed to move to a bigger house, especially with a third child on the way. Gran’s caustic observation that one child was enough came after we had learned that Joyce was her second, but the implied criticism passed Joyce by completely – she eventually left the room looking dazed with shock.
The scenes were swift and short, with the growth of Fiona’s bump giving an indication of time passing. Graham left his job and Fiona had to ask her mother for another loan (£2000 this time), while Joyce took to going out and enjoying herself and spent less time with her mother as a result, despite Pearl doing her best to turn Joyce back into the spineless puppet she’d obviously been for most of her adult life. Pearl’s eventual demise (another funeral) coupled with the imminent eviction of Fiona and Graham by the bank led to a tense situation which was finally resolved to Joyce’s (and our) satisfaction.
It was through Joyce’s excursions and her resulting relationship with a stripper called Candy (real name Jane) that we came to appreciate her background and got a hint of the darker aspects of her childhood. This came to fruition during her one and only visit to her mother, after Pearl’s stroke had left her in hospital. She said goodbye to Pearl and suggested that Fiona would put her gran in a very nice home, nicer than the place she’d been threatened with as a young woman. Her relationship with a married man had been too much of a threat to Pearl’s veneer of respectability, so Joyce had been sacrificed for her mother’s peace of mind. Fortunately, Joyce now had her life back – her ‘forced’ marriage to an older man had at least left her with plenty of money – and she didn’t intend to waste any more of her time or money on her nearest and ‘dearest’. She was off to Argentina – she looked very fetching at the end in a poncho – and the family home, which Fiona had set her sights on, was disposed of in a very suitable way. After all, there was still Granny’s little flat for Fiona and Graham to live in.
The generational differences were stark and clear: today’s young parents were shown as little more than children themselves, playing at being grown up and independent but actually still running back to Mummy and Daddy at every setback, wheedling and manipulating to get the ‘help’ they ‘needed’ so they could avoid facing reality for another month or two. Perfectly good jobs were discarded like dirty clothes, shopping sprees considered an ‘essential’ part of life. The next generation were likely to be just as bad, but without the benefit of prudent parents who would have money to spare to help them out their futures looked very bleak. Joyce’s decision to cut the apron strings from her end was probably the wise one given the circumstances, although it would be a tough choice for most people who love their kids. Fortunately, Joyce wasn’t burdened with much affection to or from her family, so it wasn’t as hard for her.
The humour was spread throughout the piece, with the darker aspects woven in very skilfully to create some contrast which made for a stronger play. The performances were all excellent. Tracy-Ann Oberman played Fiona, the brat-mother (mother of brats as well as a brat who had become a mother) very well. Her character had obviously been her father’s little darling and got everything she wanted from him, and she expected her mother to keep it up after he died. She was clearly planning to take over her mother’s house as her own – it’s what her father would have wanted – and if Mummy got too old to do the unpaid childcare she could always move out into granny’s old place. It was a pleasure to see her frustrated in her ambitions.
Her musician husband Graham, played by Timothy Watson, didn’t seem to have much in the way of ambition. Even his band seemed to be a way of escaping real life, and although he came round to recognising that he had to knuckle down and help support their growing family, I wasn’t confident how well that would go. He was at least more laid back about the changes Joyce was making in her life, even commenting that Thailand was better than Argentina (in case Joyce has to economise and move to a cheaper country).
Men didn’t fare too well in this play; most came across as selfish and demanding, from the deceased husband and feckless son-in-law to a couple of men Joyce met on her excursions. One chap seemed quite nice, a lonely man with an invalid wife, but we didn’t see him again so presumably Joyce didn’t want to get involved with him. The other man who accosted her outside the pub saw her more as a quick shag than a human being, which was definitely not what she wanted. Both of these men were nice little cameos by Geoffrey Freshwater who also appeared in other, non-speaking, manifestations.
Pearl, the toxic granny, was portrayed with detailed accuracy by Helen Ryan. While she was of necessity the villain of the piece, we could also see that there was another story lurking behind her nastiness, some reason why she was so terrified of her own daughter destroying the respectable façade which she and her husband had created for themselves. Not for this play to explain of course, but there was plenty of hinterland to be explored another time.
Nadia Clifford played Candy/Jane with such a strong, coarse London accent that I was amazed I could make out her dialogue at all, but at least her character wasn’t kidding herself about life. With a young child to care for, she was making ends meet as a stripper and prostitute, and while she enjoyed the treats Joyce gave her – tea at the Ritz was a highlight – she refused to accept her money, determined to make her own way in life. She was also the only other character who saw Joyce as a person in her own right, and it was no surprise that she was the one who moved into Joyce’s old house at the end. I notice that they changed the ending slightly from the text – Jane was originally meant to be unpacking books from the box, but in performance she tipped out her child’s toys on the floor, entirely appropriate for a happy single mum.
All of these performances were really good, but it needed a strong central performance to bring them all together, and Maureen Lipman was totally believable as the gradually re-awakening widow, showing us how repressed she’d been and the way her confidence was growing. Dowdy at the start – I didn’t recognise her at first – she transformed very quickly into a good-looking older woman, and the red coat she wore from the fourth scene onwards was a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise drab set of costumes. I particularly liked her sudden outburst when the screams of her grandchildren (offstage) got too much for her – “why can’t they just shut the fuck up”? After the laughter subsided I could hear a woman along from me say “it worked”, and it had.
One minor inaccuracy which we both spotted – Pearl was worried about possible vandalism to the headstone only two months after the funeral. From our experience, headstones aren’t put up for at least a year to allow the ground to settle, but we’ll forgive this lapse as dramatic licence.
There was one unintentional bit of comedy at the end. When the cast came on to take their bows, Helen Ryan was struggling to remove what looked like black panties which were down round her ankles – what was going on backstage? She was able to get them out of the way eventually, but it meant we were applauding through our laughter – the actors couldn’t keep their faces straight either. The house was packed, rightly so, and I’m sure this play will resurface again in the future, as it’s themes are likely to be current for quite some time.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me